Nerissa Ann LoveIt was just four weeks before the next big day in her short and happy life. Australian-born Wellington typist Nerissa Ann Love was looking forward to her 20th birthday, on January 22, 1954 - even though she knew she'd be celebrating it without having her fiancé, Bob Blair, by her side. Nerissa planned a quite Friday evening family event at her home on Compton Crescent in Taita in the Lower Hutt. Bob would be almost 7000 miles away, in East London in South Africa, playing cricket with the New Zealand touring team. But a little more than a month after she had turned 20, Bob would be back in New Zealand, and the pair could start planning for their wedding.
Nerissa Love, left, with her mother Mabel and elder sister ValdaIn the meantime, unbeknownst to Bob, Nerissa would have one last break as a single young lady. She would spend Christmas in the bustling big city and bright lights of Auckland, 650 miles north of her sleepy home town. The lure for Nerissa was that she might be able to catch a glimpse of the first reigning monarch to visit New Zealand. The SS Gothic, the royal yacht carrying the Queen of England and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, had berthed in Auckland on December 23. On Christmas Day the Queen would be attending a divine service at St Mary's Cathedral.
Lambton Quay in downtown Wellington, where Nerissa worked as a typistNerissa threw a cracked black vinyl cover over the Imperial 58 typewriter in her dusty old downtown office building on Lambton Quay in Wellington City and took advantage of the half-day holiday to catch a tram to Bunny Street and the NIMT railway station. It was the early afternoon of Christmas Eve, December 24th, 1953.
Nerissa was feeling lucky. There had been an airline strike and a rush for tickets for the Overnight Express headed for Auckland. But a close friend of Nerissa's had got in early and booked two of the 176 second-class train seats. Then her partner had at a late hour found himself unable to get away, and so the friend had offered the spare ticket to Nerissa. The demand for seats was so great, the steam locomotive hauling 11 carriages, five of them second-class, was packed with 285 passengers, and New Zealand Railways had had to add a second Christmas Eve service for the north, leaving an hour after the first.
A bustling Wellington Central StationNerissa made sure she had letter paper, an envelope, stamps and a fountain pen in her handbag. Express No 626 was due to leave the Wellington station at 3pm, and before it had reached Taihape, 144 miles north, she would have another letter written to Bob. In it, she would tell him that she planned to meet the boat bringing the New Zealand cricketers back home from South Africa, in early March. And then they would be married. They had become engaged in 1951, just after Nerissa had turned 17, and now the time was right.
Bob Blair did receive that letter. During the stopover at Taihape, while Locomotive KA 949 was coupled to the express and the crew changed, Nerissa had rushed off her carriage and found a mailbox on the Taihape railway station platform to post it.
But by the time Bob opened the letter, and many others Nerissa had sent him, Nerissa was dead.
At 10.21pm on December 24, 1953, just minutes after she had mailed her Christmas Eve letter, Nerissa died in the Tangiwai train disaster. She was one of 151 victims in New Zealand's worst train crash. Of the 176 travelling second-class, only 28 survived.
As Nerissa's train headed toward the bridge over the Whangaehu River, a lahar - a volcanic torrent of rocks and water - was gathering speed along a nearby river bed. Just after 8pm, a tephra dam, an ash barrier on the edge of Mount Ruapehu's crater lake, had collapsed, releasing a huge mass of water down the mountain into a channel feeding the Whangaehu. The lahar reached Tangiwai at 10.17 in a dense wave of water, sand and boulders. It slammed into the 66-yards long railway bridge, dislodging two of the six piers. When the train reached the Tangiwai bridge at 10.21pm, the girders sagged as the locomotive ran on to the drooping track. The 145-ton locomotive, dragging a laden oil tender, arched and hit the opposite bank. The five carriages behind were flung into the river. The force of the impact splintered coachwork and threw many of the passengers out into the icy cold waters. Others were trapped in the sunken carriages and were smothered in minutes by thick silt. Three hundred yards from the bridge, a woman was found buried up to her neck in silt, still alive. Sixty bodies were found 15 miles from the shattered bridge. Some of the 20 passengers never accounted for were washed 75 miles away, out to sea.
Nerissa's body was found. It was identified by Bob's brother, Jim Blair. She was buried in Taita on December 29.
Bert Sutcliffe bats on, swathed in bandagesOn a lively pitch at Ellis Park, New Zealand's champion batsman, Bert Sutcliffe, was knocked unconscious and taken to hospital after being hit on the side of the head by a bouncer from South Africa's fiery fast bowler Neil Adcock. In hospital, he had collapsed twice more. With the New Zealanders reduced to 81 runs for six wickets, Sutcliffe returned to the crease, his forehead swathed in bandages and his face "looking like parchment". When the ninth wicket fell at 154, the players began to leave the field, thinking that, with Blair absent, New Zealand's first innings was prematurely over.
Suddenly the crowd stood in silence as Blair emerged from the tunnel and was greeted by Sutcliffe, who placed a comforting arm around his shoulder. ''C'mon son," said Sutcliffe, "This is no place for you. Let's swing the bat … and get out of here.'' Blair had been sitting in the team's hotel listening to a radio broadcast of the match, and had decided to hail a taxi and go to his teammates' aid at Ellis Park.
New Zealand cricket writer Dick Brittenden said, "Looking down on the scene from the glass windows of the pavilion, the New Zealanders wept openly and without shame; the South Africans were in little better state, and Sutcliffe was just as obviously distressed. Before he faced his first ball, Blair passed his glove across his eyes in the heart-wringing gesture of any small boy anywhere in trouble, but defiant."
Blair and Sutcliffe smashed 25 runs (including four sixes – three by Sutcliffe and one by Blair) off a single over from South Africa’s Hugh Tayfield, and combined for a last-wicket stand of 33. By the time Blair was dismissed, the team’s total had climbed to 187, with Sutcliffe 80 not out. Brittenden added, "They went, arms about each other, into the darkness of the tunnel, but behind them they left a light and an inspiration ..."
A superb bowling effort by the inspired Kiwis then restricted the Springboks to just 148, leaving the New Zealanders chasing 233 for a historic first-ever Test win. Sadly, they fell for just 100 runs. But The Rand Daily Mail summed t up, "It is not the result of the match that will be best remembered when men come together to talk about cricket. They will speak of a match that was as much worth watching as it was worth playing, a match the New Zealanders decided must go on.'' The Cape Times added, "'All the glory was for the vanquished. Memories of the match will not be of the runs made or of the wickets taken, but of the courage displayed.''
In 2010, Blair commented, ''You know, it's been 57 years since it happened. I was New Zealand's 57th Test player and I still remember Nerissa's address - 57 Compton Crescent.
"It hurt at the time, it hurt a lot. Time moves on. But I can tell you I haven't enjoyed a Christmas since. I have a thought every Christmas ... It always comes up, it will never go away. It is something you have to live with.
57 Compton Crescent, Taita"What happened in that Test, it's something anyone would do. Our guys were getting shot down and I had to help. That was all there was to it. They were bleeding on the outside and I was bleeding on the inside and we helped each other. But it wasn't what you wanted to go through when you're 21-years-old and thousands of miles from home."
Blair continued playing Test cricket for another 11 years, and later coached in Australia, England, Northern Ireland and Zimbabwe. But every time he returned to New Zealand, he visited the grave at plot 292, Taita cemetery.
Born Carlton, Melbourne, Australia,
January 22, 1934
Died Tangiwai, New Zealand,
Christmas Eve, 1953, aged 19