Ceremony marks first anniversary of Muriwai firefighters' deaths

6:16 pm on 13 February 2024
Muriwai memorial service for firefighters for Craig Stevens and Dave van Zwanenberg

The flag was down at half-mast at a memorial marking the anniversary of the deaths of two firefighters after a slip in Muriwai, Auckland, last year. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

Hundreds of people have gathered at Auckland's west coast to remember the death of two firefighters during Cyclone Gabrielle.

Dave van Zwanenberg died after getting trapped in a slip in Muriwai while helping displaced residents last year.

His colleague Craig Stevens, who was also helping in Muriwai, died in hospital a few days later.

Firefighters Dave van Zwanenberg (left) and Craig Stevens, who died after getting trapped in a slip in Auckland's Muriwai during Cyclone Gabrielle in February, 2023.

Firefighters Dave van Zwanenberg (left) and Craig Stevens. Photo: Supplied

The ceremony at the Muriwai Fire Brigade included a memorial dedicated to the firefighters, and a plaque marking the events that led to their deaths last year.

In tears, Dave's wife, Amy van Zwanenberg, thanked the community for their help.

"I would like to wholly recognise all those involved in the rescue effort they're operating in such horrendous conditions that night and beyond.

"As I didn't learn for some time, no one and nothing could have saved Dave, [and] knowing in my heart that you did everything you could for as long as you could meant the world and still does."

Amy Van Zwanenberg speaking about her husband David van Zwanenberg, killed in a slip last year, during a memorial service in Muriwai.

Amy van Zwanenberg speaking at the memorial. Photo: RNZ / Rayssa Almeida

Amy said without her children, the loss of her husband would have been much more difficult to bear.

"I was held by many hands and thus I did not drown in a tsunami of grief. Which, most importantly, meant I could hold my children and keep them afloat.

"They have been my greatest motivation to steer our ship steadily through the rough seas and chart a course for the unknown territory ahead. A reason to strive for thriving, not just surviving."

She said her children would forever be reminded of the great father her husband was.

"It will forever break my heart that George and Zara did not have the time they should have had with their outstanding father.

"But I will make sure they know what an incredibly caring and capable man he was and how devoted he was to them. A father to be exceptionally proud of."

Muriwai memorial service for firefighters for Craig Stevens and Dave van Zwanenberg

Craig Stevens' wife, Lucy Stevens, at the ceremony in Muriwai. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

Lucy Stevens, Craig Steven's wife, remembered emotionally her last moments with her husband.

"He told us that a house on the corner of our street had slipped, and they were evacuating that area. He told me to stay vigilant and monitor the bank at the back of our house and that they would be driving up and down the road, checking that everyone was okay.

"I told him I loved him and then he was gone."

She thanked the Muriwai community for the effort of building a memorial for her husband.

"Just after the cyclone we talked about where we could put some kind of memorial seat and it felt like this was the perfect spot as it had everything that [Craig Stevens] loved: the fire station, the Ocean Gate Park, and the forest.

"But I could not imagine something so beautiful being built. Thank you to everyone."

Memorial service for firefighters at Muriwai

Photo: RNZ / Rayssa Almeida

The memorial for the firefighters included two benches, one next the other.

One of the benches, dedicated to van Zwanenberg, faced the sea, a place his family said he cherished.

The other bench, dedicated to Stevens, faced the BMX park which he helped build and loved.

A plaque in memory of the pair is also placed in the Fire Brigade building, alongside a rock taken from the destruction caused by Cyclone Gabrielle.

Muriwai memorial for firefighters Craig Stevens and Dave van Zwanenberg

Photo: RNZ / Rayssa Almeida

Fire and Emergency chief executive Kerry Gregory said building the memorial had been a healing processes for the brigade.

"I'll remember that time for the rest of my life, to be honest.

"It wasn't just that night, but the days that passed as well until we heard the outcome of both of our firefighters. It's certainly not an experience I'd like to go through again, but also something I'll never ever forget."

Muriwai memorial for firefighters Craig Stevens and Dave van Zwanenberg

Photo: RNZ / Rayssa Almeida

The death of the two firefighters was a wake-up call for future events, Gregory said.

"July last year we released an independent report into our operations at Muriwai, so we've got some learning that came out of there that we're working through.

"In some way [the report] just refreshed it for firefighters, you know, the need for personal safety and [the fact that the] environment that our firefighters right across New Zealand operate is really challenging at times. So, it really just highlights the need for that constant vigilance around what's going on around them."

The memorial organised at the local Fire Brigade building in Muriwai will be open to the public.

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