When Peter Lafferty dug his 5-year-old daughter’s grave 22 years ago, he went seven feet deep.
That’s the required depth for a double interment – Peter wants to be buried with his first child Sarah, who died of pneumonia on November 8, 2001.
Digging a child’s grave is something no parent should ever have to do.
But Peter has to do it all over again after Cyclone Gabrielle caused the Mangaone River to swell, burying the small cemetery on the edge of the river near Rissington, Hawke’s Bay, in almost 5m of silt.
“I never thought I’d have to do this again,” Peter tells the New Zealand Herald, sighing and leaning on his shovel.
It’s just one of the countless examples of devastation in the wider Hawke’s Bay region after raging floodwaters submerged houses, levelled orchards and crops, destroyed bridges and claimed 11 lives so far.
Mr Lafferty was working on his own with a shovel, spade and wheelbarrow when the Herald spoke to him on Sunday.
The 59-year-old is standing in the cemetery, towering over those on the road it borders, thanks to the mountain of silt that has filled the square section.
The surrounding area is a hive of activity. Rissington and neighbouring Patoka are cut off after the Rissington Bridge collapsed during the floods.
Access is only possible via boat across the river. Diggers churn away on the nearby bank, forging a road through the debris amid plans to create a crossing to further enable supply deliveries.
Army soldiers are stationed on either side of the river, helping load supplies onto the boat, carrying them up to the road and into vehicles for transport into the villages.
Watching it all happen is Peter, but his focus is elsewhere. He has to be careful where he launches his shovel into the earth, not knowing what he might find.
The cemetery is small. Peter isn’t sure but says there are at least 50 people buried here.
The cemetery isn’t for everyone in Rissington. It’s private, owned by the local Absolom family who Peter grew up with.
Following the floods, the cemetery was littered with driftwood, making it unrecognisable.
Mr Lafferty describes the moment he saw the cemetery after the cyclone hit as “heartbreaking” – not just for him but “for all the other people too who may have trouble trying to find (people)”.
The digging began on Wednesday, the day after the floods. He had to enlist the soldiers’ help to remove the mass of dirt blocking the gate.
It’s slow, punishing work. Wearing a faded, red plaid shirt and jeans, Peter is afforded brief periods of shade under a towering oak tree planted in the cemetery, but he can do little to escape the powerful Hawke’s Bay sun.
With a sharpened steel rod in hand, Peter drives it downwards until he hits something solid. Having played in the cemetery as a child, Peter knows where most of the graves are.
He’s managed to dig out the front row closest to the road. Large pieces of driftwood stick out of the ground to signal where graves are located.
After five days of digging and more than an hour by hand, he finally uncovers the black headstone of his daughter, Sarah.
Next to it is an unmarked headstone. It will be Mr Lafferty’s when he dies.
“It’s hard standing here looking down there,” he says, his head turned towards the picture of his daughter.
“It brings back the whole lot really, puts a lump in your throat.”
Born on June 26, 1996, Sarah and her mother Danielle were lucky to be alive after the latter suffered from pre-eclampsia – a blood pressure disorder that can prove fatal during pregnancy for mother and baby.
Sarah was deprived of oxygen for 45 minutes, which led to her developing cerebral palsy. Doctors predicted she wouldn’t live past 10 hours.
But thanks to tireless efforts from Danielle, Peter and a variety of caregivers, Sarah lived for five and a half years.
Peter admits they were tough years. He described Sarah as a “living doll”, unable to sit or stand, walk or talk.
It wasn’t until he had another two children that Peter realised just how different it was to raise a child with special needs.
“I think of her every day as it is anyway, but stronger now that I’m here all the time.”
Casting his eyes over the rest of the cemetery, he tries to recall who is where.
Names don’t readily come to mind but he says some graves are more than 120 years old. In the southwest corner, a mother and a daughter are buried together – they died during the influenza pandemic more than a century ago.
“It’s just hard to remember, there’s all sorts of sh** happening in my head at the moment,” he confesses.
“There are whole families here; father, mother and kids, all lined up.”
Originally published as Cyclone Gabrielle: Dad digging to 5-year-old daughter’s grave buried under cyclone silt
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