Cyclone Gabriel: Truckee’s struggle to survive in the dark and pouring rain


For truck driver John Milne, what was a mundane trip from Gisborne to Napier became a battle for survival that included a perilous three-hour walk through collapsing trees, with only a cell phone for the light. I slid down.

Milne, 59, left Gisborne last Monday around 4pm. He was driving his Weatherell Transport Kenworth K200 truck and trailer loaded with squash.

He has been driving trucks for about 40 years, much of which has been spent on this section of State Highway 2 between Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay.

It was raining when he left Gisborne, but nothing out of the ordinary. By the time he reached Wairoa, the rain was even less.

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He was in contact with the manager and other trucks on the road and was traveling in both directions.he stopped at Small settlement of TutilaAbout 50km north of Napier, we checked in and made our way down the hill to a small bridge over the Alopaoanui River.

“There was a tree across the road over there. A couple in unison. [electricity network company] men appeared [having also come from the north] At ute, we put it away. It was the next 20 minutes that everything turned into custard,” Milne said.

It was around 7pm.

He and the Unison guys continued driving towards Napier. They proceeded another 2 km to ‘Devil’s Elbow’. This is a sharp corner where roads usually cross streams.

Milnes Kenworth at 'Devil's Elbow' on SH2 Napier - Wailoa Road. It was taken by the NZDF on 16 February, three days after his departure.


Milnes Kenworth at ‘Devil’s Elbow’ on SH2 Napier – Wailoa Road. It was taken by the NZDF on 16 February, three days after his departure.

Here they met with a great mistake that made further progress impossible.

Milne was able to back the truck to a point that seemed safe. He intended to spend the night in a taxi until someone with a front-end loader cleared the road the next morning. The Unisons turned and headed for Tutila.

“I backed up the truck a little bit up the hill, hitting the Armco barrier hard.

“Then the truck moved. I turned the lights on and there was about 5 feet (1.5 m) of water. It was about 30cm deep, and by the time I put my boots on and my Swandoli on, I was back at the door,” he said.

The section of SH2 where

Kwok Yi Lee/staff

The section of SH2 where “everything became custard” for Milne.

He fell off the truck into the water. It was pitch black and pouring rain. His mobile phone was his only light source.

“I wandered up the hill. A slip was falling in front of me, so I turned back to the truck. But by that stage, the water was really, really fast. After waiting, I started climbing the hill again,” he said.

He headed north towards Tutila in the rain, which he described as “like standing under a fire hose”.

“There was basically no road. I was going through trees, over slides, climbing through water. This crap was constantly crumbling down and trees were snapping. At one stage it was like a train was coming.” There was a big roar,” he said.



The “Devil’s Elbow”, which was usually a stream, had turned into a torrent.

“I came across a stream across the road. There was a rock the size of a dining table and it was slowly going down the road. I waited for it to spoil before continuing.

“I was flipped over and dragged down the road about 20 feet.” [6m] Before I get my feet back,” he said.

He spent 3 hours doing it and finally after about 2 km he was able to see the distant lights of the car.

It was the Unison guys who drove to Tutila and turned back to Napier. They were blocked by a slip behind them near the Alopaoanui River.

Milne, 59, returned to work this week.

Christel Yardley/Staff

Milne, 59, returned to work this week.

Milne attended a party with members of Unison and they started waiting until nightfall.

“If it weren’t for them, I would be dead now. I would be long gone. Maybe I was trying to climb that hill.” [towards Tutira] The damage on that hill is unbelievable,” he said.

“I heard a big slide coming down in the middle of the night, so I was very relieved to see that the bridge was still there when it became light. By then, the water was just above the bridge. It was big.”

The road back to Tutila was apparently impassable. Where the road used to be, it was now a forest. The whole hillside was slipping.

“We were going up the hill when we saw a woman waving at us. I saw you pick me up.”

He changed, warmed up, and waited there until 5:30 pm on Tuesday.

“We flew over the Esk Valley. That’s when we realized how bad it was, things were out of control. You had to tell me there was nothing left, it’s just shocking.”

After a week off, he returned to work on Monday.

It is unknown how much damage Kenworth suffered.


It is unknown how much damage Kenworth suffered.

“I never, never, never want to repeat. I was here mullet It’s 100 times worse than that. We weren’t supposed to get it. They said it rained 150mm,” he said.

Milne looked at a photo of the truck that showed it had moved about 6 meters from where he left it.

He’s not sure how badly the truck is damaged. He was being transported to Napier on Wednesday for evaluation.

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