It has been 32 years since Kathleen Kotiro Stewart lost her son. Private David Stewart was just 23 when he died trying to save other soldiers from a fierce blizzard on Mount Ruapehu.
By Laura Frikberg
“I heard the news flash on TV saying that soldiers were missing,” Kathleen recalls. “My heart skipped a beat and I knew – I just had a funny feeling that my son was one of them.”
Her son was one of 10 soldiers, along with two instructors and a sailor, who climbed the North Island’s highest mountain in 1990 for the training exercise.
When the group left the weather was fine, but after a few days it turned into a storm. Attempts to find shelter during brief lulls in the wind failed. Eventually it was a matter of digging, while some men went for help. Only seven came down alive.
All accounts of Stewart’s actions on the mountain point to that of a hero. They include giving up one’s own sleeping bag to help keep others warm, and regularly checking up on fellow soldiers.
“He doesn’t care about himself,” Kathleen says. “He wanted to save people. He’s my son.”
Lance Corporal Barry Culloty, now with the Australian Defense Force, was one of the survivors. He says that if it weren’t for Stewart and Private Sonny Te Rure (now Tavake), he wouldn’t have been included in his survival bag when he started suffering from hypothermia.
He credits Stewart with saving his life once the snow and ice dumped on his chest began to hamper his breathing.
“David bent over, broke his cover, pounded and pulled that thing off my chest so I could breathe,” Culloty recalled.
“He did that several times in the night. You can do a thing that is brave, once, and that’s pretty important. But every time he did that, every time he exposed himself to these elements, you exhaust your strength.”
To date, the Ruapehu tragedy is the greatest loss of life in a single event for the 1st Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment, established in 1947.
It took nine years after the tragedy for the actions of Stewart, Te Rure and another – Private Brendon Burchell – to be formally recognized. All three have been awarded the New Zealand Medal of Bravery, the fourth award available, out of four.
Now, efforts are underway for a Stewart upgrade.
Retired Colonel Bernard Isherwood, who led the court of inquiry into the disaster, is campaigning for him to be awarded the New Zealand Cross – the highest possible award, given for acts of great bravery in situations of extreme danger.
“His actions on the mountain meet the criteria,” Isherwood said. “Stewart and the rest of the group were effectively abandoned by their two instructors on the fatal last night.
“Private Stewart and Private Te Rure, both private soldiers, who had no training or experience in these conditions, took over the leadership role.”
Isherwood says that although it was very difficult to get recognition for Stewart’s bravery, he was able to secure a meeting with Defense Minister Peeni Henare later that month.
He also received support from the 1st Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment and the New Zealand Army for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to be held at Linton Army Base on Saturday.
The court of inquiry into the tragedy at the time found that the instructors were too inexperienced to deal with extreme weather conditions – this was the main cause of the tragedy.
He also criticized the lack of radio equipment, which could have helped the party call for help once they got into trouble. He made several recommendations, such as revising training practices and how they select staff.
Stewart’s actions were also praised in the conclusions. The inquest said that by leaving his sleeping bag to help others, he knew he was risking his life.
Kathleen says that was her son’s nature.
“He was a daredevil, and I think the way he died was the way he wanted to die. It was David.”