Families and rescuers, along with representatives from the Department of Conservation met at the memorial near the site today to mark the 25th anniversary of the disaster.
The commemorations were postponed in April, due to Covid-19 Alert Level 4 lockdown.
Darren Gamble, a student of Tai Poutini Polytechnic in Greymouth, was several metres behind the cantilevered platform which collapsed on April 28 1995, plunging 17 students and a DOC worker 30 metres into the Cave Creek resurgence.
He raced down the chasm to help those who had fallen.
This year is the first anniversary Darren Gamble has felt strong enough to attend formal commemorations, and the first time he’s opened up about the life-changing tragedy which killed 14 people and injured four.
“I've tried to avoid it, basically," he said. "It's something I've really shut down and tried to block out ... or bury deep, and just not acknowledge the day.
"Memories and the feelings are still quite raw still, even 25 years later. My memories are still like it happened yesterday. That’s why my knees are shaking now just thinking about it."
He said the wait for emergency services at the bottom of the chasm felt “like a lifetime”, and eventually a decision was made to send him out as a second runner, to seek help.
He carried a list of the people who had been found alive and dead.
Just days later he went back with family members of the victims, to show them the exact spots where their loved ones had died.
He said despite the past 25 years being difficult, he feels blessed to be alive.
“My odds weren’t good if I was on the platform. I’m lucky. As the story goes I was walking with De-Anne at the time, and that’s because I was keen on her and she had a sore leg. That was basically what saved my life. Normally I’d be at the front charging away, but that day I was at the back, strolling with her.”
Many family members of victims came to the site to remember. Barbara Stuart lost her 18-year-old son Evan in the fall.
The Cable Bay resident has returned to Punakaiki many times since, but says this will likely be her last trip, and after twenty-five years it’s time to “let go”.
“This year it's 25 years ago that Evan was killed and he would be 43 today, and I was 43 when he died,” she said.
“My son would not have wanted me to ruin the rest of my life because he died. He would've wanted us to go on and live a good life and contribute to the community, and that's what we endeavoured to do.
“What it brings up for me is the sadness of the loss. It's always there for the rest of your life.”
The private service also involved the formal unveiling of a series of panels detailing the story of the disaster at Cave Creek. It documents the catastrophic collapse of the platform itself, alongside the systemic failures of DOC which lead to its poor construction.
The panels also highlight the law changes that came from the disaster, such as the ability to hold government departments legally accountable.
The disaster lead to a massive overhaul by DOC in how all its structures, including huts, bridges and platforms, were constructed and monitored.
Harry Pawsey, the father of 17-year-old Kit Pawsey, who was killed in the incident, was one of those who fought for legislative change.
He said it was important for the role of DOC to be acknowledged at the site itself, as many people had forgotten what took place at Cave Creek. The original memorial stone simply lists those who lost their lives.
He said despite 25 years passing, it still feels like a short time since his son was killed.
“Like anybody who's lost a child, in their teens, you think of them often. So it’s a pretty short time because it’s frozen in time and you speak about what might have happened and what might have been. But your memories, they’re frozen and you can still visualise what it was like at the time," he said.
Kit’s sister Fleur Pawsey, who was 15 at the time, said the first few years after his death were a “bitter reminder”.
“I would sort of look at the bolts and nails (of platforms) and think, ‘couldn't they have got that right?'” she said.
She said she now sees many bridges and huts where "I can see that Cave Creek has made a difference in all of that”.
The trail between the memorial site and the Cave Creek resurgence was also officially renamed The Cave Creek Memorial Track.