Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Day Four

This morning we received a letter from Margaret Ellis, Cyril’s younger sister.

A Letter from Margaret Ellis

She agreed to come in and be interviewed on behalf of her brother, who was now in a retirement home and too frail to make a visit or be interviewed himself. Olivia ‘rang’ her back, in role as one of the research team, and organised for her to visit us in the afternoon.

Next we went in to role as members of the 1954 Elizabethtown community. In role we wrote letters to Cyril Ellis thanking him for his life saving actions on the night of the Tangiwai disaster with reference to family members or friends that he had saved.
We had to think carefully about writing with a formal tone and our choice of words.

Here are excerpts from the letters we wrote in role.

Dear Cyril Ellis

Thank you so much for saving my husband Bruce in such a heroic way. My two kids Alice and John almost lost their father on that dreadful night but thanks to you they didn’t. I will never forget what you have done.


Dear Cyril Ellis

Thank you very much for saving my son Banjo. Banjo and I really appreciate what you did, you’re a hero! My family was lucky to hear he was alive.


Dear Mr Ellis

I need to thank you for saving my mum who was on the train at Tangiwai. On the night of the accident I was waiting at home by myself, my aunty had been looking after me while she was gone but she had already left because she knew my mum was coming home on the train soon. I was waiting at home for a long time and I was really scared. Until finally the door opened and she came in. Me and my mum are so grateful, you’re a hero.


Dear Cyril Ellis,

[…] in this tragic event you only thought about the passengers safety, not once yours, you didn’t do it for your popularity or so people would like you more, you did it for them, that’s why you were awarded the George Medal. I can’t thank you enough for saving my grandad’s life.


Dear Mr Ellis,

I can’t thank you enough for saving my brother Sam. My family is so grateful for your heroic efforts. At my home I was waiting to see my brother and if it hadn’t been for you I wouldn’t have seen him again.


Wednesday 13th of July 1954

Dear Cyrl Ellis

I want to thank you formally for saving my parents’ lives. We were waiting for our parents to come for Christmas. When we heard the news on the radio we were extremely frightened. We thought we would never see them again.


Dear Cyril Ellis.

You have saved so many people, we can’t thank you enough! It was very heroic for you to save all those people.


Dear Mr Ellis,

I am called Rebecca and I am 12 years old. […]

One of the lives you saved was my mother called Julia Aston. My mother and I are very grateful for that. I am writing this letter for the unforgettable action you made. If it wasn’t for you many people would not be alive today including my mother. […] you put everyone’s lives that were in that train before yours!


10 January 1954

I am writing to thank you for saving my father. It is his birthday today and I could not celebrate it with him if you had not done your heroic deeds and waved down the train … My father was a guard and was checking tickets in car y and was only saved by waving your torch.

Yours thankfully,
John Oscar Syiks.


Dear Mr Ellis,

My name is Penelope-Kate Smith. I am writing you this letter to give you all my thanks for saving my younger sister Dehlia in the third to last carriage in that horrid tragedy of what they’re calling “The Tangiwai Rail Disaster”. My family and I want to express our extreme gratitude for you bravery, determination, your quick thinking, and most of all your warm heart. You deserved the George Medal.


Dear Cyril Ellis

Thank you so much for saving my grandson. He was on the last carriage. If you had not waved the train down he would have died.


Dear Cyril Ellis

I would like to thank you for saving my brother in the train accident, we are so thankful for your heroism on that train. To thank you we would like to send a parcel full of goods


Next we sorted through some of the research we had done last week. We highlighted the pieces of information that we felt were more useful than others and identified information that needed checking for accuracy. Next week we will continue with our research to build an accurate and clear record of what happened in the Tangiwai Disaster before embarking on our documentary design.

In the afternoon we met Sarah Marino, a Wellington drama teaching specialist. Sarah came to work with us in role as Margaret Ellis. We talked about how to get into role and how to build belief in our roles, her as Margaret and us as the research team at NZ Documentary Designs.

We then interviewed Sarah in role as Margaret Ellis.

Interviewing Sarah in role as Margaret Ellis

Margaret talked about how Cyril had been affected by the events of that night and how it had affected the whole family. As we interviewed Maragret Ellis we recognised the letters we had written in role in the morning that she shared with us, thank you letters that Cyril had kept all these years. While we had prepared questions ahead of time as the interview progressed it was great to see everyone coming up with probing questions on the spot to find out more about details Margaret shared. There was a lot of careful listening and building on what each other, and Margaret, was sharing. Margaret gave us lots of information that we will be able to use in our documentary as well as information that she wished to keep private but was happy to share in order to provide some more background to the Cyril Ellis story. Next week we will have to think carefully about what information we use and how we use it.

After interviewing Margaret we had a discussion about what we thought Margaret was like.

It was great to see everyone picking up on body language and noticing the things that Margaret didn’t say as much as what she did tell us.

Her nervousness was noted by the way she sat forward on the chair, the way she corrected herself a few times. Her age was noted by the way she moved and needed help getting out of the chair. It was noted that she was very protective of family matters. A lot of us felt some emotional response to what she shared and felt as if we were part of a real interview.

We then had a go at being in the hot seat ourselves. Louis, Jared, Emma, and Rose had a go at being interviewed in role as townspeople from Elizabethtown, who knew of Cyril Ellis and his heroic actions. In the hot seat they were able to develop their character and share how they felt about the Tangiwai Disaster and how they felt about what Cyril had done. This was a fun challenging activity, responding and staying in role in response to the questions, and everyone did really well! The rest of us are keen to have a go at being in the hot seat next week.

Louis in the Hotseat as someone from Elizabethtown

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Day Three


1950s Images

This morning we put ourselves in the shoes of passengers preparing for a train trip on Christmas Eve 1953 from Wellington to Auckland. We each created a character description in our minds of a passenger that might have been on the train. We decided on who our passenger was, their name, how old they were, whether they were male or female, who they were travelling to see, what things they could have had in their suitcase, and a thought that may have been going through their head as they boarded the train with their suitcase. There was a lot of attention to detail. We used a number of picture cards to get us started that included some Christmas Card designs of 1953, some photos of New Zealand families on summer holidays, an image of a box brownie camera, photos of a 1953 children’s Christmas party, a1953 advertisement for a watchmaker advertising watches as the perfect Christmas present, and pictures of men and women’s fashion. Names of popular books, board games, record titles etc were researched and described in detail as part of the luggage. Some of us wrote letters and Christmas cards that their passenger was also carrying in their suitcase. We will publish this work as images of suitcases with the items drawn on next week.

Here are some of the thoughts of the passengers that were created:

“I can’t wait to meet the new baby in the family. Bob and Holly will be excited to meet their new baby cousin”


“I am so excited. I can’t wait to get back home from work”


“I can’t wait to see the look on my mother’s face when she sees my new baby Rosemary”


“I can’t wait to see the look on their faces when I’m home! I just miss them heaps. I’m looking forward to the trip as much as they will like the toys I got them”


“I can’t wait to see Nana again”


“I can’t wait to introduce my mum and dad to my new son in Auckland. Wow, it’s been a whole year”


“Do I have to move away from my friends? At Christmas too. That Chirstmas party Nick planned was going to be so fun


“I can’t wait to see my new grandson. I hope he likes my bear. And I hope that John hasn’t been on the sweets again, I don’t understand why he eats so many sweets…. and he better have been looking after Ellie and Rosa.”


“I wonder what my new baby cousin Mia looks like. I can’t wait”.


“I can’t wait to show them the new jewellery I’ve got for Christmas. And I wonder how they will react when they see their presents?”


“I can’t wait until I get to meet my sister and my nieces. I wonder what they’ll look like? I haven’t seen them in about a whole year. I really hope they enjoy the Christmas presents I bought. We are going to have so much fun tomorrow!”


We shared with each other the items we had chosen to pack in our passenger’s suitcase and read aloud the thought to see if we could guess the details of each passenger for example their gender and age.


Next we had a very focussed research session in the library. We all worked together to research the Tangiwai Disaster using websites, books, atlases, newspaper articles, sound clips and even some video footage. We collated all the information we found on to a central whiteboard. Everyone worked together to confirm or correct each other’s information and to build on what each other had found. The collective research effort was fantastic!

Research Team at Work


On the Train to Tangiwai
By Jillian Sullivan

All night the river wept,
Moving in its dream world state,
All night, the train approached the bridge
While Lillian slept.

As she woke she shifted in her space,
She thought of Christmas, turned,
And caught her smile in the glass –
The last time she would see her face.

For all night long, the mountain stirred,
The crater broke,
And mud swept down – a lahar bound
For Tangiwai.

Lillian thinks of family, gifts,
Of how the tree will look, what they will eat,
But water takes the bridge, and only one man sees
Too late the treacherous rift.

And there, as Lillian dozes, sleeps again,
Fury explodes in water, bridge, rock, train –
The detonating of so many dreams,
The hopeless collision of nature and machine…

The river slides by now, as ever,
The mountain broods, another song to sing,
And on my finger, I wear
Lillian’s ring.

Next we read this poem about the Tangiwai Disaster that Olivia had brought in to share. It was great timing following our research session and we were able to understand the detail of the poem. We recognised the reference to ‘weeping waters’, the meaning of Tanigwai, in the first line of the poem. We knew the mountain that stirred was Mt Ruapehu and the ash wall of the crater breaking away. We recognised Lillian’s thoughts as similar to the thoughts of our own passenger character descriptions we had written earlier. We wondered if the one man who saw ‘too late the treachorous rift’ was Cyril Ellis or Charlie Parker, the driver of the train. We thought the line ‘the hopeless collision of nature and machine’ was a particularly powerful line to describe the natural disaster of the Lahar washing the train (the machine) away. The last line of the poem made us think of all the people involved in the tragedy, not just the victims but the families and descendents of the victims.


In the afternoon we thought about who we might approach, as New Zealand Documentary Designers, to get some more first hand accounts of the Tangiwai Disaster. From our research Cyril Ellis had been highlighted as a hero of the event and it was decided that we write to him to request an interview. This is the shared letter that was written:

Dear Mr Ellis,

We are New Zealand documentary design experts who are currently creating a documentary about the Tangiwai disaster. We feel that your role in this tragic event was very important to the country. We think you are a fantastic New Zealand hero so we would like to interview you about your life saving actions and what is was like to experience the disaster first hand. We would really appreciate it if you could send us a response.

Warm regards,

The Principle Research Team at New Zealand Documentary Designs.

Hopefully next week we will get to ‘meet’ Cyril Ellis (a teacher in role) and interview him to get some more information for our documentary.