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College community rallies together

Thursday 17 Jan 2013 6:19 p.m.

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By 3 News online staff with Melissa Davies and Jono Hutchison

The dying words of a young New Zealand woman, heard from the wreckage of her school bus in Kenya, today brought pride and comfort to those who mourned her.

Nineteen-year-old former Bethlehem College student Caitlin Dickson told rescuers to leave her and to go and help the others who were injured.

Ms Dickson, and parents from the school, Brian and Grace Johnston, died after the mini-van they were travelling in crashed and rolled into a ditch.

Kenyan bus driver Christopher Mmata also died at the spot. He had driven school parties in previous years, and the Bethlehem students called him humble, generous and a very careful driver.

“When we were over there he drove us around for three weeks and he was a great driver, we never felt unsafe – I mean the roads aren’t great but he was a responsible driver, a responsible person,” says Ms Dickson’s friend Matt Smalberger.

Ms Dickson died at the scene, and Grace Johnston died next – on the way to hospital. Her husband Brian, an anaesthetist at Tauranga Hospital, made it all the way to surgery only to die after being operated on.

Mr Crosbie says the local community came to support the New Zealanders.

“The village folk came to the hospital and they gathered around the bodies and they sang and they danced and they prayed, and they did what they do so well in Africa,” he says.

Kenyan police say why the crash happened is still unclear.

Pastor Fred Ominde says it appears the car rolled after it came off the road.

“What I think might have happened was the car skidded and had to go off the road and must have overturned three times,” he says.

The 12 Bethlehem College students and seven adults had arrived in Kenya just after Christmas. Their visit was part of a regular arrangement with a local school – a closeness and familiarity, that made the two communities one family.

Head teacher Alan Kidwaro Kisato says the local community has also felt the deaths.

“We really feel sorry for the people and families of New Zealand. Not intended, the way this happened. Wish them well, and God give them strength and keep supporting them,” he says.

Three Bethlehem college students remain in hospital, and two of them are seriously injured.

Bethlehem College community comes together for support.

Ms Dickson and her friend Ms Hollister-Jones first met in pre-school.

"This cute little blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl came bounding up to me and was like, 'I like your rainbow t-shirt!' And from then on we've been best friends. So it's been 15 years,” says Ms Hollister-Jones.

She organised the meeting at Bethlehem College this morning so people could come for support and prayer.

“God is what we hold onto in these times when we're so broken hearted. And we are as a community – we're so broken hearted to have lost these people."

None are more broken-hearted than the 10, now orphaned, children of the Johnstons. All 10 attended Bethlehem College, and two of them are still there.

The community is also praying for the injured that are still in Kenya. Some are still in hospital beds.

Parent Sheila Tippett says she was relieved she got to speak to her daughter.

“We were able to speak to our daughter late last night […] and it was just so good to hear her voice and hear her say that she was okay,” she says.

Jennifer Boggiss, another of the parents, says she can tell the students have been changed by the events of the past few days.

"I said to one of the mothers this morning, they sound like they're 15 years older than when they left. Their voices. We always knew it was going to be a life-changing experience for them and obviously it will be in many more ways than we had ever dreamed,” she says.

But Ms Boggiss says the students have been more worried for their families than themselves.

“They're telling us, 'take care of yourself, we are fine.' So they're sounding incredibly strong.”

And Mr Smalberger says the community are rallying to support each other.

“The good thing about Bethlehem is it's a real tight-knit community. And something like this happens and everyone comes together, the adults and the young kids and everyone.”

Ms Hollister-Jones has been keeping her best friend close by wearing a pair of rainbow socks, given to her by Ms Dickson in memory of the first time they met.

"And she wrote me a note that said, 'Wear these and remember me'. So they're pretty special,” she says.

“I just found them yesterday, so I kind of feel like she's maybe having a little bit of a laugh in heaven.”

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