A grieving dad has been forced to dig his little girl’s grave for the second time, after a devastating storm buried her final resting place under metres of mud and silt.
Peter Lafferty buried his precious firstborn Sarah 21 years ago after she tragically died at just five from pneumonia.
Sarah was laid to rest at a small, privately-owned cemetery on the banks of the Mangaone River in the Hawke’s Bay region on New Zealand’s North Island.
A heartbroken Mr Lafferty, 59, feared the worst after Tropical Cyclone Gabrielle and raging floodwaters left behind a massive trail of destruction earlier this month.
The entire cemetery was unrecognisable after floodwaters dumped five feet of silt and debris onto the 120 grave headstones at the cemetery.
Armed with just a shovel and a wheelbarrow, Mr Lafferty managed to find his daughter’s grave last week after an hour of painstakingly digging by hand.
Peter Lafferty’s eldest child Sarah (pictured at two-months-old ) was born with cerebral palsy
‘I didn’t think I’d ever be doing it this all over again but someone has to do it,’ he told Daily Mail Australia.
‘It was heartbreaking having to get down on my hands and knees and continue digging until I found Sarah’s grave.
‘I’m also devastated for the other families whose loved ones are buried here.’
Mr Lafferty said he’d buried his daughter seven feet deep and was ‘relieved’ to find her headstone and coffin after the extensive dig.
‘I buried Sarah here with the help of my dad 22 years ago, digging seven feet deep,’ he said.
‘I was super relieved to find it but at the same time, it brings back sad memories.’
A vacant plot remains next to Sarah’s grave so Mr Lafferty can be buried next to his little girl when the time comes.
The recent ordeal brought back heartbreaking memories of his beloved daughter, who was born with severe cerebral palsy.
Both Sarah and her mum were lucky to survive the traumatic birth.
‘Sarah was starved of oxygen for 45 minutes,’ Mr Lafferty recalled.
‘Doctors told me she wouldn’t survive 10 hours.’
Peter Lafferty (pictured) hopes to recover all 120 graves at the cemetery
Peter Lafferty had to dig for his daughter’s grave a second time 21 years after he buried her
Mr Lafferty said his daughter suffered many health battles her entire short life.
‘Her mum was in an induced coma afterwards so it was a month before she was able to hold her for the first time,’ he said.
‘Sarah was a living doll unable to sit or stand, walk or talk. But she was so strong.
‘Not a day passes by when I don’t think about her.’
Mr Lafferty’s work at the cemetery is far from over.
Almost a fortnight on from the disaster, which saw a national state of emergency declared for just the third time in the country’s history, the massive clean-up has only just begun.
The cyclone caused widespread damage on New Zealand’s North Island and claimed at least 11 lives as the country´s most damaging natural disaster his century.
A makeshift bridge has been built over Mangaone River after the Rissington Bridge washed away.
Being on the banks of the Mangaone River, the cemetery felt the full brunt of the cyclone and remains a scene of devastation, covered in mud and strewn with debris and driftwood.
Peter Lafferty’s daughter Sarah (pictured) tragically died from pneumonia in 2001
The cyclone left behind a massive trail of destruction at the privately-owned cemetery
Mr Lafferty is now determined to find all 120 graves at the site, privately owned by the local Absolom family whom he grew up with.
He spends up to 10 hours there almost every day.
He could be digging for weeks for 50 graves which still need to be found, including several relatives.
Much of the task is done by shovel rather than mechanical diggers, mindful of potential risk of destroying graves deep below the surface.
The cemetery clean-up has almost solely been a one man job, apart from the help of soldiers to remove massive piles of dirt blocking the entrance gates.
‘It’s a major job, the entire cemetery was buried under five feet of silt,’ Mr Lafferty said.
‘The headstones are very fragile so you have to be super duper careful.’
‘I know where most of the graves are, having played here all then time when I was a kid.
‘Some of the graves are more than 120 years, including a mother and son who died within days of each other during the Spanish flu epidemic.’
The cemetery felt the full brunt of Cyclone Gabrielle. Pictured is the devastating aftermath one week on
Mr Lafferty is also desperately searching for the porcelain teddy bear that sat next to Sarah’s headstone, which has sentimental value.
The memento was given by friends Mr Lafferty has met while living in Australia during the 1980s working as an interstate truck driver.
Mr Lafferty’s other children Amy and Luke are proud of his tireless efforts.
‘He’s been out in the hot sun every for a week doing a job no one should ever have to do, and I’m guttered I can’t go home to help,’ his son told Daily Mail Australia.
‘The whole family was relieved to learn Sarah is still there and really appreciates the work he’s doing.’
The entire cemetery was buried under five feet of silt in the wake of the cyclone