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Remembering the Tangiwai tragedy

On Christmas Eve 70 years ago, 151 of the passengers on a train to Auckland – nine of them from Wairarapa – did not survive the journey. The Wairarapa Archive’s MARK PACEY recalls the tragic Tangiwai disaster.

The Wellington to Auckland night express left the capital on December 24, 1953, picking up travellers as it made the long journey north. Passengers were excited to get to Auckland to see family and, if they were lucky, a glimpse of the Queen, who was in Auckland as part of her royal visit.

The train, which consisted of one engine, nine carriages, and two vans, had just left Waiouru by 10.10 p.m. Those on board were completely oblivious that they were just minutes away from being involved in one of the worst disasters this country has seen.

A sudden release from the crater lake at Mount Ruapehu had unleashed two million cubic metres of water that was surging its way along the Whangaehu River.

Cyril Elis, a post officer from Taihape, was driving his car from the Waiouru Army Camp to Raetihi when he was forced to come to a halt. The road bridge wasn’t there anymore, having been swept away the raging river.

In the distance, Elis saw a light and thought it best to immediately warn this fellow motorist that the bridge was out and to turn back.

A short time later, he realised that it wasn’t a car, it was a train and he had to warn it – because if the road bridge had been swept away, then the rail bridge would
undoubtably be severely damaged.

Elis clambered up to the embankment by the tracks with a torch to try and signal the driver to stop but, despite his best efforts, the train ploughed on. He jumped clear of the tracks and watched helplessly as the train continued on across the rail bridge.

While later studies showed that it was likely that the train diver had applied the brakes before running across the bridge, it was not enough to stop the train in time.

The engine almost made it to the other side before the weight of the train proved too much for the damaged bridge. The engine plunged off the wrecked bridge towards the water below, taking all five second-class carriages with it. The last second-class carriage became detached from the first-class carriages but not before pulling forward one of them.

It wavered on the edge for a moment before it too dropped off the edge of the bridge.

In a matter of seconds, one engine and six carriages had disappeared into the night, claimed by the icy waters below. While those in the first five carriages faced a bleak chance of survival, 21 of 22 passengers in the sixth carriage survived, the only real Christmas miracle to come out of the catastrophe.

There were 285 passengers and crew on the ill-fated train. Of these, 151 never got the chance to enjoy their Christmas – many of them just children.

The community sprang into action to try and help the survivors. Forestry workers, police, soldiers, and farmers all lent a hand to help out where they could.

As dawn broke, the reality of the situation sank in. Many of the bodies of the passengers that didn’t make it were able to be recovered from the wreck site, but others had been washed downriver.

Farmers and landowners along the Whangaehu were asked to keep a watch in case an unfortunate victim was to wash up on their land.

Due to the conditions, positively identifying the deceased was difficult.

Some of the victims were from overseas and, therefore, had no dental records or relatives who could help identify them so they remained anonymous.

A mass grave of 21 victims was prepared at Karori Cemetery in Wellington.

Christmas was a sombre affair that year. Queen Elizabeth concluded her Christmas broadcast with a message of sympathy for the country.

In the days that followed more bodies were found along the river, one as far as 130 kilometres from the bridge. Despite the best efforts, 20 passengers were never found.

While the country mourned the loss of the 151, there was an added appreciation among those able to spend Christmas with their families.

Tangiwai was a stark reminder of how quickly things can change and how precious life and family are, because in the blink of an eye, it can be taken away from you.

Masterton’s losses
at Tangiwai

    Trevor Attree, aged 21

    Douglas Cockburn, aged 12

    John Cockburn, aged 17

    Melanie Moody, aged 5

    Dorothy Warrilow, aged 21

    Douglas Warrilow, aged 31

    Gordon Wellington, aged 35

    Lillian Wellington, aged 71

    Melva Wilton, aged 16

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