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Link to 1953 rail disaster passes

By Emily Norman

[email protected]

A Wairarapa link to the Tangiwai rail disaster of 1953, Dinah Keats, has died.

The mother of two, and grandmother of four, was a long-serving real estate agent for Professionals in Masterton.

She died at Lansdowne Park in Masterton at the age of 80.

As a 16-year old schoolgirl, Mrs Keats (nee Sutherland) was a passenger on the ill-fated Christmas Eve train that claimed the lives of 151 people when it crashed off the collapsed Whangaehu River bridge at Tangiwai.

It remains New Zealand’s worst rail accident.

Causing the disaster was a huge, 6m high wall of water from Ruapehu’s crater, which had broken through the crater lake’s ice-wall after an eruption, hurtling its way down the Whagaehu River towards the bridge at Tangiwai.

When the 145-tonne KA locomotive pulling the Wellington to Auckland express reached the flood-weakened bridge at 10.21pm that Christmas Eve, it collapsed under the engine’s weight.

Six carriages, including the leading first class carriage Mrs Keats was travelling in ended up plunging into the swollen raging river.

Mrs Keats had previously spoken to the Wairarapa Times-Age about her survival saying she believed she was the last one to get out of her carriage alive.

“We weren’t frightened or panicking. It was like it was happening to someone else,” she had said.

“We rolled off into the flood – it was like being in a washing machine.”

As the carriage filled with murky muddy water she said she had to stand on tip-toe to keep her head clear.

“I do remember thinking how awful it would be for someone to have to tell my mother I was dead on Christmas Day.

“I had no real fear for my own life and that concerned me later.”

Only 47 passengers survived from the six carriages that plummeted into the swollen river, and 21 of those were from the first-class carriage Mrs Keats was travelling in.

The man who saved many lives on that night in December was a young postal worker from Taihape, Cyril Ellis, who was driving to Rangataua with his parents for Christmas.

Mr Ellis had been forced to stop his car when he reached the road bridge, which was submerged. When he saw the light of the approaching locomotive he tried signalling the driver with a torch.

Brakes were applied, but not soon enough to save most passengers in the first five carriages.

The sixth carriage, which Mrs Keats had been in, was left teetering on the rails with no bridge underneath it before also falling into the river.

Mrs Keats was jammed between two seats and Mr Ellis had broken a window to assist her escape.

As the floodwaters subsided, the survivors were able to form a human chain and make their way to the bank.

Following the disaster, Mrs Keats spent the night at Waiouru military base hospital.

“They rang my mother and told her there had been a minor train derailment and that I would be home the next day.”

Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland is Wairarapa’s Local Democracy Reporter, a Public Interest Journalism role funded through NZ On Air. Emily has worked at the Wairarapa Times-Age for seven years and has a keen interest in council decision-making and transparency.

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