The Tangiwai Tragedy
The most tragic of all such occurrences was the death of 151 men, women, and children on Christmas Eve, 1953, when a sudden discharge of thousands of tons of water from the crater lake of Mt. Ruapehu destroyed the railway bridge at Tangiwai, 10 miles south of Ohakune, and provided a death trap for a crowded holiday night-express train on its way from Wellington to Auckland. In some instances, whole families of holiday makers, young and old, perished together in the most horrible conditions. When the lake waters found an outlet beneath the Whangaehu Glacier, they swirled tumultuously into the Whangaehu River, carrying with them ice, ash, boulders, and debris. The swift and sudden deluge, known scientifically as a lahar, hurled itself against the powerful concrete pylons of the railway bridge and swept away 154 ft of the 198 ft of decking and track. The night-express raced on to the bridge at high speed and plunged to its doom. Engine and fuel tender flew from the broken permanent way, smashed their couplings, and crashed into the opposite bank, 40 yards away. The following carriages continued on and fell 35 ft into the raging filth of the river below. Five carriages were immediately submerged and a sixth teetered on the brink until it too toppled over and was swept downstream. Only three cars remained on the rails. It was the torrent of water, ice, silt, and ash, together with the oil fuel from the crashed tender, that took the toll of life, not the impact of the crash. Those who extricated themselves from the carriages were stripped, choked, and asphyxiated by the foul flood in which they found themselves. Darkness lent added horror to the scene and greatly hampered the rescue work of railwaymen, road travellers, and Army personnel from Waiouru Military Camp, 10 miles away. The efforts of this determined band of workers were characterised by such courage and resource that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, who was in New Zealand at the time, made immediate awards of the George Medal and the British Empire Medal to mark the gallantry of four men. The freak flood subsided with uncanny swiftness and the search for the dead began in earnest. Out of 285 persons known to have been on the train only 134 survived. A total of 131 bodies were recovered and 20 other passengers have never been accounted for.