Saturday, December 27, 2008

Tangiwai Disaster

We went to the Tangiwai Disaster at Whangaehu River with the children and paid our respects to the many who died during a time before we were born.

The Tangiwai disaster on December 24, 1953 was the worst rail accident in New Zealand. The overnight North Island Main Trunk express train from Wellington to Auckland, hauled by steam locomotive KA 949, fell into the Whangaehu River. The bridge over the river had been badly damaged just minutes earlier by a lahar from Mount Ruapehu.

Cyril Ellis is credited as being a hero of the accident because his actions saved many lives. He saw that the railway bridge was damaged and ran down the track, waving his torch at the oncoming train. It is believed that his warning enabled the train driver to brake before the bridge, slowing the train sufficiently so that only the first six carriages tumbled into the river. Almost everyone in the sixth carriage survived. All following carriages stopped safely.

Of the 285 people on the train, 134 survived and 151 died. Of those that died 20 bodies were never recovered; it is believed they were washed 120 kilometres from the bridge and then down the river and out to sea.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip were visiting New Zealand on their first royal tour when the disaster occurred. The Queen made her Christmas broadcast from Auckland, finishing with a message of sympathy to the people of New Zealand. Prince Philip attended a state funeral for many of the victims.

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