Tangiwai disaster

Page 4 – Dealing with the dead

While many of the survivors were ‘shocked, filthy, choked with silt and half blind with oil’, they were the lucky ones.

Identifying victims is a major task following any mass tragedy. A number of circumstances made this process particularly difficult at Tangiwai. Summer heat and a lack of refrigerated facilities meant that the initial identification had to be carried out as quickly as possible, and in some cases was inaccurate. Some of those killed were recent arrivals to New Zealand who had no relatives or local medical or dental records to help identify them. Police cleaned and laid out the bodies in coffins in a makeshift mortuary set up at the army camp. Coroner’s courts were hastily convened at Waiōuru to legally determine identity and issue death certificates. Pathologist Dr J.O. Mercer pronounced the main causes of death to be drowning and asphyxiation by silt.

After a few days the police inspector in charge, future Commissioner Willis Brown, made the difficult decision to hold a mass identification to speed up the process. With clergy on hand to give support, he prepared the relatives for what to expect before asking them to file past the partly opened coffins. The remaining unclaimed bodies were then transferred to hospital mortuaries in Wellington and Whanganui.

Christmas Day services gave New Zealanders the opportunity to express their collective grief. Many messages of sympathy were received from overseas. Queen Elizabeth made her Christmas broadcast from Auckland, finishing with a message of sympathy for the people of New Zealand.

There were more than a hundred private funerals, and on 31 December Prince Philip attended the state funeral for 21 unidentified victims who were buried in an 18-m grave at Wellington’s Karori Cemetery. In April 1954 information from overseas confirmed that several of these bodies had been misidentified. An order was obtained to exhume the graves, a task that was carried out by police recruits. The bodies of 16, including eight whose remains were never identified, still lie at the Tangiwai National Memorial at Karori, which was dedicated in 1957.

A further death occurred when a worker was killed during the rebuilding of the Tangiwai railway bridge, which reopened in 1957.