Sound clip: eyewitness report of Tangiwai disaster

Eyewitness report


Eyewitness: I went down just out of curiosity because the river was in flood. I took the policeman with me and my two daughter-in-laws, and we got down there, and I could see the lights of the express – the rear lights.

Interviewer: What had led you to believe the river might be in flood?

Eyewitness: Oh, it was the roar.

Interviewer: How long had you heard the roar?

Eyewitness: Well, the roar had been going on for an hour, I believe. I didn't hear it an hour before, but my son had done, and I thought that it might have been the wind in the trees. Out of curiosity I went down to the river to see it in flood. And when I got down there, I see the three lights of the rear of the express, and I thought, oh, the bridge can't be safe; they must have stopped … that was the tail end of the express.

Of course when I got down the bridge had gone, and the traffic bridge had gone. Constable Smith said to me 'For goodness sake, you must go back to the Waiouru Camp and get the military to send out everything that they've got.' I come back to the military camp, and they had already got a message and told me that everything was going down, so I went immediately back again to see what I could do. When I got back there, everything was in darkness and they couldn't do very much, so I come back again to see if they had a couple of searchlights.

Interviewer: Why couldn't they do much? Was the river too high?

Eyewitness: The river was too high, yes.

Interviewer: How high would you say it was?

Eyewitness: Oh, well, when I saw it, it would be quite a number of feet above normal … about 20 feet. It was a raging torrent.

Interviewer: Was it over the carriages completely?

Eyewitness: Completely over the carriages.

Interviewer: And how quickly did it subside?

Eyewitness: Oh, it went down quite quickly, within an hour or two.

Interviewer: Did you see anything of the passengers being rescued at all?

Eyewitness: None of those that were in the carriages, only those that were in the rear carriages were taken out. They were all put in the ambulance and brought up to Waiouru. There were quite a number of passengers there that were on the rear of the train going to Ohakune that were worrying about their parents meeting them and not knowing where they were. So I brought some of them up to Waiouru, and they rang up and got through to Ohakune.

Interviewer: Were the passengers able to get out of the carriages in the river, any of them at all?

Eyewitness: There was a young man, Cyril Ellis, I believe, he was the first one down there, and when he found that the bridge had gone, he rushed up onto the line with his torch and waved it. Evidently the engine drivers didn't notice.

Interviewer: It would be pretty hard on a dark night?

Eyewitness: They would most likely be having, perhaps, their supper or something, travelling down there at a great speed.

Interviewer: It's a long, straight run isn't it?

Eyewitness: A long, straight run, yes, and they evidently didn't notice his light. But when the train – after the crash – he mounted the train I believe, rushed into a carriage, and the guard told him not to panic. And he no sooner got those words out than the coupling broke and down went the carriage. Well, he managed to hang on somehow or another, and he also saved two – several other passengers … the only reason that he saved them is having the torch with him, otherwise he could never have seen them.

Interviewer: Have you ever—

Eyewitness: He's a young man out of the Post Office in Taihape.

Interviewer: Have you ever seen this river behave like this before?

Eyewitness: I've seen it, oh, what, 1922, '23 it come up very high one time. It was just porridge.

Interviewer: And these carriages, when they were swept away, were they swept away at the one time, like just in one swoop, or were they gradually washed over and over down the line?

Eyewitness: Well, I didn't see them; it was too dark, too dark. But to look at the distance the carriages were away from the smash, it must have been a huge body of water that came down.


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2 comments have been posted about Sound clip: eyewitness report of Tangiwai disaster

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Posted: 30 Oct 2013

As a 63 yr old male BE CIVIL REA I have been affected re lesson learnt /not learnt re this disater also Cave Creek Platform TIRSc and Pike River Royal Commision which I attended. I see train 235 Deraliment Ngaruawahai as a failure of rail and local policy and legistation.HS TASKFORCE IS MISSING SERIOUS PARTS Sincerely HBNZ

Ronald Stephens

Posted: 03 Jul 2011

The Tangiwai diaster would not have happened if had not been for the inference of man, the piers of the bridge would have probably coped with unusual volume of water. I was fifteen at the time of the diaster and lived with my parents on our farm situated approx. one and a half miles east of the bridge and the Whangaehu River was our northern boundary. I was at the diaster site on Christmas morning helping with the search and rescue on horse back along with other local farmers plus army personnel .An enquiry was held in Wellington sometime after the disaster which Dad and I travelled to by car to give our opinion as to cause of the colaspe of the bridge but when asked by officials what did we have to contribute to the enquiry, when they heard what we had to say they wouldn't let us attend because the Goverment at the time was responsible for the diaster and could be responsible for a huge lawsuit there was no ACC back then. I am now 73years of age and I don't want to take this to my grave. If anyone is interested they can contact me at my email [email protected] I know I can prove a lot of what I know. Ron Stephens