Tangiwai rail disaster - roadside stories

Tangiwai means ‘weeping waters’, and the name seemed sadly apt on Christmas Eve 1953, when a lahar (volcanic mud flow) partly destroyed the railway bridge over the Whangaehu River. The Wellington–Auckland passenger express plunged into the river, killing 151 people in New Zealand’s worst rail disaster.


Archival audio: The radio interview is with a local resident who assisted with the rescue 

Narrator: Tangiwai, on New Zealand’s Volcanic Plateau, is the site of New Zealand’s worst rail disaster.

Tangiwai lies in shadow of Mount Ruapehu, the North Island’s highest mountain and an active volcano. Towards the southern end of the summit, an expanse of steaming water, known as the Crater Lake, marks an active volcanic vent.

Periodically, the lake becomes so full that it breaks through a weak point in the surrounding ice, sending a torrent of water, ice, rock and mud down the eastern side of the mountain.

It was a volcanic mud flow, or lahar, from the Crater Lake that caused the Tangiwai rail disaster. At 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve 1953, the debris at the outlet of Crater Lake collapsed. A torrent of water swept down the valley, picking up sand, silt and boulders as it went. Soon after 10 p.m. this volcanic mud flow smashed into the railway bridge at Tangiwai. The concrete piers were knocked out and the bridge partially collapsed.

Driving through the darkness, Cyril Ellis stopped when he saw that the bridge ahead was under water. Realising that a train was approaching the nearby rail bridge, he ran along the track towards it, waving a torch to flag it down. It was the passenger express from Wellington, packed with 285 people heading to Auckland.

The driver saw him and applied the brakes, but the train’s momentum carried it out onto the bridge. The engine and first carriage nosedived, landing against the opposite bank. Four more carriages plunged into the river, briefly floating in the torrent before sinking. Another four carriages remained on the track, but one of them dangled over the river. Ellis and a guard attempted to help people off, but the coupling snapped and the carriage toppled into the river. It came to rest on its side, with water flowing through it.

Female voice: I woke to the realisation that the train was off the rails. After being rattled violently like a pebble in a bottle I was dumped into space with unbelievable violence. Then I felt the splash of cold water through a window.   

Narrator:  Ellis knocked out several windows and hoisted people outside as a passenger lifted fellow travellers out. 26 people escaped, huddled on the carriage for over an hour until the torrent subsided.

Female voice: There we sat in the biting wind like two drowned rats and took stock of the situation.

Narrator: The men formed a human chain in waist-deep water, helping everyone reach the bank safely.

One carriage was carried more than 2 km downstream. The others were swept across the flooded main road or rammed into the riverbanks. Some people swam to the banks, but drowned in the tangles of gorse there.

Recovering victims took several days along 60 km of the river. Twenty bodies were never found. It was assumed that they had washed out to sea 120 km away.

New Zealanders woke on Christmas morning to the shocking news that 151 lives had been lost. Tangiwai had lived up to its name, which means ‘weeping waters’ in Māori.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip were visiting New Zealand at the time. Prince Philip attended the state funeral for 21 unidentified victims, and the Queen presented Cyril Ellis and other rescuers with medals. A commission of inquiry into the disaster determined that the lahar could not have been anticipated.

The Crater Lake’s most recent lahar was in 2007. Careful monitoring of the lake’s temperature and rising level allowed accurate prediction of when it would occur.  As a result, there was little damage downstream.

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