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Fifty years ago today, the Wellington to Auckland express crashed at 10:21pm New Zealand time.
Out of 176 second class passengers, only 28 survived.
Out of 12 passengers travelling from Masterton to Auckland, only ONE survived.
I know the story like the back of my hand. The 3pm express to Auckland was packed, so much so that a second train had to be put on. Eleven wagons long, headed by Ka 949, it steamed north, no-one on board having any idea what fate was to befall the train.
Not long after 8pm, an ash wall on the edge of the crater lake of Mount Ruapehu collapsed, releasing a torrent of water, a lahar that shot down the Whangaehu River. It reached Tangiwai (Maori for "weeping waters") at 10:15 as a wall of water, sand, rocks, and other rubble. It caused fatal structural damage to the railway bridge - and washed out others further downstream - and when the train hit it, the lahar was still coming through. With its structural integrity compromised, the crash ensued, with Ka 949 launched high into the air, nearly making it to the other side. The next five wagons, the five second class ones containing 176, plunged straight into the churning river and were torn to shreds. The sixth wagon, the first 1st class wagon, teetered on the edge of the bridge before rolling in. Of the 24 in this wagon, only one died, a girl stuck in her seat. The remaining wagons - first class carriages, a mail wagon, and the guard's van - stayed on the track, with many passengers unaware of what had just occurred up the front.
Down in the river, it was chaos. Wagons were ripped in two, roofs and walls were torn off, the oil from the engine poured into the river, and many perished. Photos of what was left are shocking, and if my scanner was working I'd scan some on. It's just appalling. It's hard to believe anyone survived in some of the wagons - they were so well and truly shredded. My Grandpa was knocked unconscious and when he came to, he found himself up a tree with only his belt and scraps of his vest on; the force of the water had ripped everything else off. My great uncles, Grandma's brothers, sadly, weren't as lucky. Douglas and John Cockburn both perished.
The death toll was 151 - the driver and fireman, one first class passenger, and 148 second class passengers - making it the eighth worst rail disaster at the time of occurrence, and still stands as the third worst disaster in New Zealand history. I despise it when train crashes that result in only a couple of deaths are called a disaster - Tangiwai was a disaster, not some thing that everyone forgets about a couple of weeks later.
I still can't believe how my Grandpa survived. When I look at it, I realise just how incredibly lucky I am to be here, because the accident occurred before my Dad was born or Grandma and Grandpa were married. Ever since Tangiwai, Grandpa hasn't travelled on a train. He simply can't.
It's a really moving and sad anniversary.
Some links with more;
http://www.stuff.co.nz/stuff/0,2106,2764168a10,00.html (Some absolute fuckwits are going to cost more lives. I don't care if the measures to stop another disaster will compromise some World Heritage Site's status - Tangiwai was fucking enough. Surely the government isn't stupid enough to let this go unchecked)