December 24th, 2005

One Tree Hill

Fifty-two years on from Tangiwai.

It's that time of year again, the 24th of December. If there is one thing that remains constant about Christmas, it is that I always think of the Tangiwai disaster on Christmas Eve. Last year's entry was extremely detailed and I won't repeat it this year.

I'd instead like to remember another New Zealand railway disaster that occurred a decade before Tangiwai and involved the other side of my family. On 4 June 1943, 113 passengers were aboard the Cromwell to Dunedin express as it travelled through Central Otago, a region in the southern South Island - and the man in charge of the locomotive was drunk. As the train approached a curve in a deep cutting near the locality of Hyde with a posted speed limit of 48km/h (30mph), it was travelling in excess of 112km/h (70mph), and while the actual speed is unknown, it was enough to cause passengers and luggage to be tossed around inside the train. There was a very good reason why that curve's speed limit was 48km/h and it was made abundantly clear when the locomotive and all seven wagons left the tracks. In the derailment, one passenger was hurled through a window, hit the cutting's embankment, and then bounced back into the wagon through a different window, and miraculously lived to talk about it. The locomotive came to rest sixty metres from where it left the rails with the second wagon found overturned in front of it, and four of the other wagons telescoped together.

Despite the fact that the Board of Inquiry stated that "it is safe to say that no previous railway accident in this country has resulted in such a mass of distorted and wrecked rollingstock", forty-five of the 113 passengers escaped without injury. Tragically, 47 others were injured and 21 died, including my great-uncle John. The drunk driver survived to be charged with manslaughter but was only sentenced to three years of jail.

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RIP John and the victims of the Hyde disaster, and Douglas and John and the victims of the Tangiwai disaster.

If there is any song appropriate for today, it is One Tree Hill, the song Bono wrote in memory of a deceased Kiwi friend.

One Tree Hill
Words and music by U2

We turn away to face the cold, enduring chill
As the day begs the night for mercy love
The sun's so bright it leaves no shadows, only scars
Carved into stone on the face of earth
The moon is up and over One Tree Hill
We see the sun go down in your eyes

You run like a river, oh like the sea
You run like a river runs to sea

And in the world a heart of darkness, a fire zone
Where poets speak their heart, then bleed for it
Jara sang, his song a weapon in the hands of love
You know his blood still cries from the ground

It runs like a river runs to the sea
It runs like a river to the sea

I don't believe in painted roses or bleeding hearts
While bullets rape the night of the merciful
I'll see you again when the stars fall from the sky
And the moon has turned red over One Tree Hill

We run like a river, run to the sea
We run like a river to the sea

And when it's raining, raining hard
That's when the rain will break my heart

Raining, raining in my heart, raining in your heart
Raining, rain into your heart, raining, raining
Raining, raining to your heart
Raining, rain into your heart
To the sea

Oh great ocean, oh great sea
Run to the ocean, run to the sea