54 years ago this evening, the fourth worst disaster in New Zealand history and the eighth worst railway disaster in the world at the time occurred just north of Tangiwai in the central North Island. In 1863, 189 died in the shipwreck of the HMS Orpheus; in 1931, the Napier earthquake killed 258; and 26 years after Tangiwai, the crash of an Air New Zealand flight into Mount Erebus, Antarctica took 257 lives. The Tangiwai disaster claimed 151 lives. In a past entry, I have detailed the events of the crash fairly extensively. In short, on Christmas Eve 1953, an ash wall holding in the crater lake of Mount Ruapehu collapsed, creating a lahar - a torrent of ash, mud, and water - that surged down the Whangaehu River. It destroyed the bridge of the North Island Main Trunk Railway and the lahar was at its height at 10:21pm when the overnight express passenger train from Wellington to Auckland reached the bridge with no warning that it was impassable. The steam locomotive and the train's five second class carriages all tumbled into the lahar and were brutally torn apart. The sixth carriage, the leading first class carriage, teetered on the edge of the bridge's remnants before rolling into the river; the remainder of the train stayed on the tracks. In total, the locomotive's driver and fireman, one first class passenger, and 148 of the 176 second class passengers were killed.
As is probably common knowledge to readers of my journal by now, my Grandpa was one of the 28 survivors from the second class carriages. Unless there is a bit of a miracle, this will more than likely be the last Tangiwai anniversary that my Grandpa lives to see. Accordingly, I would like to tell the personal story as best I can, from what I know. I hope to talk to him at more length about the disaster sometime. Grandpa, then aged 18, was travelling from Wellington to Auckland for Christmas with his friend John Cockburn (that's "Co-burn"), aged 17, and John's 12 year old brother, Douglas; I am sure John and Douglas would forgive me if I have accidentally muddled them. Their sister is my Grandma. All three lived in Masterton and would have travelled over the Rimutaka Incline to Wellington to catch the express, which departed Wellington at 3pm.
The three travelled second class, and were in the second carriage behind the locomotive. The trip north was fairly uneventful and passed through my own hometown, Raumati Beach, on its way out of Wellington. Although electric locomotives were available to haul the train between Wellington and Paekakariki, it was hauled by a steam locomotive all the way, KA class member 949. Demand for the train was sufficient that a second express followed it an hour later. The first express made good time, with its final stop before Tangiwai in Waiouru; on its departure from Waiouru, 285 people were aboard. My Grandpa sat beside a window, a seating location that would save his life. Naturally, Douglas and John sat with him; eerily, a few winters earlier, John at the age of 14 went on a school trip to Mount Ruapehu and we have a photo of him at the crater lake that took his life.
When the train reached the Whangaehu River, the locomotive was launched into the air and nearly reached the opposite bank of the river; it was followed by the first carriage. The second, however, plunged directly into the lahar and took the full brunt of its power. It was mercilessly torn to pieces and reduced to a twisted wreck, unrecognisable as a passenger carriage. It can be seen in the picture above as the mangled lump in front of the much more intact first carriage, and again in the picture below with the similarly more intact sixth carriage in the background. Of the approximately 35 passengers aboard the second carriage, every single one apart from my Grandpa was killed, including Douglas and John. Upon landing in the water, Grandpa was flung through the window into the lahar and swept downriver. He swallowed mouthfuls of the lahar's muddy water, now laced with engine oil and coal. His clothes were torn from him by the force of the lahar, leaving him with just his belt and shreds of his vest. He was found up a tree. Of the 12 residents of Masterton aboard the train, he was the only one to survive; I cannot fathom how he came out of that alive. He has never ridden a train since. Sixteen months after the disaster, he married my Grandma; a year later, his first son, my father, was born. The realisation that had my Grandpa been seated anywhere else in the carriage, he would have died and I would not be here today is something truly extraordinarily indescribable.
At this time of year, I would also like to take this opportunity to remember four other relatives of mine who died on New Zealand's rails in the country's second worst railway disaster. 10.5 years before Tangiwai, the Hyde disaster occurred on 4 June 1943 when the Cromwell to Dunedin express derailed outside of Hyde in Central Otago due to excessive speed. Of the 113 passengers on board, 21 were killed. They included John Frater, my great-grandfather; his daughter Irene White; and her two young sons, Desmond and John. John Frater's wife, my great-grandmother, survived the accident but died within two years due to the physical toll of her severe injuries and the emotional impact of the deaths.
RIP Douglas, John Cockburn, John Frater, John White, Irene, and Desmond.