At three o'clock in the afternoon, the overnight express departed Wellington, packed with holidaymakers - demand for places was sufficient enough that a second train followed an hour later. Lead by Ka 949 and consisting of five second class and four first class carriages, a guards van and a postal van, the train made good time as it raced north, and at its last stop on the southern side of the Whangaehu River in Waiouru, eight disembarked and one boarded, bringing the passenger total to 285, including 176 in the five second class carriages. As the train steamed north, none on board were aware of what had occurred shortly after 8pm at Mount Ruapehu's crater lake. An ash wall had collapsed, and a torrent of water, ash, mud, rocks, and other debris raced down the Whangaehu River as a murky black lahar. At 10:15pm, it struck the Tangiwai railway bridge, dislodging the gigantic concrete piers and critically weakening the structure of the bridge. In the isolated dark of the night, few were aware of the fate ahead of the express.
The man nearest to the disaster was a Taihape postal clerk, Arthur Cyril Ellis, driving north with his wife and mother-in-law to visit his parents for Christmas. He discovered a torrent of water racing across the nearby road bridge, and after backing his truck to safety, he headed out with his torch to investigate. It was then that he noticed a light approaching in the distance - at first, he thought it was a car, but then he realised it was a train and he ran to the middle of the tracks, screaming and waving his torch in a desperate bid to attract the attention of the crew aboard the engine. He didn't know what train it was or whether the bridge was out; all he knew was that there was no way the train could cross the river in its present condition. Unfortunately, the crew did not notice him, and after he leapt out of the way, he continued to wave his torch and scream at the cab as it raced past, although he knew there was no chance the driver or fireman would hear him over the collective din of the engine and the raging river. Realising it was the overnight express, Ellis watched as it passed him at approximately 65 kilometres (40 miles) an hour, heading towards its destruction.
The structurally destroyed bridge completely gave way under the weight of the train and Ka 949 was launched into the air, almost reaching the other side. The torrent was surging through at its height and the five second class wagons were flung directly into it. The first nearly made it across with the tender of the engine and, in comparison to the rest of the wagons, suffered the least amount of damage. The other four were hurled against each other and torn to shreds by the torrent. Walls, roofs, and seats were savagely ripped to splinters as passengers were tossed around and drowned by a vile torrent of dirty water, mud, silt, and oil from the engine. Reduced to mangled lumps of metal, the carriages were scattered about the area, with the fifth found some two and a half kilometres (one and a half miles) downriver from the bridge. I don't know what wagon my grandfather was in, but he was knocked unconscious in the accident and when he came to, he found himself halfway up a tree and the lahar had left only his belt and scraps of his vest on his body.
The sixth wagon, the initial first class carriage, teetered on the edge of the bridge, leaning out over the chasm. It hung in the air long enough for Arthur Ellis and the guard, William Inglis, to scramble aboard to aid the passengers, but it was too late and it followed the leading half of the train into the river. Although it was tossed and turned by the waters, miraculously only one of the twenty-four passengers in the wagon perished, and as the alarm was raised in surrounding towns and those riding the remaining wagons became aware of what had just occurred in front, those alive ensured their own safety and then began the search for loved ones and other survivors.
The carnage is absolutely incredible and cannot be described in words. It has to be seen to be believed.
An aerial view of the site of the disaster. In the bottom left is the structurally unsound road bridge discovered by Ellis, and in the midground can be seen the washed out railway bridge and the remnants of the engine and a number of wagons.
On the left, the first wagon, in the middle, the small amount of twisted metal that constituted the sole remains of Ka 949's cab, and on the right, the fuel tender of the engine. It is presumed the major damage to the right end of the first carriage resulted from the crushing impact of a bridge girder in the accident.
It's hard to believe, but that lump of twisted and mangled wreckage in the foreground is all that was left of the second carriage.
The locomotive, a bridge pier, and the roof of the third wagon.
Another part of the third wagon, found on the opposite side of the river.
The twisted carnage that constituted the remains of the fourth wagon. Note on the left that one set of wheels found their final resting place atop the mangled seating.
Two and a half kilometres away, the fifth carriage.
In the foreground, what is meant to be the second wagon; in the background, the sixth, the only first class carriage to fall into the river.
R.I.P. Douglas, John, and the rest of the victims of Tangiwai.
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