The Tangiwai Rail Disaster (1953)
The Tangiwai disaster is New Zealand’s worst ever rail accident. It occurred at 22:21 on 24 December 1953 when the Whangaehu River bridge collapsed beneath a Wellington to Auckland express passenger train at Tangiwai, in the central North Island of New Zealand. The locomotive and first six carriages derailed into the river, killing 151 people. The subsequent Board of Inquiry found that the accident was caused by the collapse of the tephra dam holding back nearby Mount Ruapehu’s crater lake creating a large lahar in the Whangaehu River, which destroyed one of the bridge piers at Tangiwai only minutes before the train reached the bridge.
On 24 December 1953 the 3 pm express from Wellington to Auckland was made up of a KA class steam locomotive hauling 11 carriages: five second class, four first class, a guard’s van and a postal van. With 285 passengers and crew, it passed through Tangiwai Station on time at 10:20 pm at about 64 kilometres per hour (40 mph). Approaching the bridge over the Whangaehu River at Tangiwai an emergency brake application was made by the driver either in response to Cyril Ellis, a passerby, standing by the track and waving a torch or seeing the condition of the bridge. However, this was too late to stop the train going onto the bridge, which gave way, the locomotive, tender and five second class carriages falling into the river. The leading first-class carriage teetered on the edge of the bridge before its coupling to the rest of the train snapped and rolled into the river. The remaining three first-class carriages, the guard’s van, and a postal van remained on the track.
The death toll of 151 consisted of 148 second-class passengers, 1 first-class passenger, the engine driver and fireman. Twenty of the bodies were never found and were presumed to have been carried 120 km (75 mi) downriver to the ocean. Among the dead was Nerissa Love, the fiancee of cricketer Bob Blair, who was playing in a Test Match in South Africa at the time. On going out to bat after his loss, he received a standing ovation.
After the train crashed, Ellis informed the train’s guard, William Inglis, of what had happened and the two entered the sixth carriage, then still balanced precariously on the bridge’s edge, in an attempt to save passengers. While they were in the carriage, it tumbled off the bridge and Ellis and Inglis, with the assistance of passenger John Holman, smashed a window and helped passengers out of the carriage. Of the carriage’s 24 occupants, only one died, a girl who was trapped in her seat and drowned.
Shortly after the accident, rescue teams departed from Waiouru 8 km (5 mi) east of Tangiwai. These included soldiers from Waiouru Army Camp, radio operators from Irirangi Naval Communications Station and MOW workmen from the Waiouru Ministry of Works camp. By midnight survivors were being admitted into the Waiouru Camp Hospital, and by 4 am the following day, Christmas morning, bodies started arriving there.
The Prime Minister, Sidney Holland, arrived at Tangiwai early on Christmas morning after a high-speed drive down from Auckland. He coordinated the rescue work by railway, army, police, navy, MOW, local farmers and undertakers. While the army led efforts near the accident site, local farmers recovered bodies further down the Whangaehu River; at Fields Track, Mount View, Mangamahu, Kauangaroa, Whangaehu village and the river mouth. The bodies were taken by truck to Wanganui and thence by rail to Waiouru, where police and undertakers identified them. Local settlers carried out daily search-and-recovery operations for the next month as bodies rose to the surface.
For their actions, Ellis and Holman received the George Medal. Inglis and a passing traveller, Arthur Dewar Bell, both received the British Empire Medal for actions that saved 15 lives. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip were visiting New Zealand on their first royal tour when the disaster occurred. The Queen made her Christmas broadcast from Auckland, finishing with a message of sympathy to the people of New Zealand. Prince Philip attended a state funeral for many of the victims.
A Board of Inquiry was appointed to look into the cause of the accident; this sat in public from 26 January until 2 April and reported on 23 April 1954. The bridge had eight piers and seven spans — after the accident four piers had been damaged and five spans dislodged. The Board found that a lahar from Mount Ruapehu had removed the fourth pier a few minutes before the train started to cross the bridge and this is what caused the accident. The bridge had been designed for foreseeable flooding and the previous lahars that had different characteristics to the 1953 lahar, the forces of which had been unpredictable.
Following the disaster, the Railways Department installed a lahar warning system upstream in the river to alert train control to high river flows. The early warning system installed in 1999 measures the river level using radar and sends the level to the Network Control Centre at Wellington Railway Station via a RF link to Waiouru and then via the signalling network to Wellington. If the river changes level, an alarm is triggered which alerts staff to the fact. If the level is of a significant risk, the Control Centre sets the signals either side of the Tangiwai bridge to danger and warns trains in the area to stay clear via radio. The system is failsafe and if there is a problem with the system it automatically sends a fault signal to the Control Centre. In this instance, trains in the area are restricted to 25 km/h (16 mph) and told to take extreme care over the Tangiwai Bridge. Since 2002, it has also been backed-up by the Eastern Ruapehu Lahar Alarm and Warning System (ERLAWS).
A lahar of similar magnitude to the 1953 one occurred on 18 March 2007. The early warning systems worked as planned, stopping trains and motorists at Tangiwai before the lahar hit. The newer bridges held up to the lahar, and after inspection, trains resumed operation over the bridge.
Among the dead was Nerissa Love, the fiancee of New Zealand international cricketer Bob Blair, and a television film and play have been written about their relationship and the accident.
In 2011, a television film about the disaster was made by Lippy Pictures for Television New Zealand. Entitled Tangiwai: A Love Story, it follows the disaster and the love story between cricketer Bob Blair and his fiancée Nerissa Love (portrayed by Ryan O’Kane and Rose McIver respectively), the latter of whom was killed in the disaster. It premiered on TV One on 14 August 2011. A play written and performed by Auckland actor Jonny Brugh, The Second Test, tells the same story from Blair’s perspective, emphasizing his commitment to continue playing with the New Zealand team, then on tour in South Africa, after hearing of the tragedy.
Notes and references
- Inquiry Report 1954, p. 4.
- Conly & Stewart 1991, p. 3.
- Conly & Stewart 1991, pp. 6–7.
- Conly & Stewart 1991, p. 7.
- “Death and the maiden: The tale of ‘Tangiwai'”. New Zealand Herald. 6 August 2010. Retrieved 12 August2011.
- Conly & Stewart 1991, pp. 15–16.
- “Tangiwai Railway Disaster 1953”. Christchurch City Libraries. Retrieved 5 November 2012.
- Inquiry Report 1954, pp. 3, 24.
- Inquiry Report 1954, pp. 16, 17.
- Inquiry Report 1954, pp. 8, 17.
- Inquiry Report 1954, p. 18.
- Inquiry Report 1954, p. 20.
- Tony Taig (October 2002). “Ruapehu Lahar Residual Risk Assessment”. TTAC. Retrieved 5 November 2012.
- “Photos: Lahar could have been much worse”. The New Zealand Herald. NZPA. 18 March 2007. Retrieved 17November 2011.
- “Tangiwai (2011)”. IMDb. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
- “Cricket: Emotion of Blair’s story brought to stage”. Otago Daily Times. 30 March 2011. Retrieved 31 March2011.
- Conly, Geoff; Stewart, Graham (1 October 1991). Tragedy on the Track: Tangiwai & Other New Zealand Railway Accidents.Grantham House. ISBN 978-1-86934-008-7.
- Tangiwai Railway Disaster: Report of the Board of Inquiry. RE Owen. 30 April 1954.Archived at archive.org. Retrieved 5November 2012
- Kevin Boon; Nelson Price Milburn (1 October 1990). Tangiwai Rail Disaster. Nelson Price Milburn. ISBN 978-0-7055-1483-5.
- Bruce Morris (1987). Darkest Days. Wilson & Horton. ISBN 978-0-86864-087-7.