On Christmas Eve, in 1953, New Zealand was thrown into chaos and mourning when an express train was swept away by a raging flood. Mount Ruapehu also experienced a slight eruption. This event is known in history as New Zealand’s Tangiwai Rail Disaster.
In 1953 on Christmas Eve, New Zealand was plunged into deep mourning when a flood triggered by minor volcanic activity swept away an express train on a bridge. One hundred and fifty one of the 285 passengers on board, most of them en route to see Queen Elizabeth II during her first state visit to the country, died when an engine, six of the nine carriages sank to the bottom of the flooded Whangaehu River.
There was no hint that the river would undergo flooding just when the Wellington-to Auckland express train was due to cross the rail bridge at Tangiwai.
Small Eruption from Mount Ruapehu
In a sequence of events, the volcanic Mount Ruapehu on the North Island experienced a small eruption. It released gallons of huge flood of water and silt, from a lake that surged down the mountainside before crashing into the bridge. The flow of water was too strong. It was full of debris brought down in the lahar and train wreckage. Uprooted trees and rocks were carried into the Whangaehu River.
Tangiwai Bridge Collapses
Destabilized by the torrent of water, the Tangiwai Bridge collapsed when the Wellington to Auckland express train crossed it minutes later. A local postal clerk by the name of Arthur Cyril Ellis, tried to warn the approaching train by running down the line and waving his torch. The train driver applied the brakes but apparently the train was too close to the bridge.
Within 45 minutes of the accident, the river subsided, but the initial rescue was a difficult due to the moment’s darkness. Daybreak revealed a scene of utter devastation.
Disaster Rescue and Support of Survivors
During that time there was no formalized national rescue team. However, members of the New Zealand Ministry of Works, Forest Service, navy people, farmers and other local volunteers laboured throughout the night. Aside from manpower, the Waiouru Military Camp provided the much-needed transport and shelter to help survivors as well as the rescue team.
Christmas Eve Remembrance from New Zealanders
Today, each year on Christmas Eve, an express train slows down as it crosses the new bridge across the Whangaehu River. The driver and others throw a bunch of flowers into the water, in remembrance of those who perished in this horrendous 1953 rail disaster.