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Christmas eve, 1953

New Zealand’s worst railway disaster occurred on Christmas Eve, 1953. The Wellington-Auckland night express plunged into the flooded Whangaehu River just west of Tangiwai, near Waiouru. Of the 285 people on board, 151 were killed. The tragedy left a nation in mourning and stunned the world.

How did it happen?

The accident was caused by a sudden release of thousands of tonnes of water from the crater lake of Mt Ruapehu. The water surged down the Whangaehu River in a massive wave. The swift and turbulent deluge, known as a lahar, carried huge quantities of sand, silt, boulders and debris. Sometime between 10.10 and 10.15 p.m. it struck the concrete pylons of the Tangiwai railway bridge, fatally weakening the structure.

Minutes later, Arthur Cyril Ellis, a young Taihape postal clerk, saw the light of the approaching locomotive Ka 949. In a desperate attempt to warn the driver he ran towards it waving a torch. Later investigations showed that the brakes had been applied, but not soon enough.

At approximately 10.21 p.m. the engine, tender and all five second-class carriages plunged off the southern end of the bridge. The leading first-class carriage, Car Z, teetered on the brink for a moment and was boarded by Ellis and a guard, William Inglis, before crashing into the torrent below. The two men, together with passenger John Holman and an unidentified man, saved all but one of this car’s 22 occupants by lifting them through the windows.

This was at the time the eighth worst train disaster of all time.

What started high up on the mountain as a natural phenomenon ended up in absolute disaster many miles away as the domino effect of the crater lake bursting destroyed 151 lives.

We can’tr possibly measure the effect that that natural disaster has had on many thousands of New Zealand lives and indeed the effect of that would go throughout the world.

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