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What Caused The Tangiwai Train Disaster

Updated on December 29, 2017
Anita Hasch profile image

I live on a homestead in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Writing and reading are my passion.

River In Flood

On Christmas Eve in 1953, Cyril, his wife, and mother in law, were on their way to visit his parents at Rangataua. They were going to spend the evening and Christmas Day with his parents. They planned to return the day after Christmas. It was a pleasant ride and only 60 km away. He was born in Rangataua, New Zealand and had lived only a few kilometers from the foot of the largest of 3 volcanoes, that was locally known as Ruapehu. Although he had a lovely childhood, fishing with his father in the streams, he also knew the danger of the volcanoes. The road was quiet, when he stopped to get his jacket from the boot. As he opened the car door, he heard a roar that was growing louder. Then he realized it could only be the river at Tangiwai, which was a few kilometers further.

It was already early evening when they reached the river and saw at once that it was in flood and starting to overflow the bridge. As there had been no recent heavy rains, he knew that the flood could only be caused by the Ruapchu mountain.

Heading For Disaster

Ellis was surprised at the speed at which the river was rising. As he stared at the road and the railway bridge a bit further down he saw a yellow surge of water and the whole bridge disappeared in front of them. He thanked his lucky stars that they had been going slowly and had not been on the bridge. The noise was unbelievable and Ellis swung his torch and was amazed at the power of the roaring river. As he looked towards the Railway bridge, he was filled with horror. The concrete pillars supporting the bridge had washed away and only the rails remained. The rails were breaking away in slow motion. As if that was not enough he could see the approaching lights of a train.

Cyril ran the few meters to the embankment and jumped over the fence. He ran down the railway line towards the approaching train. Waving his torch up and down as the train thundered past him, the wind flung him down beside the speeding train. He was lying dazed beside the line and saw the train’s engine disappear into the river. As the wheels of the carriages had rushed past him he had realized that it was just with the intervention of the angels that he had not been flung under the wheels. This gave him a new sense of strength as he knew that he was there for a purpose. He had to help save the people. He had seen children with their faces pressed against the window of the lighted carriage and knew that the passenger train from Wellington to Auckland had just rushed passed to its doom. The families on their way to grandparents, aunts and uncle were all excited about Father Christmas and the presents they would receive.


Unaware of the Broken Bridge

The Carriage Rolled Over Twice

Cyril heard a deafening explosion as the engine and the first passenger carriage went to their doom. The second carriage spun into the air before smashing onto the river bank. The following three carriages, still coupled together, landed in the fast flowing river and disappeared with their lights still on. The screaming of the trapped passengers spurred Ellis on to save those that he could. Of the four carriages left, three carriages remained on the line by some miracle but the front carriage hung down towards the flooded river. Passengers were screaming, not knowing what had happened.

Ellis leapt into the guards van behind the train. The guard was stunned after being thrown down from the impact.

‘The engine and some carriages have crashed into the river, come, we must rescue those that we can.’


To The Rescue

The guard stumbled behind the stranger as he ran through the three carriages to reach the one that was breaking away. Ellis rushed into the carriage and started by grabbing the first passenger and pushing her out of the door. But he only had six passengers out before the carriage lurched forward as the coupling holding it broke. The carriage rolled over twice as it landed in the flooding river. There was still twenty people trapped inside. Water rushed into the carriage and Ellis shouted, “don’t panic.” After being flung about for about 100 meters, the carriage finally crashed onto its side.

Water was still rushing through the carriage as his head surfaced out of the water. Luckily his waterproof torch was still working and he broke a hole in the window above his head. He then started to push the passengers out, one by one onto the side of the carriage. With the help of another passenger they worked in a frenzy.

He seemed to have developed super human strength as he stumbled through the shoulder high slush to find all the passengers. Some of the passengers were hysterical and had to be handled roughly to get them to safety.

Only one girl had died. Ellis brought her out when he found her under a seat. She had drowned. The other passengers were all sitting on top of the carriage, waiting to be rescued.

Ellis realized the flood was receding at last. It was nearly midnight and rescue workers were searching the banks and river for survivors.

Source

Searching For Survivors

Civilians, forestry workers and soldiers from nearby Waiouru military camp were all searching for survivors. Ellis waved his torch and shouted. Within minutes helping hands were helping the survivors down from the carriage. They were all taken to the local hospital. The last to leave was Ellis and his family. They just wanted to go home and sleep and decided to return home as his parents would be sleeping and would get a shock if he arrived wet and bleeding in the early hours of the morning. The next morning the crash was broadcast on the radio. The flood had been caused by an eruption of a volcano. Its crater lake had released tons of water, mud and ice, down its slopes and into the river.

  • Of the 280 passengers traveling on the express that night, 150 died in the train crash.
  • An entire family. A man, his wife, and two children were fortunate to survive when the first carriage plunged in the river.
  • The passengers in the third, fourth and fifth carriage all perished.
  • A motorist had managed to pull 15 people to safety from the second carriage.
  • One elderly woman had been found buried to her neck in silt
  • Four men found themselves together on the rivers bank. They had been playing cards in the first carriage.
  • The survivors from the sixth carriage when questioned about their survival, were telling reporters about Ellis and how he saved their lives. However, nobody seemed to know him.

On Christmas Day the river bank was crowded with people looking for survivors. All they found was bodies and broken Christmas gifts, there owners, mostly small children, lay at the temporary mortuary at the Waiouru military camp. Eventually the reporters found Ellis and he arrived back at Tangiwai a couple of weeks later. He was the nation’s hero. He was amazed when Queen Elizabeth who was visiting New Zealand at the time, pinned the George Medal for civilian bravery on him.

© 2017 Anita Hasch

Comments

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    • Anita Hasch profile imageAUTHOR

      Anita Hasch 

      21 months ago from Port Elizabeth

      Thank you for your comment Mel. He was certainly a brave man.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      21 months ago from San Diego California

      This Ellis was a remarkable man. You have told his tale in a very riveting fashion. Thanks for sharing this story that was completely new to me. Wonderful hub.

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