This month marks the 130th anniversary of the Tarawera eruption, prompting NZ On Screen's Nicky Harrop to revisit the event, along with some of our other significant national tragedies.

For a small nation, New Zealand has surely been tested with more than our share of national disasters. Our history is dotted with catastrophic incidents, with causes that can be found in both natural events and human error. Many have been captured in powerful film and television portrayals.

In June 1886, Mt Tarawera erupted, resulting in the loss of around 120 lives, and the internationally renowned Pink and White Terraces. This full-length documentary collates eyewitness accounts, images and interview footage to recreate events, both in the lead up to, and during the tragedy. Included are reports of signs and omens, among them sightings of a ghost waka on Lake Tarawera prior to the eruption.

Watch Tarawera here:


February 3rd 1931 saw New Zealand's worst civil disaster - the Hawke's Bay earthquake. Directed by Gaylene Preston, documentary Earthquake shares survivors' stories, including kuia Hana Lyola Cotter, who recounts joining the rescue effort as a teen, and poet Lauris Edmond. Also included is eye-opening newsreel footage of the damage. More than 250 people died following the 7.8 quake.

Watch Earthquake here:


On Christmas Eve 1953, a volcanic eruption triggered a massive lahar, which engulfed the central North Island's Whangaehu River. When the Wellington-Auckland express crossed the rail bridge at Tangiwai minutes later, it collapsed, and carriages were plunged into the flooded waters. 151 people died in New Zealand's worst rail accident. The Truth About Tangiwai examines events, discrediting claims that bystander Cyril Ellis could have warned the train driver what lay ahead, and building a case for a railways department cover-up.

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See an excerpt from The Truth About Tangiwai here:


The Wahine disaster remains etched in the memory of many New Zealanders. On April 10th 1968, during a ferocious storm, the inter-island ferry ran aground at the entrance to Wellington Harbour. 53 people died as a result of the vessel's subsequent sinking. This newsreel footage features aerial shots of the ship, and dramatic interviews with survivors and police.

See NZBC Classics - Wahine Disaster here:
NZBC Classics - Wahine Disaster

On 28 November 1979, an Air New Zealand DC-10 crashed into Mt Erebus, Antarctica, killing all 257 people on board. It was the worst civil aviation disaster in NZ history and, at the time, the fourth worst in the world. Made two years later, Flight 901 was the first in-depth documentary on the incident, examining the flight, search and rescue operation, and controversy over causes stirred by the Peter Mahon-led Royal Commission of Inquiry.

Watch an excerpt from Flight 901 here:


Daniel Rockhouse was one of only two survivors of the November 2010 Pike River mine disaster. Filmed less than five months after the tragedy, this Sunday interview sees him reflect on events that resulted in the deaths of 29 of his workmates, including his brother. Following a series of methane explosions, Rockhouse dragged colleague Russell Smith a kilometre through noxious gas to safety. In 2015 he was awarded the NZ Bravery Medal.

See Daniel Rockhouse's Sunday interview here:
Sunday - Daniel Rocks

When A City Falls tells the story of the huge physical and emotional toll that the Christchurch earthquakes, and continuing aftershocks, inflicted on the city's residents, their homes and their city. The acclaimed documentary began life as a home movie, filmed to survey the devastation of the September quake. As shooting of the recovery continued, the February quake impacted, compounding the destruction, and claiming 182 lives.

Watch an excerpt from When A City Falls here:



For a more comprehensive selection of documentary and newsreel footage on New Zealand's national tragedies, see NZ On Screen's NZ Disasters collection here.