Simple drainpipe could have saved 151 lives in Tangiwai

By Steve Deane

Had warnings about the lake level been acted on, the deadly lahar would have been averted. But the engineer who might have supervised a remedy had become head of Railways by the time of the Tangiwai tragedy

Tangiwai, as it is now simply known, is NZ's sixth most deadly disaster. Photo / Graham Stewart
Tangiwai, as it is now simply known, is NZ's sixth most deadly disaster. Photo / Graham Stewart

Heroes were lauded but no one was ever held to account for the deadly carnage that ensued when the Wellington-to-Auckland overnight express train plunged into the raging Whangaehu River, just north of Tangiwai, at 10.21pm 60 years ago this Christmas Eve, killing 151 of the 285 passengers on board.

According to a documentary maker who investigated the crash 11 years ago, and a mountaineer who warned of a potential calamity 18 months before the unstable wall of the Mt Ruapehu crater lake burst to create a deadly lahar, the lack of accountability was no accident.

Tangiwai, as it is now simply known, is New Zealand's sixth most deadly disaster. Time is coming to bear on the tragedy, with those who were intimately involved either getting on or having passed on.

Graham Stewart was a cadet photographer at the Herald in 1953. On December 23 he completed the biggest assignment of his young career - photographing the Queen as she stepped off the royal yacht Gothic onto New Zealand soil.

The Herald ran the pictures on the front - a huge break in tradition from the "hatches, matches and dispatches" (birth, deaths and marriages) and advertisements that hitherto had graced the front page.

Queen Elizabeth II was the first human pictured on the front of the paper. Stewart would also take the photo of the second, Cyril Ellis, the hero credited with saving more than 100 lives at Tangiwai.

Stewart had just turned in for the night when news of the Tangiwai crash reached him via his father, who had well-placed friends in the Railways. The next morning he headed south in an Austin A40 Devon, arriving at a scene that would stick with him for the rest of his life.

"It was unbelievable, the wreckage, the carnage, some of those carriages that went right down the river."

It was late in the day by the time Stewart arrived, but the devastation was still fresh. "What I couldn't get over, there were still survivors dazed and walking around the scene of the tragedy. You could identify them because they were all wearing military garb, khaki.

"Most people had lost everything when the train hit the water. They were just stripped of their clothing."

Photo / Graham Stewart
Photo / Graham Stewart

The pictures Stewart took that day brought home to New Zealanders the magnitude of the tragedy. He has just published them in a book, The Tangiwai Disaster: A Christmas Eve Tragedy.

One shows Colin Morgan of Lower Hutt standing next to the wreckage of the seat he had occupied on the train. One of the few survivors from carriage three, Mr Morgan was asleep when the crash occurred, and woke to find himself draped naked over a tree high on the northern bank.

The extremes of fortune suffered by those caught up in Tangiwai were both numerous and dramatic. Five passengers with first-class tickets who had been forced to travel second class because their seats were occupied were relocated moments before the crash. With all but one of the passengers sitting in the front five carriages killed, the shift rearward almost certainly saved their lives.

The lone exception was a young lady in carriage six, who was trapped in her seat when the first of the first-class carriages toppled off the bridge after teetering on the brink.

Eight passengers left the train at Waiouru, the final stop before the crash, and one got on. That passenger's fate is not known.

It might have smiled on a few, but on a grander scale fate was cruel indeed. The circumstances that led to the express tumbling into a normally sedate river during the peak of a flash flood are ridiculously unfortunate.

Trouble had been brewing in the rising waters of the crater lake for years. The cycle of rising water levels followed by relieving lahars had existed for centuries.

The Tangiwai lahar was particularly violent, hitting the bridge between 10.10pm and 10.15pm, destroying the two central pillars while leaving the track largely intact.

The river was raging when locomotive Ka949 and the first six carriages of the express tumbled into it at 10.21pm. Most of the 151 victims were washed away by floodwaters and crushed by debris or drowned.

Such was the force of the water at the time of the crash that one carriage was found 2.5km downstream.

The lahar disappeared as swiftly as it arrived, with survivors saying the river flow had receded to ankle level in a matter of minutes.

The express could not have hit the bridge at a worse time. It shouldn't really have hit it at all.

A southbound freight train was scheduled to reach the bridge first but was running late so was held at Karioi, the next station to the north, so as not to delay the express.

Had that not happened, the loss of life would probably have been limited to a two-man locomotive crew and a guardsman, and Tangiwai would have remained a minor footnote in our history.

Jim Mason is still tortured by the events that unfolded after his warning was ignored. Photo / Dean Purcell
Jim Mason is still tortured by the events that unfolded after his warning was ignored. Photo / Dean Purcell

An official inquiry into the tragedy essentially pointed the finger at dumb luck. That finding has never sat well with Jim Mason, a member of an intrepid group of mountaineers and canoeists who made several trips to study the crater lake in years leading up to the disaster.

What they saw - rising water levels and temperatures and increasingly dramatic glacial melt - alarmed them.

A huge lahar had tumbled down the mountainside in 1925, damaging but not destroying the Whangaehu rail bridge. Mr Mason's group wrote to the government volcanologist in Rotorua and the Railways Department warning a similar event was brewing. The Wanganui Chronicle published a story about their findings, but no action was taken.

Mr Mason, a former lawyer now in his 80s who lives in Devonport, is still tortured by the events that unfolded after his warning was ignored.

"It doesn't go away," he says.

"They had a lake on top of a mountain rising at half an inch [1.3cm] a day. We'd been up there and put in markers on the shoreline and they were all underwater by the time we could get back and read them. No one was interested. If anyone had listened we could have saved 150-odd lives."

A relatively simple solution was available. A simple pipe through the soft crust that would eventually give way would have provided an outlet for the glacial melt that was causing the lake level to rise.

"It only needed a farm drain-sized pipe through the ash and they needn't have had a lahar," Mr Mason said. "It was the biggest regret of my life not being able to kick them in the pants and get something done about it."

Mr Mason made a written submission to the board of inquiry, but wasn't called to give evidence.

After studying evidence that ran to 1360 pages, the board found that no one directly or indirectly concerned could be blamed for Tangiwai. Doing nothing wasn't the same as actually doing something wrong, Mr Mason notes wryly.

Documentary maker David Sims believes serious negligence contributed to the disaster. The Whangaehu bridge, built in 1906, had been damaged by a huge lahar in 1925, and by three smaller events leading up to 1953. Some remedial work was done during that period, but the damaged central pier remained "like a tooth in a rotting gum", Sims says.

The Truth About Tangiwai screened in 2002. It focused primarily on the juxtaposed fates of locomotive driver Charles Parker and national hero Cyril Ellis.

But Sims points out that responsibility for the bridge's maintenance in the late 1940s would have fallen to Wanganui's chief mechanical engineer, H. C. Lusty. Mr Lusty happened to be the general manager of the Railways at the time of Tangiwai.

"They could have fixed that bridge under his stewardship and they didn't," Sims says. "When this thing happened eight or nine years later he was the GM. He was the last person who'd want to have this come out."

Instead, those involved with the inquiry were happy to let a compliant media focus on the stories of heroics that emerged from the darkness of Tangiwai that fateful Christmas Eve.

Almost 60 years later, the stories that endure are the legend of Mr Ellis and bravery shown by cricketer Bob Blair, who played on in the Boxing Day test in South Africa despite learning his fiancee had died on the train.

The finer details are fading away, but not for the likes of Stewart. One of the photos in his book shows the Falloon family of Christchurch waving goodbye to the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh after a visit to a relative's house in One Tree Hill.

Glenis Falloon was 16 when she, her sister and her parents miraculously survived the crash.

"I looked out and there were no cars either before or behind," Glenis' father, J. C. Falloon, said after the crash. "Then our car went over and we hit the river. We must have rolled over a half a dozen times. Mud and water poured in. The car was washed about 200 yards (180m) downriver, then stuck on a sandbank and turned on its side. That's what saved us."

The Herald tracked down a Glenis Falloon in the Christchurch suburb of Mairehau, but she was a distant relative of the Glenis on the train. The Glenis we sought might have lived in the Wairarapa, but none of the dozen or so Falloon families in the greater Masterton area knew of her.

Like much of the truth about Tangiwai, her story seems fated to stay untold.


Train driver's heroics lost

Cyril Ellis was hailed as a hero for freeing passengers from the doomed train. Photo / Graham Stewart
Cyril Ellis was hailed as a hero for freeing passengers from the doomed train. Photo / Graham Stewart

Cyril Ellis was a national hero. There's no doubt about that.

Along with train guard William Inglis, Mr Ellis jumped into carriage six of the overnight express as it teetered above a raging river on a collapsed bridge. Before Mr Ellis and Mr Inglis could evacuate the passengers, the carriage tumbled into the abyss. It washed up on a sand bank and Mr Ellis smashed a window with his torch and, along with Mr Inglis and passenger John Holman, successfully rescued all but one of the 23 passengers.

Mr Ellis and Mr Holman received the George Medal for their bravery, while Mr Inglis received the British Empire Medal.

But there is more, or less, to the story of Cyril Ellis.

In the aftermath of Tangiwai, Mr Ellis was credited with saving many of the lives of the 134 passengers who didn't perish in the tragedy. His story, which he recounted to reporters in Taihape late on Christmas Day, was that he had been driving north when he came across the washed out Whangaehu River road bridge. On seeing that a train was approaching and sensing that it wouldn't be able to cross the water, Mr Ellis ran on to the train tracks and attempted to flag it down with his torch.

Post-crash investigations revealed locomotive driver Charles Parker had engaged the brakes about 180m before the bridge, preventing the final three passenger cars from falling into the river. Mr Ellis' torch waving had partially saved the day.

That view is challenged by documentary maker David Sims.

The real hero, says Sims, was Mr Parker. In his 2003 documentary The Truth About Tangiwai, Sims argued it was impossible for Mr Ellis to have got to the train in time to warn of the impending disaster.

The most likely scenario was that Mr Parker saw the lahar boiling on the right side of the tracks and hit the brakes and then shut off the steam chest valves to slow the train. Mr Parker was denied the recognition he deserved - and has never received - says Sims.

Government officials were happy to perpetuate the legend of Mr Ellis to divert attention from their failings, says Sims.

"It ... suited the Railways because they were negligent with that bridge. That pier that failed when the lahar came down was sitting like a rotten tooth in the gum for about 20 years before the accident. They were happy Ellis ran down the tracks and diverted attention."


December 24, 1953

10.10pm to 10.15pm - The banks of the Mt Ruapehu crater lake burst, sending a massive lahar tumbling down the banks of the normally placid Whangaehu River, washing out the central pier of the rail bridge.

10.21pm - Locomotive Ka949 towing nine passenger and two mail cars approaches the bridge at 80km/h. Driver Charles Parker hits the brakes 180m out, but the locomotive and first five passenger cars tumble into the raging water.

• Car six teeters on the rails. Senior Guard William Inglis and motorist Cyril Ellis enter the car in an attempt to evacuate passengers. The carriage tumbles into the river and is washed downstream before ending up on a sandbank. Inglis and Ellis save all but one of the 23 passengers in the carriage.

151 of the 285 passengers on board are killed. 60 bodies were found 24km downstream. 20 others are never recovered.

• An inquiry finds no one is to blame for the tragedy.

- NZ Herald

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