Mystery over disaster photos

By Anne Marie McDonald -
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Christmas Eve marks the 60th anniversary of the Tangiwai disaster, New Zealand's worst rail tragedy.

More than 150 people were killed when the bridge over the Whangaehu River at Tangiwai was washed away by a lahar from Ruapehu's crater lake, sending the Wellington to Auckland express train into the river.

Just weeks before the anniversary a set of negatives showing images from Tangiwai, taken by an unknown photographer, were found at the Wanganui Chronicle offices. Photographer Bevan Conley and reporter Anne-Marie McDonald talk about their search for the origins of these haunting images.

Bevan:

I found the negatives in a pile of junk in the Wanganui Chronicle's archives room. Anne-Marie and I had been sorting through the photo and clipping files before the Chronicle moved buildings, hoping to rescue the most important archives before they ended up in the skip bin. If I hadn't found them they would have been thrown out.

The negatives were in an old-fashioned envelope, and I only picked them up because I liked the look of the envelope. They were large single-format negatives in excellent condition, but the images weren't good quality.

As soon as I looked at them I was sure they were from Tangiwai - you could see the river and the mangled train carriages. There were people walking through the wreckage but they didn't look like rescuers. There's thick silt and mud everywhere.


The pictures must have been taken at least a week after the event, as you can see in one of them that the rail bridge has been re-built.

I thought they were probably off-cuts from a set of negatives, and the better photos had been published in either the Wanganui Chronicle or the Wanganui Herald.

A little while later I took them to MaxiLab and they told me they were most likely original negatives.

They seemed too important to not do something with. So I showed them to Anne-Marie and she was interested in them and decided to start doing some research on them.

We gave the negatives, along with all the other Wanganui Chronicle negatives, to the Whanganui Regional Museum. I'm pleased the negatives have found a safe home - but actually I'm pleased all of the Wanganui Chronicle's negatives and clippings are safely stored. They could have been thrown out and a lot of Wanganui's history would have been lost.

Anne-Marie:

When Bevan showed me the set of negatives, I knew immediately what they were. I'd been interested in the Tangiwai disaster ever since I covered the 2007 lahar for the Wanganui Chronicle, and got the opportunity to talk to people in the Whangaehu Valley who had recovered bodies from the river in 1953. So I wanted to find out more about the origins of these photos.


Sandi Black from the Whanganui Regional Museum and Gillian Tasker from the Alexander Library were interested in our find, although they couldn't provide us with much information about the negatives. Sandi noticed the only really identifying feature - the name Quinn written on the back of the envelope. Who was Quinn - the photographer? A Google search of "Quinn" and "Tangiwai" came up blank.

Gillian offered to let me look through the microfiche archives of the Alexander Library. A fantastic resource, it contains screen versions of the Wanganui Chronicle and the now-defunct Wanganui Herald. I searched every issue of both newspapers from December 26, 1953 to the end of February, 1954. Gillian also looked through several books the library has on Tangiwai but we couldn't find the photos, or a reference to the name Quinn.

I had assumed the photos were from a newspaper but when I sent them to Stanley Fraser, an historian from Ohakune, he suggested otherwise.

Stanley told us that the site had held a lot of fascination for people after the crash and it became something of a tourist attraction. He thought it was likely the photos had been taken by a local with a "box brownie" camera and that, for whatever reason, the negatives had been given to the Wanganui Chronicle.

The images are, to my eye, really haunting. I've gone back to look at them again and again. The immense force of the lahar that left a train in tangled pieces on a riverbed, with the loss of 151 lives, is there for all to see. There's also a disparity between the people walking so casually through this scene of horrific devastation.

Unfortunately, we still don't know the full story of these negatives. I'm hoping that this article will jog someone's memory, and they'll be able to reveal who Quinn was and who took these historic images that so nearly ended up in a skip.

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