When Jack Wise was caught in a train crash near Parnell, he quickly fired off a "p-mail" to his parents.

Now aged 85, Wise was a 14-year-old pigeon fancier and Whangarei Boys' High School pupil when the Whangarei express on which he was travelling was hit by an Auckland commuter train.

Jack Wise was caught in a train crash near Parnell, He quickly fired off a
Jack Wise was caught in a train crash near Parnell, He quickly fired off a "p-mail" to his parents.via carrier pigeon to let them know he was OK. 07 February 2019 Northern Advocate

The crash was in the late afternoon of Monday, September 8, 1947. It happened on track crossing points about just north of the railway bridge over Parnell Rise. The Waitākere train had gone several hundred metres out of what was then the Auckland station and the express was about to enter the station.

The Waitākere train's engine stopped just clear of the Whangarei express carriage immediately behind the one that was derailed. Photo / NZ Herald, Auckland Libraries.
The Waitākere train's engine stopped just clear of the Whangarei express carriage immediately behind the one that was derailed. Photo / NZ Herald, Auckland Libraries.

Many passengers on the express were standing, getting ready to leave the train.

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"I was going back with my aunty to have a holiday in Auckland. At the time I used to have homing pigeons," Wise recalled. He had brought a cage containing two or three birds.

"Straight after the crash in our carriage - the train hit the side and took part of it out and tipped it right over on the Parnell viaduct. And then the train smashed into the one behind us. You can imagine all the chaos.

"I put a note on the pigeons and released them. My mother and father got news that I was okay long before they knew of the crash in Whangarei.

"I said that I was well, there had been a rail smash and I was okay; everything was hunky dory."

The derailed and badly damaged carriage landed on its side near the edge of a steep embankment (right). Photo / NZ Herald, Auckland Libraries.
The derailed and badly damaged carriage landed on its side near the edge of a steep embankment (right). Photo / NZ Herald, Auckland Libraries.

Describing the crash, the Herald wrote: "The accident, one of the most spectacular in the Auckland district in recent years, occurred when the inward-bound express was crossing points from the track up with the Waitakere train was steaming."

The third carriage behind the express engine was scored along the side - as it went over the points - by the Waitākere locomotive, which went on to hit the fourth carriage almost head-on. It tore the side out of that carriage and flung it off the track.

NZ Herald report of the collision of two trains in Parnell, Auckland in September 1947. Source / Auckland Libraries
NZ Herald report of the collision of two trains in Parnell, Auckland in September 1947. Source / Auckland Libraries

The derailed carriage - a jumbled confusion of seats, passengers, splintered timber and glass - came to rest close to the top of a steep, 6m-high embankment.

Wise, who lives at Ngunguru in Northland, said his carriage, the third behind the engine, righted itself after being tipped up in the collision.

"When I looked back, the next carriage just looked like matchwood with people standing up and getting out of it and all the people rushed up the viaduct and were helping them."

"It was all steam and noise - it was a terrific noise."

"We went and got a taxi and went to my aunty's place … in Herne Bay."

Thirteen people from the express were taken to Auckland Hospital for treatment, of whom four suffered concussion and were admitted. A 14th, the fireman on the Waitākere engine, was the only person on that train who was injured.

A man was at a nearby hotel when he heard the collision. He climbed up the embankment, siezed a jemmy bar and smashed open the door at the rear of the capsized car.

Four people were inside this section and helpers lifted them clear.

The Herald said there were amazing escapes from death and serious injury.

"I am lucky to be here," one of the passengers from the capsized car, Mrs G. E. Downer, of Takapuna, told the Herald.

Nelson Webster, 13, of Devonport, said: "I was standing up ready to get out when there was a crash and the carriage was filled with steam." He crawled out a window and suffered a cut to his right hand.

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Nearly 10 years before the crash and at almost exactly the same spot, two trains collided head on. An out-of-control train running on the down grade from the Parnell tunnel collided with a mixed passenger and goods train on the night of November 4, 1937.

The Whangarei express carriage that was capsized and ripped apart by the engine of the Waitākere train. Parnell Rise is in the background. Photo / NZ Herald, Auckland Libraries
The Whangarei express carriage that was capsized and ripped apart by the engine of the Waitākere train. Parnell Rise is in the background. Photo / NZ Herald, Auckland Libraries
The rail bridge over Parnell Rise, looking towards Parnell, in 1903. The crash occurred about 40m to the left of the bridge. Photo / Henry Winkelmann, Auckland Libraries
The rail bridge over Parnell Rise, looking towards Parnell, in 1903. The crash occurred about 40m to the left of the bridge. Photo / Henry Winkelmann, Auckland Libraries

"The impact was so severe," the Herald wrote, "that the two locomotives were locked together, and about a dozen trucks and vans were smashed."

Three injured railwaymen and a woman passenger suffering shock were taken to hospital. A number of pigs and sheep were killed.