On May 7 two plaques for bravery will be unveiled at the Tangiwai Memorial site to honour train driver Charles Parker and fireman Lance Redman, heroes of the rail accident that shocked the nation over Christmas 1953.

Both men were from Taihape and had been rostered on the Limited Express that Christmas Eve to Auckland as a favour to a mate who needed to be at his daughter's wedding.

At Taihape, the locomotive and crew were changed.

Mr Parker, a special grade engine driver with 33 years of service, and fireman Mr Redman replaced the Wellington crew and Locomotive Ka 949 was coupled to the express.

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Driver Charles Parker's daughter, Thelma McArthur, still lives in Taihape, aged 85. She was 22 when the disaster sent shockwaves through New Zealand.

Thelma McArthur daughter of her dad Charles Parker.
Thelma McArthur daughter of her dad Charles Parker.

In those days people had only radios, there was no television and no newspapers until Boxing Day, so you didn't get to know much for long, horrible hours, she said.
"I was at the special Christmas Eve dance in the Taihape Town Hall with my boyfriend Bill and my brother Jack that night."

A railway man came into the dance and told Jack he needed to talk to him outside, Thelma said.

"I knew it had to be about dad. He told Jack that there had been an accident, but he didn't have any information about it yet.

"He told us to go home to our mother."

Thelma said it was still as vivid as if it were yesterday.

All the railway workers lived in railway houses near the Taihape station, so "we all knew each other really well".

"When we got home mum [Emily] was icing the Christmas cake. We messed about at first, playing the piano and stuff. We didn't know what to say, but mum straightaway came through and said, 'What's wrong? It's your father, isn't it? Come on, we're going down to the station'."

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By then news of the accident was all around town, she said.

Thelma smiled when she said her mum did the strangest thing when they got back home again, not really knowing anything.

"She made each of us sit on the three outside front steps while she went inside and came back with a bottle of brandy. Mum made us all have a glass each.

"Just then the local plumber arrived with his little truck. No one had cars in those days. He'd come to help mum."

Thelma said she can still see her mum, brother and boyfriend all squeezing into the truck and heading off to Waiouru and the hall where the bodies were being taken to be identified.

"My brother told me about that night years later. My boyfriend Bill, who I married three years later, never spoke of it again.

"They had left mum outside that night when they went into the hall. All they could see was a sea of feet. The bodies were all covered in white sheets with their feet sticking out.
"They found dad then had to go out and tell mum."

The whole town reeled in shock.

The rail bridge at Tangiwai, built after the original rail bridge was swept away by a lahar.
The rail bridge at Tangiwai, built after the original rail bridge was swept away by a lahar.

" ... My dad, the train driver, Charles Parker, and his fireman, Lance Redman, were a team and were well known and liked in the town."

A funeral for Charles Parker was held in the Anglican church in Taihape over a week later, she said.

"You've never seen such a crowd, and there were were a lot of big nobs there from the railways. People everywhere ... it was huge."

Thelma said saddest of all was the body of her dad's mate, Lance Redman, was never found.

"He's still there somewhere. There were a lot of people they never found."

Thelma said she won't be at the unveiling of the bravery plaques for Charles and Lance.
"I'm sorry about this, but I need to be with my disabled 17-year-old grandson in Papamoa.

"This just had to be the one Sunday in the year that I couldn't be here. My daughter and her husband are going on an overseas trip that has been planned for more than two years. Even though my grandson has a caregiver, I want to be with him while his parents are away."

A lot of other family members will be there, she said.

"There really should have been be something like this when my mother was still alive, not 63 years later."

"I've been to about three Tangiwai commemorations now, so I don't feel too badly at all. There will be members of my family there.

"I am very proud my father will now be acknowledged as the hero he was."

 Lancelot and Dorothy Redman on their wedding day. PHOTO/SUPPLIED
Lancelot and Dorothy Redman on their wedding day. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Railway fireman Lance Redman will be represented by about 40 members of his immediate family on May 7.

Daughter Beryl Donovan said her memories of that horrific Christmas were quite muted because she was only 6.

"I remember being more interested in my Christmas stocking, which was filled with fruit, sweets and toys. I had no idea what death was. My sister was two years older, and I think she kind of knew."

Beryl, who also lived in a railway house in Taihape, remembered the radio going all day.

"It was very scratchy, and you could hardly hear what the announcer was saying."

Today, living on a tranquil hillside farm south of Taihape, Beryl said it was, and still is, a horrible tragedy that her father's body was never found.

"Even now, all these years later, going across the Tangiwai Bridge is very hard for all of us."

On May 7 a special steam train will leave Palmerston North for Tangiwai for all the family members and friends who want to be at the service for the two fallen men.
"It's so weird, you know, because both my sister Val and I have a son each who are the image of their grandfather.

"I can still see my mother that day polishing all the floors, cooking and getting everything ready for Christmas Day when dad came home. I had no idea of what the implications were of that terrible disaster. I was just too young."

However, Beryl said the entire immediate family, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren would gather that day in honour of the posthumous bravery award for Lance.

"You know, my mother Dorothy's grief was so bad she didn't even go uptown to do the shopping for months afterwards.

"Everyone was devastated for months."

Lions to honour Tangiwai victims

Last year the Ruapehu Lions received a donation of $20,000 from the Lloyd Morgan Trust to go towards the Tangiwai Memorial Site.

Lions club secretary Ian Heappey said that, along with two plaques for bravery honouring train driver Charles Parker and his fireman Lance Redman, a six-flag memorial station would also be set up.

The six flags will represent the Railway Union, the Ruapehu Lions, Kiwi Rail, the New Zealand Flag, Lloyd Morgan Trust and Lions International, celebrating the latter's 100-year anniversary this year.

TV2's Heroes recreated the tragic Tangiwai disaster that claimed 151 lives. The hero of the moment was Cyril Ellis, who pulled out many of the passengers.
TV2's Heroes recreated the tragic Tangiwai disaster that claimed 151 lives. The hero of the moment was Cyril Ellis, who pulled out many of the passengers.

The men are receiving the bravery award for doing all they could to stop the train pitching into the Whangaehu River after the warning from Cyril Ellis. In the end, three of the nine carriages stayed on the bridge.

Mr Heappey said a large crowd and a lot of family were expected on May 7, and money left over from the two plaques would go towards future developments at the site.

At 10.21pm on Christmas Eve, 1953, the Wellington-Auckland night Limited Express plunged into the flooded Whangaehu River at Tangiwai, 10km west of Waiouru in the Central North Island, shortly after a lahar from the slopes of Mt Ruapehu, had swept away the Tangiwai rail bridge. The lahar, a volcanic mud flow, was caused by the collapse of the mountain's crater wall releasing water from the crater lake.

Of the 285 passengers and crew aboard the train, 151 died in New Zealand's worst rail accident.

There were more than 100 private funerals, and on December 31 Prince Philip attended the state funeral for 21 unidentified victims who were buried in an 18-metre grave at Wellington's Karori Cemetery, newspaper reports said at the time. In April 1954, information from overseas confirmed that several of these bodies had been misidentified.

An order was obtained to exhume the graves, a task that was carried out by police recruits. The bodies of 16, including eight whose remains were never identified, still lie at the Tangiwai National Memorial at Karori, which was dedicated in 1957.

THE MEMORIAL: The Tangiwai Rail Disaster at Christmas 1953 on the Whangaehu River is commemorated each year.
THE MEMORIAL: The Tangiwai Rail Disaster at Christmas 1953 on the Whangaehu River is commemorated each year.

Tangiwai means "weeping waters" in Maori, and the timing of the accident added to the sense of tragedy. Most of those on the train were heading home for Christmas, armed with presents for friends and family. Those waiting to meet their loved ones at the various stations up the line had no sense of the tragedy unfolding on the Volcanic Plateau.

Over the following days, searchers found many battered, mud-soaked presents, toys and teddy bears on the banks of the Whangaehu River.

At the Tangiwai Historic Reserve, the tall stone memorial now has all the names engraved of those who died in the railway disaster on Christmas Eve, 1953.

When the memorial was erected in the 1980s, it had no names - just the date of the rail disaster that killed 151 passengers.

Thanks to the initiative and caring of the Ruapehu Lions Club, it was decided it was time to record the names of every man, woman and child who died, Mr Heappey said.
"Our Lions Club has ensured the names are all there forever. Now we are erecting plaques to the brave driver and his fireman."

 The wreckage of the ill-fated train at Tangiwai, which crashed into the Whangaehu River on Christmas Eve, 1953
The wreckage of the ill-fated train at Tangiwai, which crashed into the Whangaehu River on Christmas Eve, 1953

Three years ago, on the 60th anniversary of the tragedy, London-born journalist and author Benedict le Vay's book Weeping Waters asked two questions:
Was the Government or the railway warned about the danger posed by Ruapehu's crater lake and the lahar?
Why did the railwaymen on the footplate of Train 626 not see Taihape postmaster Cyril Ellis waving his torch in a desperate attempt to stop the train?

Of the 151 people who died that night, 148 were from the second-class carriages directly behind the engine. Only one passenger from first class died, along with the train driver and fireman.

The final count of those who were carried to their deaths was 151, including 20 missing with no bodies, and eight bodies unidentified.

Mr Ellis was driving to Ohakune from Taihape in the postal van and came across the bridge that had been swept away. He ran along the tracks with his torch to warn the oncoming train to stop.

Ohakune historian Stanley Fraser had told the Chronicle that those who were critical of Mr Ellis' actions that night asked how he could get to the railway line from the road so quickly.

"The original road ran along the railway line and in 1960 it was rerouted to where it is now."

Mr Ellis also climbed aboard Car Z to help the survivors and was in it when it was swept away from the rest of the train. He survived.

Mr le Vay said he was in no doubt that Mr Ellis was a hero.

"For me, there was a worrying lack of curiosity about the source of the trouble and possible consequences.''