When Harry Welch, a victim of a train crash near Taihape, was told he was dying, he asked for a last smoke.

"Give me a cigarette, please doctor," said 79-year-old Welch, from Taupiri in Waikato, who had suffered internal injuries, a broken leg and whose right foot was nearly severed.

When the smoke was lit, he died, the Te Puke Times reported.

A second-class passenger carriage lies among the wreckage of the mail van and mortuary van behind the steam engine. Photo / Auckland Weekly News
A second-class passenger carriage lies among the wreckage of the mail van and mortuary van behind the steam engine. Photo / Auckland Weekly News

Welch was one of four people fatally injured or killed immediately by the crash of the train which ran into a landslip on the Main Trunk Line about 9km northwest of Taihape on November 8, 1918.

Advertisement

World War I was nearly finished and New Zealand was in the grip of an influenza pandemic.

At 6.20am, the Auckland to Wellington express train was approaching a cutting about 3km north of Mataroa when the fireman in the steam engine saw the slip falling. The emergency brakes were applied, but the train still ran into the slip. Carriages telescoped forwards and passengers were thrown around.

The train crash happened about 3km north of Mataroa, the locality marked on the map with a red pin. Map / Google
The train crash happened about 3km north of Mataroa, the locality marked on the map with a red pin. Map / Google

The sequence of the train behind the engine was a mortuary van, carrying the body of a man who had died in the influenza pandemic, a mail van in which two postal workers were thought to have been killed instantly, followed by near-full passenger carriages.

The mortuary van acted as a buffer to some of those behind; it was smashed to pieces, although the coffin containing the body of a railway engine driver, Mr Tait, of Ohakune, was undamaged. The mail van too was destroyed.

The engine driver and fireman escaped with only bruises.

The Auckland to Wellington express train hit a landslip nothwest of Taihape. Photo / Auckland Weekly News
The Auckland to Wellington express train hit a landslip nothwest of Taihape. Photo / Auckland Weekly News

Several passengers made their way around the slip to get to Mataroa to raise the alarm and relief trains were sent from Taihape station.

Fifteen minutes after the first slip occurred, a second fell, nearly burying the steam engine. That night, a third fell on the railway line, at Ngaurukehu, about 8km north of those north of Mataroa.

The Herald wrote that it was expected it would take about a week to clear the slips. It was several hundred metres to get around them.

Advertisement

"... as passengers have to walk this distance they are advised to travel with as little luggage as possible."

Passengers transferring from the Auckland train to the Wellington train by walking around the slip. Photo / Auckland Weekly News
Passengers transferring from the Auckland train to the Wellington train by walking around the slip. Photo / Auckland Weekly News

The Wanganui Chronicle said the slips were among a series "that have made the Main Trunk Line so notorious".

The dead:
Harry Welch, 79, passenger
Francis Johnston, 44, passenger and railway worker
Raymond Martin, 30, postal worker
John Williams, 31, postal worker