On the 70th anniversary of New Zealand’s worst rail disaster, a new Herald podcast recalls the tragedy and lessons of Tangiwai. In episode one, host Hamish Williams speaks to an Auckland policeman who has never forgotten that day.
Bob Silk sat in the wreckage of the Tangiwai crash site, holding a woman he had just pulled free from the twisted metal of a railway carriage.
Moments earlier, stumbling through the pitch-black interior of the waterlogged carriage, the young Auckland constable had seen the woman lying limply in front of him and assumed she was dead.
Suddenly, she opened her eyes and looked directly at him.
“We finally got her out,” the 93-year-old Silk told Tangiwai: A Forgotten History, a six-part Herald podcast series that re-examines the events of that night and the disaster’s lasting impact today.
“I’m sitting there with her in my arms, nursing her, and she died in my arms.
“And then I heard a sound, a whimper, and I looked across and there was a child, a young girl. [The woman] had thrown herself across the child when the accident occurred, obviously trying to protect her.”
The Tangiwai disaster occurred on Christmas Eve 1953, when a lahar from Mt Ruapehu damaged the rail bridge over the Whangaehu River just minutes before that day’s Wellington to Auckland express was due to cross.
The bridge collapsed as the train went over, causing the locomotive and several carriages to crash into the river, killing 151 of the people onboard.
In Tangiwai: A Forgotten History Williams talks with survivors who were on board the train, family members of those killed, and witnesses who were involved in the recovery operation.
Silk recalls how he had spent the best part of Christmas Eve on patrol at a gala event to welcome the young Queen Elizabeth II to New Zealand.
When news of the crash reached Auckland, he was commanded to drive senior officials to the scene “as fast as you can, without killing anyone”.
On his arrival, Silk was ordered to join the rescue effort. He saw another police officer leaving carriages holding bodies.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry about the dead - just get those who are living out’.”
After rescuing the woman who died in his arms, he managed to pull the young girl out of the wrecked carriage and carried her to safety. This was to be the only good news he experienced that night, in what he described as “the scene from hell”.
“We worked through that day and never found another live body.”
The retired cop never found out what happened to the little girl, and in the decades since has had little to do with others linked to the disaster - largely as he still lives with what he saw that night.
“Whenever I’ve been stressed, I get that damn nightmare. I had nightmares about that first view I had, and being in the coaches with the bodies and that little girl.
“It’s beyond imagination. I’ve seen some pretty terrible things, but what I saw there, you’ll never forget as long as you live.”
Tangiwai: A Forgotten History is available at iHeartRadio, Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. The series was made with the support of NZ On Air. To see visuals from this series, go to nzherald.co.nz/tangiwai