'The scene from hell': Survivors reveal the true horror of NZ's worst rail disaster

Tangiwai: A Forgotten History is a six-part podcast exploring the story of our worst rail disaster.

Christmas Eve, 1953. New Zealanders were preparing for Santa’s arrival, blissfully unaware that we were also counting down to a huge national tragedy.

It was the end of an historic year for our small country. Edmund Hillary had scaled Mt Everest. We had crossed the 2 million population mark. And to top it all off, the country’s new monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, arrived in the country for the start of a month-long royal tour.

Spirits were high in the tiny but growing nation when the Wellington to Auckland express, hauled by locomotive Ka 949, departed from the capital with 285 people on board.

The train never reached its destination.

Around 9pm, the dam at Mt Ruapehu’s crater lake burst, sending a powerful lahar down the mountain side and into the Whangaehu River.

Shortly after 10pm, the lahar reached the rail bridge, damaging it minutes before the train would cross.

At 10:21pm, seven hours into the journey, the locomotive came off the line at the severely weakened Tangiwai bridge, dragging several coaches into the raging waters with it.

One hundred and fifty-one people died in the tragedy. Many of those bodies were never recovered.

When New Zealand awoke on Christmas Day to the news, the nation was stunned. Yet, 70 years on, the disaster seems largely forgotten. Those who do remember struggle to raise money for the upkeep of a memorial at the accident’s site.

In a year when New Zealand has once again been ravaged by natural disasters and the vulnerability of our infrastructure and our preparedness has been exposed, are there lessons from Tangiwai that we should have remembered? And do we have time to learn them before the next tragedy?

The New Zealand Herald and Motuihe Group, with support from NZ on Air, present Tangiwai: A Forgotten History. Join us over six episodes as we talk to survivors and witnesses about their memories, learn how the country reacted at the time, and explore what New Zealand still needs to do to prevent history repeating itself.