Three children of Charlie Parker gathered yesterday on the Taihape platform to catch a train to Tangiwai, a place of tragedy that devastated their family and united New Zealand in grief.

Fifty years earlier, on Christmas Eve, the sisters and brother had also been together in Taihape. While they were at a local dance, their father, the train driver on the Wellington-Auckland express, was making his last trip home before Christmas.

Mr Parker's daughter, Thelma McArthur, recalled yesterday how she was tapped on the shoulder and told the train had been in a bad accident.

"We were told to go home to our mother," she said. Their mother knew instinctively that something was wrong.


"She was making a Christmas cake and instead of putting Christmas decorations on, it used true lover's knots."

The family had been looking forward to Mr Parker's return for Christmas as they were to celebrate the engagement of their son and brother Jack.

But for the Parker family and relatives of the 151 victims of the 1953 Tangiwai disaster, the festive season turned to grief.

The three siblings, their children and grandchildren were among 1000 people who yesterday remembered the disaster.

The Queen, who was in New Zealand at the time of the tragedy, sent a personal message and Prime Minister Helen Clark joined the train - which was carrying survivors, rescuers and relatives of those who died - at Taihape.

Shortly before boarding, she met and hugged Dorothy Turner, the wife of locomotive fireman Lance Redman, who was killed.

Mrs Turner, who was then 31, was left with two young daughters.

"The saddest thing was they never found his body. The girls couldn't understand why he could not have a funeral."

On the train the then Ohakune district nurse, Dorothy Scarrow, told the Herald that her job had been mainly to support local grieving families. They were to include her own.

"My cousin and her son were travelling to Auckland to make plans for his upcoming wedding. They perished."

Delia Holman, a passenger on the sixth carriage, which teetered on the edge of the bank before falling in to the surging river, recalled a portly man who was blocking their only way out after the carriage came to rest.

Her late husband had to bite the man to get him moving.

Mr Holman and Taihape postie Cyril Ellis were later awarded a George Medal for their bravery in saving all in that carriage but for one girl.

Ruapehu District Council mayor Sue Morris said there were many heroes that night who had never been recognised.

"We are thanking them today."

The country's worst rail disaster occurred after a lahar sent millions of cubic metres of water rushing down the Whangaehu River, badly weakening the bridge. The locomotive and first five carriages plunged into the river at 10.21pm.

Rescuers recovered 131 bodies but 20 were never found.

Yesterday, the steam train with relatives aboard drove slowly on to the rail bridge, blew its whistle and a wreath was dropped into the water below.

Formal wreaths were laid on a memorial plinth which was unveiled, with hand-picked posies and notes of remembrance.

Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright said the 1953-54 summer was to have been one of celebration, with the arrival of the "incredibly pretty and glamorous" Queen Elizabeth and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh.

The Tangiwai accident, the day after the Queen's arrival and the first visit to New Zealand by a reigning monarch, changed the nation's mood dramatically.

Helen Clark said the tragedy's coming in the festive season had made the news especially shocking.

"For the 1950s it struck as deeply as the Napier earthquake and, later, Mt Erebus."

Tangiwai rail disaster

* When: 10.21pm, December 24, 1953.

* Where: Tangiwai (Weeping Waters), 8km west of Waiouru.

* What happened: Wellington-Auckland Express No 626 crashed while crossing a bridge over the Whangaehu River that had been damaged by a lahar from Mt Ruapehu's crater lake.

* Passengers: 285

* Deaths: 151

* Bodies recovered: 131