He calls her the "Angel of Tangiwai", but she says she was just doing her job.

Former Army chaplain Monsignor Thomas Duffy has nothing but praise for Theresa Holder, the nursing sister who tirelessly tended survivors at the Waiouru military camp the night of the Tangiwai train disaster 50 years ago today.

Mrs Holder, then Sister Mortimer, was the only medically trained person left to run the camp hospital the night the Wellington-Auckland express tumbled off a bridge which had been seriously weakened by a lahar.

Father Duffy, as he was then, said the registered nurse took the brunt of the injured and the dead on the southern side of the river, but was never formally recognised.


"She was the Angel of Tangiwai."

At Tangiwai on Sunday, Lieutenant Colonel Garry Brosnan also referred to the unsung toil of the "Angel of Tangiwai" in front of the hundreds gathered at the site of the disaster, which killed 151 and traumatised a nation.

Mrs Holder, now a 74-year-old grandmother living in Invercargill, brushes aside the angel reference with embarrassment. But she will always remember that cold, dark Christmas Eve at Waiouru.

Mrs Holder, Father Duffy, medical chief Dr Fraser MacDonald and a young Army officer, Irene Rollo, were staying up for the Midnight Mass when, just before 10pm, they heard the rumble of the Ruapehu lahar, not knowing what it was.

"A strange sound like rolling thunder, we did not know it was the Herald of Doom," said Father Duffy.

Then the urgent telephone call came - there had been a bad accident involving the express at Tangiwai.

Together the young doctor and padre raced to the river.

"Dr McDonald had said:'Tom grab those splints.' He ranover the road bridge, but by thetime I got there it had collapsed. We were separated the wholenight," Father Duffy said.

While Dr McDonald did what he could for the few survivors on the northern bank, Father Duffy comforted the living and gave the last rites to the dead on the southern side.

Mrs Holder and Mrs Rollo had meanwhile headed to the camp hospital.

"We did not really know what to do as we did not know what we were dealing with," Mrs Holder said.

Two soldiers with the flu were discharged and all the beds turned down. The pair gathered the skeleton camp staff and sent men out in two old ambulances loaded with blankets while Mrs Holder put out the call for hot water bottles.

It was soon chaos.

Survivors arrived from the sixth carriage, which had teetered on the river's edge before tumbling into the torrent.

Surprisingly, they were not badly injured. But they were shaken and shocked and needed washing, dressing and comforting.

"The silt was unbelievable, in the seams of their clothes, everywhere."

Mrs Holder also had to deal with telephone calls from around the country as the news spread and distraught relatives sought news of their kin.

By 4am no more survivors had come in from the Waiouru side of the Whangaehu River, but the dead kept arriving.

Already that night Mrs Holder had had to lay out the body of a young girl, the only passenger who died in the sixth carriage.

She knew there would be more, and the camp canteen, cheerfully decorated for a children's Christmas party, was readied as a makeshift morgue.

Mrs Holder still had to organise clothes for the survivors and organise ways for them to get home.

"We told the Navy boys from Irirangi we had no civvy clothes. They gave their own, as did many of the women at the camp."

Mrs Holder worked three days and three nights with no sleep.

"I can't even explain what went on. It just went continually."

A survivor in the sixth carriage remembers Mrs Holder and Father Duffy well.

The woman, who did not want to be named, had been heading home with only another 20 minutes' travel ahead when the train left the rails.

She felt the "most terrible kind of jolts" and a guard told everyone to get out.

"We were trying to be calm but realised we were right near the edge because we heard the water."

As the carriage toppled down, she thought it was all over.

"I believed that was the end of me."

She was helped to scramble out through broken windows and crawled along the side of the carriage in the faint moonlight.

"I was covered in mud and silt, and wet through."

At the roadside, she saw Father Duffy wearing his clerical collar, which as a Catholic brought her great consolation.

The passengers were taken on to the military hospital in an Army truck.

She remembered Mrs Holder as a "very fine nurse ... doing her upmost ... sound, and kind, and considerate".

Mrs Rollo, who will attend a candlelight service at Tangiwai with Father Duffy and Mrs Holder, said her friend had been "absolutely fantastic".

"She had everything at her fingertips, knew exactly what to do."

She recalls a bustling matron arriving with nurses from Whenuapai a few days later, just minutes before Mrs Holder had for the first time complained of her aching feet.

Mrs Rollo ran her a hot footbath in a bucket loaded with Epsom salts.

The matron, who insisted on immediately being taken to "whoever is in charge", found Mrs Holder soaking her feet and smoking a cigarette.

"We're here now. What are we to do?" she demanded.

"Nothing - it's all done," Mrs Holder wearily replied.