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Several weeks ago while on safari we arranged to stop for lunch at the Tangiwai Memorial. Most if not all of us had been here before, but it is always good to stop and reflect on the terrible train tragedy which happened on Christmas Eve, 1953. As we pulled up, the site was a hive of activity. Someone was working on the grounds, pulling a contraption behind his ute to smooth to smooth out the lumps and bumps. A big truck was parked in the track, and several blokes were busily working away. Something important was happening here, and we soon found out what was going on.
Preparations were being made to unveil two memorials on the 7th May to honour two railway men who died trying to reduce the scale of New Zealand's worst ever railway disaster. We spoke to one of the men involved in making the memorials, but sadly didn’t catch his name. He told us that he has a connection to the tragedy, and through his company, Stone Creations, has been happy to donate many hours to the memorial site.
The two new memorials were being covered over until the 7th May and we decided not to blog about them until after the unveiling took place.
The accident happened when the crater lake on Mt Ruapehu collapsed, and around 2 million cubic metres of water surged downstream, collecting rocks, silt, trees, ice and other debris along the way. It then shattered the Tangiwai Bridge across the Whangaehu River. Minutes after the lahar hit, the Wellington to Auckland express thundered towards the damaged bridge. The crew were alerted to the disaster by a man beside the track desperately swinging a torch.
Locomotive Engineer First Class Charles Parker and Locomotive Fireman Lance Redman tried desperately to stop the train. They applied the brakes and at the same time the fireman was applying sand to the rails to create friction to try and slow the train. Their actions meant the train was not going as fast as it otherwise would and three carriages and the guards van survived.
The memorial to the railway men who lost their lives at Tangiwai Photo: RNZ / Eric Frykberg
The original memorial has recently added all the names of the disaster victims