Sunday, March 6, 2016

Tangiwai Rail Disaster of 1953

 One of the places where we stopped to stretch our legs during the long drive down to Wellington was at the site of the Tangiwai Rail Disaster Memorial.

The Tangiwai disaster occurred at 10:20 PM on Christmas Eve 1953 when the Whangaehu River bridge collapsed beneath a Wellington to Auckland express passenger train at Tangiwai.  "Of the 285 passengers and crew on board, 151 died in New Zealand’s worst railway accident.  It was, at the time, the world’s eighth-deadliest rail disaster and made headlines around the globe. The nation was stunned. With New Zealand’s population just over two million, many people had a direct relationship with someone involved in the tragedy.
The place name Tangiwai means ‘weeping waters’ in Māori. The timing of the accident added to the sense of tragedy. Most of those on the train were heading home for Christmas, armed with presents for friends and family. Those waiting to meet their loved ones at the various stations up the line had no sense of the tragedy unfolding on the Volcanic Plateau. Over the following days, searchers found many battered, mud-soaked presents, toys and teddy bears on the banks of the Whangaehu River."  (NZHistory.net)  

Having lost both my parents just a few days  before Christmas 30 years later made my heart go out to the many families who were impacted by this tragedy.  It took me many years before I was able to feel joy at the holiday season since Christmas lights, music and foods all reminded me of funerals.  I imagine many of the families of those lost in this disaster may have experienced the same thing.

There were parallels between this accident and the loss of the Titanic that occurred in 1912, in that most of the first class passengers survived while few of those in the following second class cars did:

"The weather on Christmas Eve was fine and with little recent rain, no one suspected flooding in the Whangaehu River. When a goods train crossed the bridge around 7 p.m. the river appeared normal. What transformed the situation was the sudden release of approximately 2 million cubic metres of water from the crater lake of nearby Mt Ruapehu. A 6-metre-high wave containing water, ice, mud and rocks surged, tsunami-like, down the Whangaehu River. Sometime between 10.10 and 10.15 p.m. this lahar struck the concrete pylons of the Tangiwai railway bridge.
Travelling at approximately 65 km per hour, locomotive Ka 949 and its train of nine carriages and two vans reached the severely weakened bridge at 10.21 p.m. As the bridge buckled beneath its weight, the engine plunged into the river, taking all five second-class carriages with it. The force of the torrent destroyed four of these carriages – those inside had little chance of survival.
The leading first-class carriage, Car Z, teetered on the edge of the ruined bridge for a few minutes before breaking free from the remaining three carriages and toppling into the river. It rolled downstream before coming to rest on a bank as the water level fell. Remarkably, 21 of the 22 passengers in this carriage survived. Evidence suggested that the locomotive driver, Charles Parker, had applied the emergency brakes some 200 m from the bridge, an action which prevented the last three carriages from ending up in the river and saved many lives...
 In the following days, bodies stripped and mangled by the flood were recovered as far away as the river mouth, 130 km downstream. In his broadcast on Christmas Day, Prime Minister Sidney Holland asked ‘Farmers and others with property on the banks of this river as far as the sea … to keep a close watch for bodies and to send reports to the nearest police station.’ About 60 bodies were recovered by locals from the Mangamāhū section of the river. Some of the 20 bodies that were never recovered may have been washed out to sea."
'Tangiwai railway disaster', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/the-tangiwai-railway-disaster, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 7-Aug-2014
While human error contributed to the loss of the Titanic, the disaster in New Zealand happened because of a volcano.  "Mount Ruapehu is one of the world's most active volcanoes. Recent major eruptions occurred in 1895, 1945, 1995, 1996 and 2006.
The 1945 eruption had far reaching effects, resulting in the loss of 151 lives on December 24th, 1953. When the eruption occurred the crater lake was emptied, and the outlet dammed. Over time the crater refilled and the dam collapsed causing a lahar (mudflow and water) in the Whangaehu River. The lahar undermined the Tangiwai railway bridge piers, and the bridge collapsed when an express train crossed it.
Through 1995 and 1996 Mount Ruapehu erupted several times closing the skifields and occasionally the airports. The possibility of a major lahar occurring again was recognised as the crater lake outlet became blocked once more in 1996 by volcanic ash. Authorities are constantly monitoring the volcano and determining measures of safely controlling the situation, should the dam brake again.

The three volcanos in Tongariro National Park —Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro—are very much alive.  This part of the world is indeed part of the "Ring of Fire"

Image from National Geographic
"The Ring of Fire is a string of volcanoes and sites of seismicactivity, or earthquakes, around the edges of the Pacific Ocean. Roughly 90% of all earthquakes occur along the Ring of Fire, and the ring is dotted with 75% of all active volcanoes on Earth. 
The Ring of Fire isn’t quite a circular ring. It is shaped more like a 40,000-kilometer (25,000-mile) horseshoe. A string of 452 volcanoes stretches from the southern tip of South America, up along the coast of North America, across the Bering Strait, down through Japan, and into New Zealand."  (National Geographic)
The near-perfect conical shape of Ngauruhoe was the basis for Mount Doom in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy (with some significant computer enhancement).

Movie version of Mt. Doom: Photo from Wikipedia

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