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Jul 8, 2016

Grim search goes on along miles of river banks

At 10.21 p.m. on Christmas Eve 1953 the Wellington–Auckland night express plunged into the flooded Whangaehu River at Tangiwai, 10 km west of Waiōuru in the central North Island. Of the 285 passengers and crew on board, 151 died in New Zealand’s worst railway accident. This is the Auckland Star account the following day...

Grim search goes on along miles of river banks

Waioru, Saturday- The grim search was continued today along the rubble and silt-strewn reaches of the Whanagaehu River for the bodies of those who perished in New Zealand's worst railway disaster - a disaster which as cast the deep shadow of grief over the whole country's observance of Christmas. Between 70 and 80 bodies have been recovered and it is beleived that nearly 90 are still missing. People known to have survived number 119.

In many homes, hopes that loved ones who were on the 3pm Christmas Eve express had perhaps escaped were today growing fainter.

Messages of sympathy have been received from all parts of the Commonwealth and yesterday was a day of special prayers in all New Zealand churches. Today while the nation mourned its dead, the Whangaehu River had subsided into nothing but a swift moving muddy stream that brushed against the wreckage of the Tangiwhai bridge which it had so recently breached in fury.

Through that breadth the express had plunged. A length of 154 feet of the bridge which was built in 1906 was washed away.

A black line of engine oil on the grass- lined bank 20ft above is a grim marker of the wall of water which swept the train and its human cargo to destruction.

The Doll

From the mud-encrusted oddments littered in and around the wreckage of the carriages were pathetic things- a cuddly felt animal among a dirty, battered pile of old suitcases, a girls’ doll sliding down through the wreckage as a carriage was rolled over to look for more dead. Everywhere there were reminders that this was Christmas and that families were journeying abroad with high spirits and with great hopes of a Royal Yuletide.

Passengers’ belongings, including suitcases. Clothing and shoes are strewn for miles down the course of the Whangaehu River. Evidence of the height of the flood was provided by a woman’s hat caught in the branches of a tree some 20ft above the surface of the water.

On the polished floor of the camp dance floor of Waiouru last night were orderly rows of coffins and sheeted corpses. Chalked on the floor at the foot of each body was a serial number and beside it a pile of personal effects.

Dun-coloured mud has swept over the low-lying ground down-stream of the gaping bridge. Footprints of the rescue workers form patterns on it.

A 75-ton concrete pier, the middle support fort the bridge, lies on its side 100 yards below the abutments.

The impact of the water, no one yet knows its source for sure, tumbled the carriages down river like driftwood. One carriage lies five miles below the bridge site, smashed down to its steel-framed chassis.

Passengers were thrown from carriages as steel frames disintegrated. Clothing was ripped from their bodies as the torrent tumbled them downstream.

Unhappy Pilgrimage

Early today the 37 bodies which had been brought in yesterday and last night to an emergency morgue in Wanganui were taken by army transport to Waioru, which will be the central identification point. Many sorrowful people are converging on Waiouru today, hoping against hope for good news, but fearing the worst. Most of the bodies brought to Wanganui overnight had been taken from the river in the Mangamahu area, about 80 miles downstream from Tangiwhai. Even here the river is heavily silted, adding to the difficulties of finding bodies.

The train

The ill-fated train which crashed through the weakened bridge spanning the swollen river comprised a K-class engine, five second class and four first class carriages, a guard’s van and a postal van.

The engine, the five second class carriages and the first of the first class carriages plunged into the river. The train weighed 337 tons. At the time of the disaster 267 passengers were reported aboard the train.


Three guides were sent out this morning to investigate the theory that the flooding of the river may have been caused by Crater Lake on the top of Mount Ruapehu, bursting through an ice dam

The images show the wreckage of the bridge and carriages, the ice cave that melted on Mt Ruapehu, resulting in the lahar that caused the Tangiwai disaster, the memorial at Tangiwhai and the bridge today. You can drive to a parking area that overlooks where the tragedy happens and see everything without getting out - very easy access.