Christmas 1953. A less-commercial time than it is today. Retailers, including general stores, closed their doors for four days. Simplicity in Christmas decoration styles, nativity scenes, church services, family togetherness and a traditional large lunch were the order of the day, and it was a time when most of the nation looked forward to an annual holiday. Young, newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II was touring New Zealand and her visit was making newspaper headlines throughout the country. No one foresaw the horror that lay ahead.

At 3pm on Christmas Eve of that year, express passenger train Ka949 carrying 285 passengers left Wellington for Auckland. Many of those passengers would never reach their destination. For some people Christmas would never again be the same, and future Christmases would never be a time of joy and goodwill again.

Pamela Reardon, “one of the prettiest girls in Taumarunui”, who lost her life – photo Bryan Robertson

At 8.02pm a lahar, a six-metre wall of water, rocks, ice and debris swept down the Whangaehu River from a breach in the Mount Ruapehu crater lake, striking the piers of the Tangiwai railway bridge with a force that severely damaged the structure. At 10.21pm the weight of the train crossing caused the bridge to collapse, and the engine and five second-class carriages plunged into the torrential waters below, followed by the sixth carriage a few minutes later. In total 151 lives were lost.

Tangiwai rail bridge today

Attempting to slow the train down, engine driver Charles Parker had applied the emergency brakes. This released sand onto the tracks from the engine’s sand domes, and it was found later that the oil and the steam valve had been turned off in a desperate attempt to minimise damage. However, Mr Parker’s valiant efforts and those of fireman Lancelot Redman were in vain. Theirs were two of the bodies never recovered, despite the huge effort from the community, who rallied round and scoured the Whangaehu River banks from the disaster site to the sea.

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