Passenger Rail

Memorial for 1953 Tangiwai disaster heroes unveiled

A special memorial stone was recently unveiled honouring the heroism of two rail employees whose actions saved 134 lives during the Tangiwai disaster in New Zealand 64 years ago.

On Christmas Eve, 1953, the crater lake on Mt Ruapehu collapsed, sending approximately 2 million cubic metres of water and debris down the Whangaehu River. The 6-metre-tall wave crashed into pylons underneath the Tangiwai railway bridge, weakening the structure so significantly that, when the night express No. 626 (on its way to Auckland from Wellington) passed a few minutes later, the bridge began to collapse into the river.

After having been alerted to the incident ahead by a man swinging a torch by the side of the track, Charles Parker, locomotive engineer first class, initiated the train’s emergency brakes, while Lance Redman, locomotive fireman, sanded the tracks for 200 metres — actions that significantly slowed the train on its approach towards the collapsing bridge.

“They applied the brakes so the wheels were not going so fast and at the same time the fireman was applying sand to the rails to create lots of friction,” Denise Stanney, Charles Parker’s granddaughter, said at the memorial ceremony.

“This meant the train was not going as fast as it otherwise would and three carriages and the guards van survived.”

The locomotive and the front six carriages fell into the river, killing 151 people including Charles Parker and Lance Redman.

Due to brave efforts of the two men, however, 134 people who might otherwise have perished survived.

500 people attended the memorial at Tangiwai for the unveiling ceremony, which featured a blessing from the Ngati Rangi Trust, and a series of tributes to Parker and Redman, including from Wayne Butson, general secretary of the Rail and Maritime Transport Union. This was followed by prayers and the sounding of a train whistle.