Survivors and first responders of Tangiwai rail disaster mark emotional 70th anniversary

Survivors and first responders involved in New Zealand's worst rail disaster made an emotional pilgrimage by rail from Paekakriki to Tangiwai on Sunday, officially marking its 70th anniversary. 

Among them was survivor John Mahy, who at the age of 15 with his sister swapped seats to the back of the train just prior to the KA949 service plunging into the Whangaehu River at Tangiwai. 

"I was quite emotional today," Mahy told Newshub. 

The 1953 Christmas Eve train from Wellington to Auckland was packed with excited passengers heading home to see families. 

But lahar spewing down Mount Ruapehu had damaged the bridge. The majority of the 151 people killed, died within minutes of the first five carriages and the engine landing in the river. 

Mahy recalled the chaos of that night as "pitch black and a lot of water around you".

Local man Cyril Ellis is credited with saving at least 100 lives that night. 

He had been driving his wife and mother-in-law to family for Christmas around 10:15pm when he noticed the bridge on the verge of collapse.  

Ellis was hailed a hero after seeing the approaching train and warning the driver with a flashlight. 

Driver and engineer Charles Parker slammed on the emergency brakes, but not before the engine and five carriages fell into the river below. 

A sixth carriage teetered on the edge and Ellis jumped aboard to warn the guard, before this car too fell into the river and Parker died. 

The railway accident killed 151 people on 24 December 1953.
The railway accident killed 151 people on 24 December 1953. Photo credit: Archives New Zealand

First responder Bruce Thompson attended Sunday's 70th anniversary, which was delayed so all those who wanted to be there could. 

He was 16 years old when he was lowered into the muddy waters to help with the rescue. He said the third carriage was cut in two, and washed clear of all passengers. 

He describes Tangiwai now as "a desolate spot".

"There's no happy memories but there's memories to be had and respected, and today they are." 

Despite the devastation, tales of hope were shared at the 70th anniversary commemorations. 

"Two forestry men spotted something in the mud and went over to investigate and found an engagement ring. They thought they had a body, but then she reached out - it scared the living hell out of them but the woman lived," Thompson said. 

One woman who travelled on the train from Paraparaumu for the anniversary told Newshub she remembered how New Zealand stopped that Christmas, as news dominated the airwaves. 

"I remember it as a young girl, friends of my father's were all looking for bodies. It was just awful," she recalled. 

Ruapehu District Mayor Weston Kirton said Sunday is about Kiwis "pausing to do what you are doing and taking time out to reflect". 

It's reflection and recognition that will continue, with plans afoot to build a new, much bigger memorial at Tangiwai - recognising the significance of one of the country's darkest days.