Home and Pet Sitting offers many wonderful experiences. We have sat twice for some families; the majority of them have become our friends. The animals have won our hearts.
As of April 4, 2017 we have just moved into our new home. We arrived at the same as the cyclone that hit Australia swept onto Kiwi shores. The wind is howling and the rain is pelting against the windows.
We can put on a fire, thanks to the generosity of our hosts, and wait out the storm – should be gone tomorrow.
Travelling between housesits in NZ, gives us the opportunity to look at the history of tiny towns and drive through rolling hills that have been pushed up due to volcanic movements.
Most of these sites bright absolute pleasure and intrigue. However, here is a tragedy that we came across as we drove from one housesitting assignment to another. The railway disaster happened in 1953. We stopped to pay our respects at the memorial.
The Tangiwai Train Crash – 1953 (Christmas Eve)
Let me first introduce you to a geographical term “Lahar” pronounced la-har. It is a type of mudflow that can be deadly. It was a lahar that was responsible for taking Christmas travellers. I had never heard of this term before, but obviously had read about mudslides.
Mt., Ruapehu and its volcanic lake
Near where the doomed train was due to pass, a volcanic crater lake (named Mt Ruapehu) released a huge lehar. This is a type of mudflow that carries along rocky debris and water. The mudflow forms like dense cement, can move at 22 mph and be as deep as 140 metres or 460 ft deep. It was this lehar that took out the bridge.
The Christmas Eve Express Train
On Christmas Eve, a packed train left Wellington and travelled north towards the city of Auckland. It was night time and 285 passengers were packed with presents for loved ones. Unknown to them, the lahar from Mt. Ruapehu crater lake had started its flow. By 10.15 pm, many passengers were settling in for a sleep or celebrating with a few drinks.
The Place of “Weeping Waters.”
The train hurried on to a place on the Whangaehu river which the Maori named Tangiwai or “Weeping Waters.” Lives changed or were taken as at around 10.21 pm, the train plunged into the river taking 151 lives. It was New Zealand’s worse rail disaster and the world’s eighth-deadliest. The two islands of New Zealand and its two million population was in shock. Many knew someone that had died. Just one day earlier, the nation had cheered the arrival of the young Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Phillip. Seven months earlier in May, 1953, Edmund Hillary had become a Kiwi hero when he became the first man (aside from his Sherpa Guide) that had climbed Mt. Everest.
On the following day of the disaster, and with no newspapers published,
many New Zealanders first heard the news on the radio. The Prime Minister, Sidney Holland described the sad news.
The Wrong Time at the Wrong Place
The Christmas season happens in the summer months of New Zealand. We have enjoyed four warm summers in spectacular scenery. That particular Christmas Eve was warm. The irony was that there had been little rain and there was no sign of flooding in the Whangaehu River. No one suspected that a lahar would make its way down from the volcanic lake of Mt. Ruapehu on that night.
In fact, a goods train had crossed the same bridge at around 7 p.m that same night. What a sad fate that about 3 hrs and 21 minutes later, the express loaded with humans would meet a sad end.
The Horrendous Affect of the Lahar.
Mt. Ruapehu released a lahar of two million cubic metres of water from the lake crater. A 6-metre-high wave (18 ft) containing water, ice, mud and rocks surged in a tsunami-like manner down the Whangaehu River. Experts estimate that between 10.10 p.m and 10.15 p.m the lahar struck the concrete pylons of the Tangiwai railway bridge.
At the Memorial
Arthur Ellis in later years
Arthur Ellis in 1953
We walked to the memorial and looked at the list of names. There were four from one family. One picture on the information boards was of a man called Arthur Cyril Ellis. He had been driving that night and saw that the bridge had collapsed. He grabbed a flashlight/torch and desperately scrambled up the hill in an effort to stop the approaching train. He failed and yet succeeded.
The train travelling at approximately 65 km/h with nine carriages and two guard’s vans headed towards disaster. It is stated that the alert driver, Charles Parker, had applied the break some 200 m from the bridge. This allowed for survivors. It seems that the driver had probably spotted Arthur’s flashlight./torch.
The ill-fated train
The engine plunged and took with it five second-class carriages. The force of the torrent destroyed four of these five carriages preventing little chance of survival.
Five carriages were already in the river. The leading first class carriage, teetered on the edge of the bridge before toppling into the water. It was taken downstream, but remarkably 21 of the 22 passengers survived.
Living in the Moment
We live in a world that has many ying-yang events: opulence/famine, birth/death, war/peace, health/disease, happiness/unhappiness.
Many events, like this train disaster, was out of the hands of those who travelled on a Christmas Eve filled with happiness and a following day filled with expectations. For Trish and myself, the monument was a reminder of the fragility of life. We only have the present ‘moment.’ For the most part, this is the moment for decisions – for gratitude and reflection.