Tangiwai 1953 

Some Impressions of Events on Christmas Eve, 1953

Meanwhile, Back at the Station

The response of NZ Forest Service personnel to the Tangiwai Rail Disaster does not feature

Auckland Museum account of the 1953 lahar
TV3 account of 18 March 2007 lahar

 in historical accounts of the tragedy. Yet it is clear that they played a pivotal role in the early response. This is acknowledged in letters of appreciation from the Prime Minister, Minister of Forests and the Director General.

The accompanying newsfilm gives a background to the events preceding the disaster. Lahars are not unusual, and the other newsfilm records a more recent one.


The following article was written by the late Bruce Mason when he worked for the Public Relations Sections of the Forest Service. Shortly after the Tangiwai Disaster, he visited the area and spoke to the various Forest Service participants in the rescue. This account was published in the NZFS newsletter Treeline (Jan. 1984 No. 36) to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the tragedy.

 [Tangiwai is a small country area 7 miles north of Waiouru on the main Waiouru-Ohakune-National Park highway, or 10 miles south of Ohakune on the same road. Bruce Mason was a senior PRO with the NZ Forest Service from 1951 to 1957. He went on to become a famous playwright/author in NZ].

Christmas Eve, 1953.  At Karioi State Forest, the day had been fine, and of the lazy heat which seems fitting in its lassitude for the last full working day of the year.  The single men’s camp was empty, and the cookhouse door was shut.  Only a skeleton staff remained on the station.  The Ranger-in-Charge, Alan Woodward, the Fire Equipment Officer, John McDonald, Tractor Driver Charlie Stevens, and Hugh Ramsay and John Smith, Forest Workmen.  The fire hazard was extremely low, and because of this, several of this small stand-by gang were given leave to visit Ohakune to make last Christmas purchases and usher in the festive season in an appropriate manner.  They had all returned by ten o’clock.  Mr Stevens retired to bed early, and Mr Woodward was also at his home.  Mr McDonald, feeling that it was rather a flat opening to Christmas invited Mr Smith and Mr Ramsay to his home for refreshments and conversation.

The night was quiet at Karioi.  A light wind did no more that stir the tops of the trees.  No moonlight pierced the darkness outside the station, though the forest offices were ablaze of light, it being the practice to leave lights burning and so keep a load on the generator.  And in Mr McDonald’s house, the approach of Christmas was being modestly celebrated.

Into the calm atmosphere, the wail of the siren came with the shock of a thunderclap.  The three men leapt to their feet and rushed out, McDonald and Ramsay in their haste colliding in the doorway.  They reached forest Headquarters within half a minute, and were joined a moment later by Ranger Woodward and Charlie Stevens, who was still pulling on clothes as he arrived.  The question uppermost in all minds was “Where was the fire?”  They were soon answered.  Two men rushed up to them and gave their news bluntly.  The Whangaehu Railway Bridge had collapsed and the 3pm express from Wellington had plunged into the river.  These men had seen the crash, and had come by car seeking a telephone, had seen the blaze of light at the forest offices, but finding nobody there, had broken a window to reach a telephone, only to find it disconnected from the exchange. Then one of them had seen a switch on an outside wall, had pressed it in a moment of inspiration and so roused the station.  By a freakish piece of luck this switch had been stalled only the day before.

At first the news seemed too wild to be believed.  The Main Trunk Line has for many years seemed indestructible, as solid and safe as say, the Bank of England.  It seemed almost that the sun could fail to rise as plausibly as that the express should not go through.  Ranger Woodward asked for the news to be repeated.  Convinced, he detailed the Fire Equipment Officer McDonald to go to the bridge immediately taking vehicles, first aid equipment, stretchers, torches, some tools and a fire tanker equipped with a swivel light, opened the telephone exchange, and informed the Railway officials at Ohakune, and asked the telephone operator to advise the police and doctors.

Within ten minutes, the Fire Equipment Officer had arrived at the river.  It was very dark.  He discovered to his amazement that the river was in turbid flood, though no word of this had reached them at the time of the alarm.  The river must have been up fully twenty-five feet.  It had burst over its banks, and tons of silt was spilling over the road and all over the area.  Two surviving piers of the bridge could be seen in faint outline, with railway coaches still on them. The rest of the bridge had vanished.  Dark shapes faintly discernible as engine and carriages were sprawled about as casually as toys in a nightmare children’s nursery, and dark blobs being tossed and tumbled in the water revealed themselves as human beings only at close range.  The roar of the waters swallowed every other sound.  The Road Bridge close by was still holding, though with difficulty.  Tons of water and silt were sweeping across its deck, and its piles were choked with debris.

After taking in this scene, which in its starkness he found somewhat numbing to the understanding, McDonald made his way to a caravan stranded on the edge of the floodwaters.  It had been caught in the wash from the river, slewed by the force of the spilling water, and marooned on the fringe of the flood.  A light was burning in it, and as McDonald approached, a man appeared:

“Are you a doctor?” he asked.

”No” replied McDonald, “but I’m a member of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade”.

“Well do something about my mother will you?  I think she’s fainted”.

McDonald rendered first aid, and asked the man’s permission to set up a first aid post in the caravan.  Permission was granted immediately, and McDonald transferred his gear into the caravan.  Three private cars arrived soon after and parked near the caravan.  Their occupants rushed into the flood and began to haul out survivors, and lead, carry or support them to the first aid post. They were a pitiful sight.  Shocked, filthy, choked with silt and half blind with oil, they seemed mercifully dazed by the convulsion of nature in which they had been so tragically precipitated.  A voice from the river “Hey, can you give a light?  Can’t see a bloody thing down here”.

Light was the main obstacle to rescue at this stage, and at all stages.  The darkness seemed as impenetrable and solid as a wall.  The fire tanker with its swivel light could not approach closely enough to be of much use, and so three cell torches, which McDonald had included in his gear, were distributed to helpers.  For awhile these tiny stabs of light had to act as the only distress beacons on the northern bank towards which half-drowned survivors groped their way.

Ranger Woodward arrived at a quarter to eleven.  He had left Forest Workman John Smith behind his at Forest Headquarters to answer the telephone and make supplies of equipment available.  Quickly sizing up the magnitude of the situation, Ranger Woodward formed his small detachment into an organised body and went into the river with them to grapple with life and death in the cold and darkness.

Within half an hour there was a steady flow of survivors through the first aid post.  They were examined by Fire Officer McDonald and passed by him as fit either for temporary quartering in private houses, or as injured and needing treatment in hospital.  Forest Service vehicles for a while performed this service alone, but they were joined later by private cars to ferry survivors.

The owner of the caravan had a large store of spirits which he hoped would enliven his Christmas, and this with a generous hand, he poured down the throats of survivors half dead from the cold and shock.  An enormous Christmas cake, baked no doubt by loving hands, disappeared in large chunks within a few minutes.  This prodigality of spirit formed a heartening counterpoint to the tragedy which accompanied almost every survivor.  If alive, they could scarcely comprehend their luck in their distress at being sundered from their families.  McDonald and his assistants did their best to soothe the bewildered and sometimes half-demented victims.  One woman arrived with her son, both uninjured, but distressed for news of her husband and daughter.  She implored McDonald to see if he could find them.  McDonald, without any hope of success, duly dashed off into the dark to relieve the poor woman’s feelings and stumbled into a man carrying the inert body of a young girl.  He brought them to the first aid post, and by one of those bizarre coincidences by which fate sometimes seems to mitigate its sudden blows, he found that they were the missing members of the woman’s family.  The girl was alive, though unconscious from swallowing crude oil.

In the meantime Ranger Woodward, other Forest Service officers and a large number of private persons were attacking partly submerged carriages, and conveying people from them by breaking windows and cutting sections from the roof with the welding torches which McDonald had providentially included in his gear.  For many years now, Fire Officer McDonald had heard the express pass over the Whangaehu Bridge, clatter down a straight track for a mile or so, then whistle as it is about to take the corner into Ohakune.  He has often said that he can never go to bed until he hears that whistle and knows that the express is all right.  A friend asked him once “What would you do if you didn’t hear the whistle?”  “Get my welding gear out smartly,” said McDonald.  Now  alas it was being used.

Within an hour hundreds of people arrived from Ohakune and the district by car.  At this time there was no traffic officer on duty and when he arrived from Ohakune a queue of cars half a mile long stretched back from the river.  The cars so congested the approach to the bridge that it was difficult for vehicles carrying survivors to turn and move away.  The traffic officer did his best to check the flow by improvising a road block at Karioi, but it was too late to prevent an awkward and encumbering congestion.

Among the party from Ohakune was Dr Jordan who inspected the first aid post, and seemed impressed with what he saw.  Feeling confident that it was dealing with all survivors in a professional manner, he decided to cross the road bridge to the southern bank.  The flood waters, in the three quarters of an hour since the crash, had receded markedly.  Millions of tons of silt were by now spread over a wide area.  At the height of the flood, Tractor Driver C. Stevens happened to put his hand in the water, and closed it with difficulty round solid silt.  Although it was Christmas Eve and the weather had been warm, rescue work was bitterly cold, as huge chunks of ice were being borne down on the flood.  Most of the helpers were dressed in clothing suitable for celebrating a warm Christmas Eve, and the rigours of rescue soon froze them to the bone.

A few moments after Dr Jordan had been through the first aid post, another doctor arrived, Captain McDonald of Waiouru Camp, who crossed by the road bridge from the southern to the northern bank, to find out whether medical aid was available.  He also inspected the first aid post, and expressed his unqualified approval of its efficiency.  He found that his namesake, John McDonald, had brought a far more comprehensive medical kit from Karioi than his own from Waiouru, and he began first aid treatment with it.

Within a few minutes of Dr McDonald’s arrival, the southern approach to the road bridge washed away, and the bridge subsided gently to the bed of the river at the southern end of it.  Dr McDonald, finding himself marooned, decided to leave the first aid post in the capable hands of John McDonald, and visit the homes where survivors had been sent to render further treatment if necessary.  The Superintendent of St John’s Ambulance Ohakune arrived soon after, and also began operation in the first aid post.

An hour after the crash, hundreds of people must have been working at Tangiwai.  At no time was there a shortage of willing helpers.  The Army and Navy from Waiouru both had detachments out searching the banks for survivors and exploring the wreckage for bodies.  By this time, the police had taken charge of rescue operations, though in their isolation from the main body of rescuers, it was some time before the police discovered the Forest Service Party and knew what they were doing.

 Although the road bridge approach had been washed out, a piece of clever improvisation by the Forest Service party soon made it passable.  A length of rope which they had brought with them formed an upper rung, and a fire hose the lower, of a double tightrope which was set in place by naval ratings on the southern side, and the Forest Service and Post and Telegraph workers to the north.  They were later replaced by forty-foot planks, procured from a nearby sawmill.

All this time the trickle of survivors had been passing out of the river, ferried to safety by the devoted bank of rescuers.  By one o’clock in the morning, the main work of rescue was over.  As the Forest Service party wore only the lightest of clothing and shoes, and were by now half frozen from cold and exposure, Ranger Woodward gave orders that all men were to return home for a change of clothing, heavier boots and a hot drink.

What in the meantime was happening at the homes?  Fire Officer McDonald’s house was full, with a married couple and their daughter whose fiancee had perished in the crash; a young man from Ohakune, filthy and surprisingly cheerful; and two others who seemed to be in considerable pain.  They were dripping crude oil, and within a few minutes the house reeked of it.  Every blanket in the house went to warm them and every stitch of spare clothing to replace their sodden rags.  Two of the survivors were so weak that they could not get out of their clothes, and Mrs McDonald had to cut their clothes off.  When Dr McDonald arrived on his tour, he found that both were badly injured in the chest and he sent them forthwith to Raetihi Hospital.  Mrs John Smith, wife of the workman manning the telephone exchange, had a family of four in her house. It was the family that John McDonald had united in so providential a manner.  She too, though she had been in her house only a little over a week, opened it to the survivors with the grace and generosity that marked all those involved in rescue and resuscitation.

After and hour’s rest, all Forest Service men returned to the river and worked throughout the night.  First light came shortly after 4am on Christmas morning.  Slowly the pale light illuminated the ravaged landscape.  It was a sight that no one there is likely to forget.  Engine, tender and carriages, some twisted and splintered as if ground into the silt by a giant heel, lay strewn about.  Enormous concrete plinths lay at bizarre angles as if some latter-day Stonehenge had suddenly collapsed.  Everywhere the sludge and mud reduced the whole landscape to a gray neutrality, as if by this vast smear the scale of the tragedy could be muddied over.

The rescuers soon found that it could not.  For now began the most arduous and beastly task of all – searching the river and its banks for bodies.  All Forest Service vehicles were placed at the disposal of the rescue organisation.  They were used to transport search parties and to carry bodies to the Whangaehu Road Bridge where they were taken to Waiouru by stretcher and ambulance.

Some of the Forest Service men had never seen a dead body before.  They were to see many before their work was done, some looking oddly serene and untroubled, others so battered that it made them wonder id humanity could ever have invested these sickening, gray, sprawling things.  Many of them were naked; the force of the torrent removing even shoes and socks.  High above the river, a mark of its swollen path, was a grotesque array of miscellaneous clothing hanging from scrub and bush, arranged as if for some horrible old clothes drive.  Some bodies were extremely difficult to extricate from unused bays and eddies where the force of the river had lodged them.  Sometimes a disembodied limb projecting from a heap of silt gave a clue, sometimes a child’s toy, clutched to the end, guided the rescuers to a pitiful little body.

All Forest Service men absent on leave volunteered their services as soon as they heard the news, and all were employed in search parties throughout Christmas Day until dark, and until the evening of Boxing Day when their services were no longer required by the organisation.

From this date until the evening of the 29th December, the only Forest Service man still required was Charlie Stevens.  Before joining the Forest Service, Mr Stevens had been a shepherd in the Whangaehu River Valley for twenty-five years.  He knew the whole area down to the township of Whangaehu with an intimacy unrivaled in the district.  He was given an Army truck by the authorities at Waiouru, and for two days worked up and down the river.  He found that the turbulent course of the flood had entirely changed the topography of some areas that he had known since a boy.  Whole banks were stripped of several feet of vegetation, leaving the smooth rock underneath it like a newly depilated skull.  Bodies were found in places so outlandish that white men had never penetrated there before.  For example, Mr Stevens saw what appeared to be a child’s knee just visible from a forty-foot bluff.  Lowered down by ropes, he examined it and found it to be the arm of a young girl buried in feet of silt.  It took over two hours to dig the body out and hoist if up the bluff.

Some bodies were enormously heavy, as they had filled up with silt after life became extinct.  It was two days of extremely arduous and often horrifying work.  When Mr Stevens work was over, the Forest Service completed their contribution to the saving of life and rescuing of bodies at Tangiwai.

Tangiwai now – a gray desert, marked for ever in the history of New Zealand.  A natural convulsion, a freakish combination of circumstances, on the night before the greatest Christian festival killed 150 people and left a nation in mourning.  How many had heard the name Tangiwai before Christmas Day 1953?  Yet now the name cannot be said without it sounding like a melancholy bell in the imagination of everyone in this country.  And to the men of the Forest Service at Karioi, that bell will sound a note less of melancholy than of arduous effort, and a prodigal expenditure of fellow feeling.

Does suffering degrade or ennoble human beings?  Philosophers are still debating it.  But one this is clear.  That faced with tragedy on an epic scale such as happened at Tangiwai, eye-witnesses and others close at hand will rally in an heroic manner, to right the balance as it were, between themselves whom fate has not chosen and those struck down by it.  This was abundantly proved at Tangiwai, and by none more than the officers and men of the New Zealand Forest Service.

Meanwhile, Back at the Station....

We're all aware of the support that families of firefighters provide in times of emergency. This was no less true with the Tangiwai disaster. John McDonald's daughter, Pam Rogers, wrote this account in October 2006 of what was happening at home during Chistmas 1953.

I remember the get together that Mum & Dad had that night. I had wanted to stay up as I felt that I was grown up enough. Just before it all began, I had had to go to bed. I recall the siren and the panic for the men to get out and over to the fire station. I remember getting up and going out to the main room to ask if all was OK. Mum said it was fine and to go back to bed.  My two younger sisters were sleeping in another room. Just after that the phone went. Mum came into my room and said that I had to get up and get dressed as she was going to need my help. She said that I had to be very brave and strong about some of the things that I would see and witness. I had no idea what she meant but I sure was going to do as I had too. Mum went next door to the Smiths house and spoke to her. When she came back we had to get all the pots and pans out and fill up with cold water and put on the big coal range to get hot. We had to get all the spare blankets and sheets out and get them warming by the fire. I went and got more wood in as Mum said it was going to be a long night. Then she explained to me what had happened and what I might have to do to help. We got all the torches out and ready. Then we waited. When the first people arrived they were so cold and so dirty and oily. Mum just ran a bath and we were stripping down people and wrapping them in blankets. I had never seen naked men before, but really after the first one I never had time to think about it. The people could not even get undressed as they were all so cold. We just cut off clothes and wrapped or put to bed as quickly as we could. I remember one man who was very sick and the Doctor came to see him and the others. Mum was busy doing baths and washing the oil off the people. I was in the big main room just doing whatever I could. Making hot drinks and getting food ready, looking out for the people. After some time a family came in and Mum sent them over to the Smiths house. I went with then to help Mrs Smith and I never came back home again that night. Once again we had to wrap and bathe and clean and feed. The stench of the oil and and filth was horrible. We put the family to bed in whatever we could find for clothing. The two children were about the same age and size as my sisters and self so we ended up by giving our clothes to them the next day. I remember Mum used her clothes and Dads for the men and women.

The next day we had no Xmas dinner as such. Mum cooked chickens (which were what we were going to have anyway) along with pots of potatoes, etc. My two sisters had slept all night and didn't know what had happened. We never saw our Dad that day. We had people coming and going all the time for the first day.  Then just a few staying until arrangements could be made for them to get home. There was a young girl who had lost her fiancee and every time the list of missing people found was put over the radio and his name was not there, she would disappear into the forest over the fence. I was delegated to watch her each time and when she took off I had to run and get Mum so that she could go and sit with her and stop her from doing something silly. I got a watch for that Xmas but somehow it got water into it while all this was happening, and although Dad tried to fix it later on, it was stuffed.

I remember Dad coming home one day and he had a big truck. We asked what was m the truck and he said that there, were some bodies that: he was taking into the hospital. Fay, my sister, decided that she wanted to see these dead bodies. So she climbed up the truck and tried to have a look. I was a tell tale and ran and told Dad as I didn’t think it was right. She didn’t get a hiding but she was growled at and lifted down from the truck. We never did get to see the bodies for which I can say now that I was pleased about. I guess in retrospect that they would not have been a pleasant sight

I can remember being taken down to Tangiwai by Dad some days later. He took all of us so as we could see it all and it was a horrible sight. The place was just a mess and nothing like it should have been. The roads had all disappeared and mud and silt was everywhere. It was a sight that to this day I will never forget.

There was a man who was saved and stayed with us who owned a vineyard somewhere up Auckland way. I remember each year for many years a huge crate of grates being sent to us every year. Then one year they never came and when I asked once why they stopped, Dad said that it was time to let go and forget. I can understand that but boy were those grapes lovely.

It was just the following year that we were posted to Palmerston North as Mum just wanted to get away from all the memories.