In Tangiwai, a rural Māori community in New Zealand, about half way between the rural towns of Rangataua and Waiouru, just off the side of highway 49, is a memorial to the worst train accident in the country’s history. The catastrophe occurred on Xmas eve in 1953, when the rail-bridge over the Whangaehu River collapsed beneath an express passenger train traveling from Wellington to Auckland, resulting in the death of 151 souls.
The disaster happened because the Islanders at that time suffered from a lack of understanding of the full risks associated with being directly downstream from an active Volcano, in this case, Mount Ruapehu (see images above and below).
Volcano’s are beautiful, and their eruptions result in rich black fertile earth at their bases that is wonderful for farming, and this is why so many farming communities are located directly at their bases all around world — in spite of their being some of the most violent forces on earth.
For example: think about the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum located at the base of Mount Vesuvius (a volcano) in Italy, or the town of Kagoshima in Japan which sits directly adjacent to Mount Sakurajima, which is so active that residents have to walk around with plastic umbrellas to keep the volcano’s ash out of their hair.
The cause of the Tangiwai disaster was in part seriously bad luck. Almost 10 years earlier in 1945, Mount Ruapehu, the volcano whose nearby presence is the source of the area’s sustenance, had erupted creating a thick layer of ash at the top of the mountain.
Over the next 8 years, water collected in the cone of the volcano, forming a lake, held in place in part by that same layer of ash. Earlier that evening, at around 8pm, the water (heavy with lava, ice and ash) had broken through and rushed downhill via the Whangaehu River (whose headwaters are the yearly melts off the glacier that sits atop the volcano — see the pictures above taken in during NZ’s summer), and at approximately 10:15pm, the force of flood had taken out many of the railroad’s bridge’s supports…. but unfortunately, not the bridge (which the driver might have seen).
The disaster happened only about 5 minutes later, at 10:21pm, and as I said resulted in the death of 151 souls; the recovery was horrific and continued for days as bodies were found hanging in near by trees, washed downstream by the river, or buried in banks of sand and mud; 21 of these bodies of the victims were never identified, and the bodies of another 20 souls, who were believed to have been on the train, were never found.
Here are two videos about the disaster from youtube. The first is very short, 1.5 minutes video posted by the Auckland War Memorial Museum:
This second video is a full 20 minute TV show about bad days in history that focuses on the disaster: