That Christmas Eve in 1953 when a lahar swept down the Whangaehu River from Ruapehu’s crater lake, carrying away a train packed with people and presents. 151 people were killed that night, including the engineer and the fireman.
sadness of the water swirling
across the battered rocks and buttresses
where nothing remains
but the memories
of a Christmas that never was
and some who never made it home
(Ironically Tangiwai in Maori means weeping water)
in mud and twisted steel
drowned voices lost
among the river stones
shriek of iron
and a train whistle
This place on the Whangaehu River was prophetically named – Tangiwai has the meaning of weeping waters – and on Christmas Eve 1953 a rim of Ruapehu’s crater gave way, releasing a lahar of mud, rocks and water down the river, just as the Wellington to Auckland night express was approaching. There were heroic efforts to stop the train before it reached the bridge where the lahar had washed away one pier, but in vain. Many of those on the train were heading home for Christmas, and over the following days searchers found mud-soaked presents and toys among the twisted wreckage and bodies. Four of the carriages were destroyed in the torrent. 151 passengers and crew died.