Pilot avoided crash only to die at Tangiwai

21:07, Dec 21 2013
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NATIONAL TRAGEDY: A file photo of the Tangiwai train crash disaster in 1953.

It was a tale of twin disasters: Pat Olson narrowly avoided one, only to lose his life in the second, just a few days later.

Mr Olson, a decorated World War II pilot, was working as a palaeontologist for the DSIR in Wellington on the eve of the Queen's visit to New Zealand in December 1953.

He was also a part-time member of the Territorial Air Force and was selected to be one of four pilots to fly over the Royal Yacht Gothic as the new Queen and Prince Philip sailed into Auckland just before Christmas.

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MY HERO: Pat and Joan Olson met on a blind date in Auckland.

The four were scheduled to fly from Wellington to Whenuapai on December 22, but Mr Olson stood down at the last minute after learning that his mother, Margaret, had been taken ill in Rotorua.

Of the four pilots who flew north, just two made it to Auckland. The Mustangs flown by Maxwell Stevens and Richard Westrupp crashed in bad weather off the north Taranaki coast, killing both pilots.

Two days after the crashes, Mr Olson was granted permission to fly a Territorial Air Force plane to Rotorua, where he intended to join his parents, wife Joan, son Jim and daughter Mary for Christmas Day.


While refuelling at Ohakea, he was told the plane was needed for the search for Mr Westrupp's Mustang, which was still missing.

So he made the fateful decision to catch the Auckland train as far as Waikato and then drive to Rotorua. It was the train that crashed at Tangiwai on Christmas Eve, killing 151 people.

In Rotorua, Joan Olson had no idea her husband had decided to board the train.

"I knew Pat was missing but I did not know he was on the train when we heard news of the disaster over the radio," she says, speaking publicly about the train crash for the first time in 60 years.

The big toy train her pre-school son Jim had been given for Christmas by his grandparents assumed poignant overtones when confirmation of Mr Olson's death came through with a police visit to his parents' home in Rotorua on December 27.

His body had been found a long way down the Whangaehu River after the Tangiwai rail bridge was washed away in a lahar that followed a volcanic eruption from Mt Ruapehu's crater lake.

"I had just turned 30," Mrs Olson says. "In the light of what had happened, I did not know where to go from there. That is where the good Lord stepped in. I was helped by kind people."

Before leaving Rotorua, she told her parents-in-law she loved them dearly but would never be able to return to their new retirement home again.

"Soon afterwards, they sold their home and moved down to the Kapiti Coast. From then on we always went to their house for holidays. They were marvellous to us."

At the time of his death, Mr Olson's DSIR boss in Wellington was Sir Charles Fleming.

"He and his wife personally lent us money to help us buy our house in Miramar.

"I received a letter from them waiving the loan.

"I'll always be grateful to them for that. It helped us a lot."

Some time after the disaster, there was also a payout from the government, which recognised her husband's death at Tangiwai.

Despite her financial struggle, Mrs Olson resolved she could not go out to work when her children were just beginning to go to school.

"The children had lost their father, so I couldn't go back to work and leave them without a mother as well. I had to become a fulltime mum.

"Life was hard with very little money, but it was the right choice. The children did well at school. Mary was the dux at Holy Cross [in Miramar] and Jim was the dux at Marist."

Jim, who retired from the public service last week, says his mother did a wonderful job of bringing them up.

"She was dealt one of the worst cards a young mother could have been dealt.

"Both our lives have reflected the quality of her efforts.

"This is not a story of how everything came unstuck through tragedy.

"This is a story of how a very remarkable woman kept it all together and rebuilt everything following disaster."

Now 90, Mrs Olson remains a very independent person in her home in Wellington's eastern suburbs. She bears no grudges or recriminations about the tragedy that took her husband.

"The crash was an act of God," she says.

"Although still young, Pat had already lived a very full life."

The Dominion Post