Story of the sole survivor of carriage No 2

AFTERMATH:  File photo of the Tangiwai train crash disaster in 1953.
AFTERMATH: File photo of the Tangiwai train crash disaster in 1953.

On Christmas Eve 60 years ago, 151 people died in the Tangiwai railway disaster.

A dramatic mudflow, or lahar, was unleashed from Mt Ruapehu when the crater lake's wall collapsed.

It surged down the Whangaehu River, destroying the railway bridge at Tangiwai. The Wellington to Auckland overnight express plunged into the raging torrent.

The driver, fireman, one first-class passenger and 148 of the 176 second-class passengers died.

Among the few from the second-class carriages to survive was Richard Edward Brett, 18, known to all as Ted, who somehow avoided being swept to his death down the flooded river.

"The water was completely blinding," he would later recall. "It was full of sulphur, engine oil, and other muck and debris."

The only survivor from the second carriage, he made notes on the disaster and gave two unpublished interviews before he died in 2008. Here, for the first time, is his story.

He called December 24, 1953, "the turning point of my life". He was travelling from Masterton to Auckland for Christmas with his friend John Cockburn, 17, and John's 12-year-old brother, Douglas.

When the trio boarded, they found their first-class seats occupied by an elderly couple.

A guard promised the boys they could have the seats once the couple disembarked; in the meantime, they sat in the second carriage.

Almost everybody aboard was travelling for Christmas. Excitement was particularly high as many hoped to see the Queen in Auckland, the first visit of a reigning monarch to New Zealand.

By 10pm, the second carriage was quiet as the train travelled north from Waiouru. Most passengers were mothers and children who had settled in for the night.

Mr Brett, fairly sure he was the only passenger awake, was hoping to photograph Mt Ruapehu, which had impressed him on a previous trip.

He bought night film for the occasion, but bad weather thwarted his plans.

Suddenly, the train slammed on its brakes.

"The scream of steel on steel is something you really remember," Mr Brett said. He wondered if livestock were on the track.

"All of a sudden there was one helluva crash and everything just seemed to be folding back on itself." The train plummeted into the swollen river.

"We seemed to be sliding, rising, twisting, turning - then we seemed to drop." The second carriage fell into what Brett described as "a whirlpool". It was horrifying and disorienting.

"Everything happened in this split-second timing and I don't think I even thought of myself." By a stroke of luck, Mr Brett was thrust against a window. He punched frantically. The force of the water began breaking apart the carriage, and he smashed a hole in the glass.

He struggled through the window, pushing and kicking, and this haunted him for years. He could never be sure if, in his desperation to escape, he accidentally kicked away people trying to follow him.

"It's a nightmare," he recalled, "especially when you think of the women and children in there." Nobody else escaped that carriage, they did not stand a chance as the carriage was turned over repeatedly and shredded by the lahar.

Caught by the current, he was swept fortuitously to a calmer part of the river sheltered by the largely intact first carriage. To stay afloat, he clung to a small soft object he thought was a pillow, and managed to reach the steep riverbank.

"It appeared to move, so I held tighter," he said of his flotation device.

The "pillow" turned out to be a small child, which he held as he climbed up the bank.

Past rock-climbing experience and the sheer determination to escape kept him going. After considerable effort, he made it to level ground.

Only then did he notice the cold and his injuries. His clothes were destroyed. "No wonder I was cold." Cuts courtesy of the shattered window ran from Brett's right hand all the way to his armpit.

"My right fist was about seven times bigger than what it normally was." He had sulphur and soot in his eyes and his whole body ached.

"I didn't even know the damn river's name. I didn't know where I was. Almost didn't know who I was." As he tried to get his bearings, car headlights blinded him. Rescuers had arrived and were using their vehicles to illuminate the scene.

When they reached Brett, they saw his "pillow", and the small child was immediately rushed to help.

"Someone was saying they would get it to hospital and I assume that's what happened." He never found out what happened; he did not even know if the child was still alive when he gave it to the rescuers.

Was he a hero who had saved a child's life? He never would have accepted the title - carrying the "pillow" out of the water was the least he could do after it kept him afloat.

Mr Brett's rescuers gave him brandy and rum; he gulped down the brandy before realising what it was.

He was taken first to nearby Karioi, then on to Ohakune with other young survivors.

It was a surreal, sorrowful Christmas. Local people opened their homes; businesses provided free food.

John and Douglas were dead. John was one of 20 bodies never found, although the train tickets from his shirt pocket were recovered beneath the locomotive.

Mr Brett lived with unanswered questions and the physical effects of Tangiwai.

When he returned to Masterton, his joyful family reunion was tempered by his inability to explain to the Cockburns why John and Douglas were not there. Their sister, Patricia Cockburn, helped him through the rough times.

"This led to my admiration and falling in love with her and, after a long spell of courting, I popped the question." Nearly 17 months after the disaster, they were married.

Mr Brett was one of the lucky ones - his Tangiwai story had a happy ending.

Other families were doused in sorrow. Maureen Bennett recalled the trauma of losing her brother Desmond James "Des" Capper, who was travelling from Wellington to Huntly to visit his family for Christmas.

They endured a nervous wait, ever-hopeful he would arrive, but it became clear that a trip to Waiouru was necessary. Three family members drove down from Huntly. Ms Bennett remembered that trip as confronting.

"It was pretty hard trying to positively identify someone who was injured and covered in grime." Unfortunately for the family, her brother's body was never found.

"For a long time afterwards, I thought that he would walk in," Ms Bennett recalled. "I believe he is at rest somewhere known only unto God." It took more than three years to receive a death certificate, which made the family's burden all the greater.

In March 1957, the Tangiwai National Memorial was unveiled at Karori Cemetery in Wellington. It listed the 151 killed. "Des would be joking about having his name etched in marble," Ms Bennett said.

A memorial has also been erected at the site of the disaster, complete with the number plate of the ill-fated locomotive.

When the Whangaehu is calm, it is hard to imagine how it could kill. Dramatic scarring on the banks quickly reveals the river's force.

Tangiwai is New Zealand's fifth worst disaster by death toll and remains prominent in our historical consciousness.

It eclipsed the previous worst New Zealand railway disaster, the loss of 21 people on June 4, 1943 at Hyde, Central Otago.

The memory of Hyde had already been obscured by the wartime climate within which it occurred. Hyde was a hard disaster to comprehend, caused by a mix of speed, alcohol and poor maintenance. Tangiwai was more straightforward - a natural disaster beyond control.

"I have never put blame on [New Zealand Railways] and say it was an act of God," Ms Bennett said.

The drama of Tangiwai continues to resonate, its timing on Christmas Eve making it all the more poignant.

The story of international cricketer Bob Blair, on tour in South Africa when his fiancee Nerissa Love was killed at Tangiwai, has captured the public imagination on both stage and screen.

Plays such as Yvette Parsons' Silent Night have explored different personal experiences.

Poet Alan Loney attempted to deal with the death of a schoolboy friend at Tangiwai in his memoir The Falling, leading him to confront his own childhood.

This is the significance of Tangiwai. For those involved, it was a life-changing event. For those who were not, it taps into broader hopes and fears. It is woven into many stories, from cricket heroics to personal endurance.

It was, and is, more than a railway disaster. Andre Brett is a member of the teaching and research staff at the University of Melbourne and has researched the Tangiwai and Hyde railway disasters. He is the grandson of Ted and Patricia Brett.

The Dominion Post