Tangiwai disaster book a must-read

Wreckage from the fateful train trip.
Wreckage from the fateful train trip.

A new book uncovering two unsung heroes of the Tangiwai disaster has become an international must-read.

Sixty years after the Christmas Eve tragedy, a British journalist's recreation of the fateful train trip on Christmas Eve 1953 based on interviews and recollections, has made the UK Daily Mail's must-read book list.

The Auckland to Wellington train plunged into the swollen Whangaehu River at Tangiwai, killing 151 people, after the rail bridge collapsed.

London-based Benedict Le Vay first heard of the Tangiwai disaster from the family of his then-wife, who were from Waiouru.

"If you mentioned it, the women would go quite tearful and the men would bite their lips because they had to clear up the bodies. It was pretty distressing, and on Christmas Day as well."

It was during his time in Wellington working as a sub-editor for the Dominion during the late 1980s that he first became really interested in researching the story for himself. He had a special interest because he came from a family of Indian railwaymen.

That curiosity turned into a 15-year project that turned up some very interesting questions.

"It gradually became clear to me that the driver, Charles Parker, and fireman Lance Redman had been left out of the equation."

It was their strict adherence to rail paperwork protocol that likely saw them miss Taihape postman Cyril Ellis running down the line waving his torch to signal them of the dangers, Le Vay said.

"When the train was headed into the water, the usual protocol was to jump off, but they didn't. There was evidence. ... they were fighting to save as many passengers as they could and they paid with their lives for it."

He believed the pair should have been awarded the George Medal for bravery alongside Ellis and passenger John Holman, who saved several people that night.

"It left a dark cloud over the railwaymen."

His book Weeping Waters, named after the Maori translation of Tangiwai, asks the Queen - who was visiting Auckland at the the time of the tragedy - to right this wrong and acknowledge the two men's sacrifice.

The author also hoped his writing captured life in New Zealand in the 1950s, he said.

The disaster had a large impact on New Zealand, with almost everyone having a connection to someone on board the train.

With many of the Wellington residents on the train bound for Auckland from the capital, Le Vay said the disaster was as much the capital's as the Central Plateau's.

"I've started the story with chocolates in Lambton Quay and doing Christmas shopping in Kirkcaldies ... and then at the end you've got the mass burial at Karori."

He believed when writing the book it was a compelling enough tale to touch an international audience.

"If it's a human story of heroism and disaster people will want to read it." 

Weeping Waters is available as a paperback and as an ebook from Amazon.

Fairfax Media