Family memory of Tangiwai train driver hero lives on

EMILY BEAUMONT
Last updated 12:00 24/12/2013
Thelma McArthur
EMILY BEAUMONT/ Fairfax NZ
MEMORY: Thelma McArthur cherishes a photo of her father, Charlie Parker, who died in the Tangiwai Disaster.

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Tangiwai Disaster train driver Charlie Parker will always remain a hero to his Taihape daughter.

Parker's was one of the 151 lives lost 60 years ago today, when a train plunged into the Whangaehu River after a lahar from Mt Ruapehu weakened the Tangiwai rail bridge.

In December 1953, Thelma McArthur, then 22, was working as a machine knitter in Taihape. Living with her family in a railway house in Eagle St, she was enjoying a Christmas Eve dance in the town hall when she got a tap on the shoulder.

"A railway man came and said 'I think you'd better go home to your mother, because we're not sure but there's a train gone at the Tangiwai Bridge'."

The railway man thought the train may have got through, but warned her not to say anything to her mother until they had official word. She returned home from the dance with her siblings, and the children and their mother headed to the station, where they were told: "No, the whole lot have gone."

Their father had perished in what remains New Zealand's worst rail disaster.

"He was a proper dad, we played a lot of games and went swimming and had picnics," Thelma McArthur remembered fondly.

Evidence suggested that Mr Parker, driving from Wellington to Auckland on his last trip before Christmas, had applied the brakes about 200 metres from the bridge, preventing the last three carriages from toppling into the river. This action probably saved many lives.

British journalist Benedict Le Vay developed an interest in the disaster while working in Wellington in the 1980s. His curiosity became a 15-year project, culminating in the book Weeping Waters.

Mr Parker was one of two Taihape men who emerged from Le Vay's research as a hero. Train fireman Lance Redman was the other.

"When the train was headed into the water, the usual protocol was to jump off, but they didn't," Le Vay said.

"There was evidence they were fighting to save as many passengers as they could and they paid with their lives for it."

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