Photo triggers memories for man who attended Tangiwai rail disaster

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By Liz Wylie

Whanganui man Bruce Harper was taken back 63 years when he saw a photo in the Wanganui Chronicle last week.

The photo, which shows a man surveying the wreckage of the train that crashed into the Whangaehu River at Tangiwai in 1953, has special significance for Mr Harper, because he was there and the man pictured was his boss.

The man in the 1953 photo at Tangiwai is engineer Hugh Stevens.
The man in the 1953 photo at Tangiwai is engineer Hugh Stevens.

"The man in the photo is Hugh Stevens who was the district engineer for NZ Rail in Whanganui at the time.

"I was a draftsman for the railways, and I travelled to Tangiwai with Mr Stevens and a group of senior engineers to carry out a site survey after the crash," said Mr Harper.

"I had to take measurements at the site and tell the engineers so they could write their report."

Mr Harper said he must have been about 16 at the time and recalls being upset by the sight of the wreckage.

"I remember that Mr Stevens was upset, too, and I would have been standing somewhere behind him when that photo was taken.

"He was a lovely man and well liked and respected by everyone who worked at the railways then."

Mr Harper said he had never been back to the crash site since 1953 but thinks he would like to go and see the memorial there.

Continued below.

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"I left the railways not long after that and went to work for the Post Office because there was more opportunity for promotion as a draftsman at the time," he says.

Bruce Harper was a young draftsman when he visited the site of the Tangiwai disaster in 1953.

Photo Stuart Munro
Bruce Harper was a young draftsman when he visited the site of the Tangiwai disaster in 1953. Photo Stuart Munro

Heritage Minister Maggie Barry will be at Tangiwai near Waiouru on May 7 for the unveiling of two plaques recording the bravery of the train driver and the fireman in the 1953 Christmas Eve rail disaster.

Train driver Charles Parker and fireman Lance Redman were among the 151 people who died in the disaster, but their actions helped save the lives of 130 passengers travelling on the Christmas Eve Wellington-Auckland night express.

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Arthur Cyril Ellis, a young postal worker from Taihape, was unable to cross the flooded bridge in his car that night.

He tried to warn the train driver and it is believed his action may have prompted Charles Parker to apply the brakes.

Mr Ellis and passenger John Holman were later awarded the George Medal for their services at Tangiwai.

The two men helped to rescue 22 passengers from one of the sticken carriages.

The two plaques of honour have been organised by the Ruapehu Lions and made possible with a donation from the Lloyd Morgan Trust.

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