Tangiwai Disaster 1953: Bravery Medal Awarded to Local Hero

On Sunday, 7 May 2017 a national memorial for engine driver Charlie Parker and fireman Lance Redmond was unveiled at the Tangiwai Rail Disaster Memorial site on SH49 near Waiouru. A display at the National Army Museum remembers the heartbreaking story of the Tangiwai Disaster and showcases the George Medal awarded to Taihape resident Arthur Cyril Ellis. On the fateful night of the disaster local postal worker Arthur Ellis became a hero as he first tried to avert the disaster and then bravely saved train passengers. He was awarded the George Medal in 1954 in acknowledgement of his courageous efforts on the night.

The George Medal

The George Medal (GM) was instituted along with the George Cross (GC) in 1940, and is awarded to civilians for acts of great bravery. The medal can also be awarded to military personnel for bravery while not in direct action with the enemy. The medal on display within the National Army Museum was awarded to Arthur (Cyril) Ellis. a postal worker from Taihape and is in the original box and condition as the Museum received it.

Citation for the George Medal:

“Honours and Awards January 1954

George Medal Mr Arthur Cyril Ellis of Taihape

At Tangiwai on the night of 24 December 1953 Arthur Cyril Ellis was witness to a railway disaster he had endeavoured to avert by waving his torch ahead of the approaching express. After the engine and five carriages had crashed into the flooded Wangaehu River, Arthur Ellis entered the train and, with the Guard, went forward to the sixth carriage, which was balancing on the brink of the torrent. As he was beginning the movement of the passengers from the carriage it toppled forward into the river and was swept downstream. When it came to rest on its side, Arthur Ellis, who throughout displayed much calm and continued to allay panic, broke a window by means of his torch and, with the aid of another passenger, John Warren Holman, assisted to safely all surviving passengers from the partially submerged carriage. Through his present of mind and his courageous actions, in circumstances of extreme danger, Arthur Ellis assisted in the saving of twenty-one lives.”

The 1953 Tangiwai Rail Disaster

New Zealand’s most tragic railway disaster occurred on Christmas Eve 1953, when one hundred and fifty men, women and children lost their lives. At 10.21 pm the Wellington to Auckland express plunged into the Whangaehu River as only minutes before, a sudden discharge of thousands of tonnes of water from the crater lake of Mount Ruapehu sent a 6 metre wave on a path of destruction, and in its path was the railway bridge at Tangiwai.

The alert spread to the Army at the nearby Waiouru Military Camp, the Navy at HMNZS Irirangi and the Ministry of Works (MoW) also at Waiouru. Only about two dozen soldiers were on duty when the alarm was sounded however within minutes, trucks and jeeps were rounding up volunteers. Flares, axes, shovels, blankets and all sorts of emergency gear were rushed to the river. At 11.30 pm, a little more than an hour after the disaster, the Army brought up a diesel generator, four spotlights and a carbon arc searchlight.

At Waiouru Camp the staff had begun a round the clock effort. Cookhouses baked and prepared enough food and hot drinks to feed the hundreds who were helping, as well as relatives of victims who were coming on the sad journey to identify their loved ones. The hall, still decorated for the children’s Christmas party had become a temporary mortuary, where half opened coffins were laid in orderly rows.

The New Zealand Prime Minister Mr Sidney Holland visited the Waiouru Military Camp hospital where many of the survivors (whom were all suffering from shock), huddled in disbelief. As he told a press conference later, “I saw the Navy, Army, Railways and MoW employees who had toiled all night and who, although almost dropping with fatigue, were still carrying on and no words of mine could hope to pay tribute to them. The Navy, Army and the Police had all rendered magnificent service there.”