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Bridge Plunge of the Aukland Express
Walouru, New Zealand, 1953
Lehar swept away rail bridge
Walouru 1953

Bridge Plunge of the Aukland Express
Text-only version

New Zealand Railways 24 December, 1953: One hundred and fifty-one people were killed in the Wellington - Auckland express as a direct result of the eruption of Mt Ruapehu on New Zealand's North Island.

Walouru, NZ 1953 The scene of destruction at Walouru on 24/12/53

It was Christmas Eve and 285 people were aboard the Wellington-Auckland express travelling home for Christmas. The train was keeping good time as it passed through Walouru and approached the bridge that carried the line over the Whangaehu river.

In the distance Mount Ruapehu, an active volcano of some 9000 feet was erupting. Within its crater was a lake. The forces created within the mountain caused the water to find a sudden exit in cave beneath the Whangaehu glacier. As the massive flow of water left the mountain it gathered volcanic ash and lumps of ice. As it proceeded along the river valley it collapsed the valley sides and collected silt and boulders and other debris so that it formed a "lehar".

It swept down the valley and completely overwhelmed the bridge ahead of the train. The fourth pier was demolished and the fifth damaged. The postmaster in the town of Taihape saw the damage to the bridge and attempted to warn the approaching train by running along the track waving a torch. The driver however failed to see his frantic efforts to avert disaster.

Walouru, NZ 1953 Wreckage of one of the carriages of the Wellington - Auckland express
The locomotive and six coaches plunged thorugh the gap in the bridge into the raging torrent below. Such was the force of the lehar that one of the carriages was carried for a distance of 5 miles and some bodies were found 30 miles away. A total of 151 people died.

As a consequence of this disaster and the possibility that another lehar could affect any of a number of the valleys in the area, detection equipment was installed on all the rail bridges in the locality.

Disasters at Christmas in the Twentieth Century

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Copyright David Fry 1999
This file last updated: Wednesday, 19-May-1999 18:41:47 EDT