December 24

This Day in History

Disaster

Dec 24, 1953:

Volcanic eruption sweeps away train

In a highly unusual chain of events, a volcanic eruption in New Zealand causes a flood that sweeps away a train filled with passengers on this day in 1953. More than 150 people lost their lives in this improbable disaster.

At the top of a 9,000-foot volcano, Mount Ruapehu, on New Zealand's North Island laid a lake and a glacier. On December 24, a minor eruption of the volcano released the lake waters down a glacial valley and gorge. The surging water thundered down the mountain toward the town of Waiouri. Before it reached the community, it slammed into a bridge just before a train crossed it.

The Wellington to Auckland express train had nine cars filled with people traveling on Christmas Eve. Many were on their way to see Great Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, who was making a rare visit to New Zealand. The charging lake water slammed into the Tangiwai Railroad Bridge and weakened it so much that when the train came to the bridge, it gave way, sending six cars of the train plunging into the flood water. They sank almost immediately. Out of the 285 passengers on board, 151 died, and many of the bodies were never recovered.

Some of the train cars were later found many miles downstream from the bridge. It is estimated that millions of gallons of water had been released from the lake due to the eruption. However, other than that done to the railroad bridge, there was no other damage. The water simply flowed into the Whangaehu River and out to sea.

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