First responder Bruce Thompson attended Sunday’s 70th anniversary, which was delayed so all those who wanted to be there could.
He was 16 years old when he was lowered into the muddy waters to help with the rescue. He said the third carriage was cut in two, and washed clear of all passengers.
He describes Tangiwai now as “a desolate spot”.
“There’s no happy memories but there’s memories to be had and respected, and today they are.”
Despite the devastation, tales of hope were shared at the 70th anniversary commemorations.
“Two forestry men spotted something in the mud and went over to investigate and found an engagement ring. They thought they had a body, but then she reached out – it scared the living hell out of them but the woman lived,” Thompson said.
One woman who travelled on the train from Paraparaumu for the anniversary told Newshub she remembered how New Zealand stopped that Christmas, as news dominated the airwaves.
“I remember it as a young girl, friends of my father’s were all looking for bodies. It was just awful,” she recalled.
Ruapehu District Mayor Weston Kirton said Sunday is about Kiwis “pausing to do what you are doing and taking time out to reflect”.
It’s reflection and recognition that will continue, with plans afoot to build a new, much bigger memorial at Tangiwai – recognising the significance of one of the country’s darkest days.