We are Family (Part II)

Pillows of the Dead

John Archer 1987

Our house at Mangamahu was on the edge of a cliff high above the Whangaehu river, 50 miles down-river from where the railway line crossed it at Tangiwai. The Tangiwai disaster profoundly affected Christmas for all of us at Mangamahu.

I was twelve years old that Christmas morning
Nineteen fifty-three
And Santa had come (or dad and mum!),
What would our presents be ?
Well, my pillow case was bulging,
Full of presents, by my bed –
Then the river brought those pillows of the dead
We’d just opened up our presents
When a roaring wall of mud
Poured down the gorge behind us
Tossing pillows on its flood
And a thousand shattered timbers
Painted railway carriage red
“Can we go down to the river, Mum?”
“Come inside”
she said
“They’re the pillows of the dead.”

Dad drove off down the valley
He was gone all Christmas day
“Y’ father’s saving people’s luggage
that the flood has swept away”

But he came home all mud and sulphur
“Don’t go near the lorry-shed”
And I knew he’d brought home pillows of the dead

They brought 40 bods into our shed
I saw Dad bring in one
On the back of his five-tonner
In the blazing summer sun
Half-covered by a wool-pack
With arms and legs outspread
And I stared at that pillow of the dead

Dad drove us up the valley
To the bridge at Tangiwai
And I touched the wreckage
On the mountain-side
But I never touched the muddy mess
That had bulged inside my head
Since the day I saw that pillow of the dead

God, take away that pillow of the dead!
Give peace to us who live among the dead
Give peace to all the living and the dead
Give peace to all your living and your dead.
Give peace to all your living and your dead.

Mangamahu after the Tangiwai disaster

At 10.20 pm on Christmas Eve 1953, a lahar from Mt Ruapehu came rushing down the Whangaehu river and swept away the Tangiwai railway bridge as the Limited Express was crossing it.The engine and six carriages went into torrent, at just about the very moment as my parents were filling our pillow cases with Christmas presents.

We woke up mum and dad just before 6-o-clock on Christmas morning to show them what Father Christmas had brought us. And dad turned on his bedside radio to see how many runs Australia had scored overnight in their Test against England for the Ashes.

Click to enlarge

Photo: Karen Harris

Instead, he heard the announcement “A passenger train has been swept away in a flood at Sulphur Creek.” He and mum left us to our toys and went out and across the road to the cliff above the river. Just as they got there, they heard a great roaring. A huge wall of liquid mud, 10 feet high, swept into view.

When I joined them a few minutes later, I was struck by all the pillows being swept down by the torrent. Passengers on the Limited Express used to pay two shillings to hire a pillow, kapok filled, with a freshly washed white pillowslip on it, to make their overnight journey more comfortable. There were dozens and dozens of these white pillows floating past. But my dad had noticed that some of the ‘pillows’ were the naked backs of dead passengers . . .

______________________________ I have recently been talking (March 2001) to an old Mangamahu farmer who was involved in helping the police to recover the bodies which were washed 50 miles down the Whangaehu river into the papa gorges at Mangamahu.

Actually, this is a non-police story. The old police constables who came out from Wanganui that Christmas morning gave up and went back into town again after trying to get down bluffs to the first couple of bodies.

Click to enlarge

Photo: Karen Harris

It was left solely to the young farming men of Mangamahu to recover the bodies during that first week. There were no jet boats then, no helicopters, no body bags, no rubber gloves. Apart from four good keen men from the Wellington tramping club, who turned up to help on Boxing Day, there was no outside help at all.

Near Aranui, a couple of men swam down a long stretch of river, seaching for bodies caught up in the trees. At Harris’s, a couple of boys scrambled and slid down crumbling 100 foot papa bluffs, grabbing at dangling roots of kowhai trees to get to the bodies.

They carried horribly mangled bodies up out of the river trench, often by swimming, then climbing 15 feet up willow trees to bring the dangling bodies down, and then, with many of them, man-handling them straight up the papa bluffs, slung near-naked across their backs.


Bluffs at Polson’s Top Place
Click to enlarge

Photo: Karen Harris

Many of the bodies were of young women. The first carriage to be swept into the river was apparently full of Bible School trainees.

“Almost as hard to cope with,” said Reid Kellick later, “Were all the Christmas toys. All those teddy bears and koalas, soaked with mud and with their legs torn off. I couldn’t get them out of my mind.”

A few days later a methodical search was organised, with teams working their way along both sides of the river, from bridge to bridge. A couple of days beforehand my dad asked me to paint some signs identifying all our bridges for the outsiders who came to help in the search. “The white bridge, Cox’s cage, McDonald’s bridge, Mangamahu bridge, Rush Flat cage, Garland’s bridge, Harris’s bridge, Bakers bridge, Aranui bridge, Polson’s top place.”

Then, every morning after the big search, the river was searched for bodies with the aid of an Air Force life-raft. Local farmer John Polson had been a flying instructor at Ohakea during the war, and he obtained the liferaft from the air-base there. Each morning the young local men took turns to come down the river in pairs looking for the Tangiwai victims who had been buried in the mud, and who floated to the surface as their bodies swelled.

I was a 12 year old at the time, living in the middle of the Mangamahu village. My dad was the local carrier.

In the middle of the day, my dad would collect the “bods,” as they were referred to, on the back of his truck and bring them to our lorry-shed, right beside our house. Over the weeks of those strange school summer holidays, they stored 40 bods in our shed. My mum and a couple of other ladies would wash the mud and blood and maggots off them and tidy them up decently.

Memorial at Karori Cemetery
Click for full image

My mum’s guiding principle was ‘What would people think?’. What would people think if we sent their sons and daughters back to them looking like that?

Every evening, another carrier would come out from Wanganui and take the day’s collection into town on the back of his road-metal truck with raised sides, with a tarpaulin covering the truck’s deck.

I never saw a policeman at Mangamahu during the whole of that period.

______________________________ The searchers at Mangamahu generally only found victims whose bodies were intact, and consequently who would float. But they also reported that they often saw viscera hooked up on the willow branches, an indication that many victims had been ripped open, and consequently remained buried in the mud.

About a year after the train disaster, the skeleton of one of these latter victims was found in the eroding mud at the river edge. The police were informed, and possibly to compensate for their absence a year earlier, came out and did a big “possible murder” investigation, making a huge fuss. All the locals were very upset by this, and a few years later when other Tangiwai bones were found, they were just quietly reburied by the river bank.

All that stuff you read in books about the Tangiwai disaster, about pulling people out of the mud at the edge of the river beside the wrecked train that night, all that was nothing to what the Mangamahu people did further down the river, for weeks on end, and which never got reported.

Those Mangamahu people were heroes.

John Archer

Contact me about how the Tangiwai disaster affected you.


From http://www.folksong.org.nz/pillows/index.html


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4 Responses to We are Family (Part II)

  1. I agree they were heroes. I’ve got leaky eyes as I read about the pillows what reminded me of all the people who used them while sleeping in the train.

  2. Kyla says:

    One of the things that will never leave your mind. They remember the San Francisco earthquake (no, not the one in 1906 but 1989). The reminder of the powers of nature.

  3. Nice to see you out and about in blogland. Hope you are feeling better. From Nellie and Jasper, the two bestest maremmas in all the land.

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