Ōngarue Rail Disaster (1923)
On this day 6 July 1923 17 people died in a train crash at Ōngarue near Taumaranui.
This stands today as the country’s third most deadly rail disaster. The worst in terms of loss of life was the 1953 Tangiwai Disaster which killed 151 people. Ten years before 21 people died in a crash at Hyde.
The southbound Auckland to Wellington train was actually travelling very slowly when it ploughed into a slip on a blind corner one early morning at Ōngarue. The impact was such that some passengers didn’t even get a fright. Those in three wooden carriages which telescoped into one another were not so fortunate. Detective John Walsh who was travelling in one of the unharmed carriages did not think there was a problem until a call went out for doctors, and even then he alighted expecting to find people with minor wounds. Instead he found a scene of carnage with some carriages completely derailed, and gas seeping into those that had telescoped.
The rescuers later found themselves under attack for irreverent treatment of the dead. There were also reports of civilians roaming round freely searching the bodies. Police and doctors hotly denied these charges. They said their immediate focus was on the living not the dead, so some bodies weren’t attended to immediately. They categorically denied the charge regarding civilians.
Shown here is the report by Ongarue police constable Thomas Mahoney on the rescue of the injured passengers.
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