In a strange twist of fate New Zealand Railways engine driver Angus Tait’s seemingly needless death from influenza during the pandemic in 1918 saved the lives of many passengers in a train crash - two days after he died.
While curious tales are part of our bread and butter, this is one of the strangest we have come across.
Angus McMillan Tait was born on 5 January 1885 in Herbert, Otago to John Tait and his wife Sarah McMillan. He married Lucy Wansbone in 1908 and, with his job for the railways, the couple and their children moved around New Zealand.
In 1918, while living in Ohakune Junction, Tait contracted the dreaded “Spanish Flu”. He died on 6 November.
Arrangements were made for Tait’s body to be taken to Oamaru for burial.
A mortuary car was hitched behind the engine of the Auckland to Wellington Express train and his coffin was loaded up in the early hours of 8 November.
Behind this was the mail car in which postal employees John Hercules Williams, 31, and Raymond Martin, 30, were sorting post.
Hitched to the mail car was a second-class smoker carriage in which 78-year-old Henry Welch was happily puffing away his time, and the car behind this was a second-class passenger, which carried several people, including Whanganui blacksmith Francis James Johnston, 44.
This was then followed by several other passenger cars.
As the express travelled south through rolling farmland, rain poured steadily down. At about 6.20am the train rounded a bend just north of Mataroa and the engine ploughed headlong into a massive slip which had fallen onto the tracks.
The mortuary car, the mail car and two subsequent passenger cars were smashed to pieces. Williams and Martin were killed instantly.
Welch suffered severe injuries. On being informed he probably would not survive, he asked for a cigarette, which the doctor kindly provided. He died while it was still lit.
Johnston died the following day.
Reports after the crash pointed out that without Tait’s mortuary car to buffer the impact of the crash, the death toll would have been much higher.
Amazingly, Tait’s coffin was thrown from the car on impact and was recovered from a nearby gully completely intact. It was transported to Oamaru, where he was buried on 11 November.
Now you might think this is the end of this curious tale, but it’s not.
Seven months after Tait’s death, his wife Lucy gave birth to a son, whom she named Angus McMillan Tait, after his father. If you live in Christchurch, or work in IT, you may be thinking the name Angus McMillan Tait may ring a bell – and you’d be right.
Angus Tait, junior, founded Tait Electronics, one of New Zealand’s largest and most important radio communications companies. The company, now Tait Communications, is a global brand. Angus junior was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1992 and a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (for services to technology, manufacturing and export) in 1999. Sir Angus died in 2007.
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