Media release – The Wahine Disaster, Catalyst for Change

49th Wahine Day, 10 April 2017

“The significance of the Wahine disaster for New Zealand goes well beyond the events of the day,” says Lieutenant General (Retired) Rhys Jones, Chair of the Wahine 50 Charitable Trust (set up to help plan and deliver the 50th Wahine Day commemorations on 10 April 2018).

The Wahine disaster is well documented. Forty-nine years ago, on 10 April 1968, the passenger ferry Wahine, buffeted by ferocious gale-force winds, ran aground on Barrett Reef at the entrance of Wellington Harbour, listed, and then sank. Fifty-one of the 734 passengers and crew on the Wahine died that day, most of them on the rocks at Pencarrow on the Eastbourne coast. Another two died later from their injuries.

“The loss of life was tragic and those 53 will always be remembered,” says Rhys. “But it was thanks to the courageous actions of many others in the face of treacherous conditions, that such a large number survived.”

Life Flight trustee Bill Day (left), Wellington Volunteer Coastguard president Vicki Rowland, and Wahine 50 Trust chairman Rhys Jones, stand in Wahine Memorial Park. Photo/Jun Tanlayco

“This tragedy led to improved safety procedures on ships and prompted the creation of two significant rescue services: the Wellington Volunteer Coastguard and the Life Flight Trust.”

The Wellington Volunteer Coastguard – previously called Wellington Sea Rescue – was formed and its first rescue vessel launched in response to and within a year of the disaster. A trained duty crew – from a pool of more than 60 volunteers – is on Wellington harbour every weekend and public holiday and on-call at all other times, ready to respond to calls for assistance.

And it was witnessing the demise of the Wahine and loss of life that motivated Peter Button to take flying lessons and, with neurosurgeon Dr Russell Worth, found a helicopter rescue service able to reach those in trouble as quickly as possible. The service, officially established as the Life Flight Trust in 1982, operates the Wellington-based Westpac Rescue Helicopter and a national air ambulance service, rescuing and airlifting some 1500 people every year.

“The nation-wide storm – Cyclone Giselle – that led to the Wahine’s demise, also triggered the instigation of mandatory civil defence plans by local authorities,” says Rhys.

“The theme that unites most emergency rescue agencies is two-fold.  First, ensure that you are safe by being prepared, such as having earthquake emergency kits, installing and checking fire alarms, wearing life-jackets at sea, carrying locator beacons when tramping, and letting people know what you are doing.  Secondly, be ready to help others within the limits of your capability, such as doing first aid courses, checking to see if your neighbors are safe after an earthquake, letting emergency services know if you see someone in trouble, know who to contact if you have a boat or helicopter that can respond to an emergency, and by volunteering for emergency response organisations such as the Coastguard or Search and Rescue.”

The Wahine 50 Charitable Trust is working with local councils and others to plan and deliver a day of events to mark the 50th anniversary of the Wahine disaster – on 10 April 2018. Plans include a dawn service at Eastbourne; a midday event on Wellington’s waterfront; a reunion lunch for survivors, rescuers, and family members of those on board; and an afternoon visit to the Wahine memorials at Seatoun. Interviews of survivors, rescuers and families of those involved will be filmed to help ensure future generations understand the very intense personal experiences many had 50 years ago, and the impact it had on their lives.

“As well as a time to remember those who lost their lives,” says Rhys, “the 50th will be an opportunity for the survivors to thank those who helped in the rescue and disaster relief, and to recognise the organisations that owe their origins to that day.”

“The Wahine tragedy reminds us that we live on a group of small volcanic, earthquake prone islands in a vast ocean with extensive coastline and changeable weather patterns. Safety and emergency response during accidents or disasters, particularly maritime disasters, are always going to be serious issues for New Zealanders. The 50th commemoration of this disaster will be a powerful opportunity to emphasise the need to maintain vigilance.”

For more information about the 50th anniversary programme and to register interest, visit www.wahine50.org.nz, contact the Trust on info@wahine50.org.nz and/or sign on for the Wahine 50 Trust’s e-newsletter.