Wednesday 11 April 2018

Wahine Disaster 50th anniversary

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of New Zealand's worst shipping disaster: the sinking of the TEV Wahine.   This is a significant event in my family as my dad, Norman Wansbrough, was one of the members of the public who rescued survivors washed up on the Eastbourne coast.

For the 40th anniversary he wrote down some of his recollections of the day.  I have republished those below.  Underneath that are links to Radio New Zealand's coverage of the 50th anniversary (including various people's recollections of the day and historic audio and video), as well as photos taken by my parents at previous commemorations.

If you're not familiar with the story of the sinking of the Wahine you can read about what happened here and here.

My dad at the right, in Wahine Park in Mirimar a the 2013 commemoration

Norman Wansbrough's recollections of Wahine Day

(written in 2008)

On the evening of the 10th April 1968 I heard on the BBC news being rebroadcast in NZ the opening line "250 missing after a NZ ferry sank in Wellington Harbour during the worst storm since records had been kept". I realised then that I had that day been part of an event that was attracting worldwide attention.

After breakfast I was walking up to the bathroom when over the radio came a news flash.  The Wahine is aground on Barretts Reef.  It was our first indication of just how bad the storm battering Wellington was.  I am sure thousands of people immediately thought Barretts Reef - Wanganella.

They were remembering how in January 1947 the Wanganella, the ship that sailed from Australia to NZ had gone aground on Barretts Reef.  But conditions that time were vastly different.  It was a calm, cloudless, moonlit night.  On Wahine day hurricane force winds were battering Wellington.  Winds of over 200 km per hour were causing havoc and wrecked thousands of homes.  A doctor I knew told me how from the 5th floor ward he was on he could see rubbish bin lids flying up as high as the 5th floor.  Sheets of corrugated iron were ripped off and blown around.  One child was killed when a sheet went into her room.  But at sea another storm was unfolding.

I went off to work and was amazed by all the cars strewn along the road broken down.  At work there was no power.  We were sent home shortly after 10.   The bus journey normally took about 40-50 minutes but that day it took 2 hours.  At one point we detoured to avoid debris on the road.  At another the bus crawled along in first gear battling the huge winds.  Suddenly a huge wave came out of the sea and over the bus.  It was quite frightening.  The bus rocked terribly.

At about 1.15 I heard on the radio that the Wahine was being abandoned.  I decided to go to the end of the street to see what I could see.  Then my mother came rushing in to say that there were lots of ambulances etc. going past the end of the street.  As I went to look it seemed to be one vehicle after another rushing past all with flashing red lights and sirens.  The noise was almost deafening as it boomed off the hills.

I went down to the beach.  Then I realised this wasn't a thing to watch: this was a disaster.

Across the harbour I could see a lifeboat full of people.  Obviously out of control.  Then I saw a bright red and orange canopy of a life raft.  I could see it heading for the beach some distance from where I was but on my side of the harbour.  I ran and walked towards it some two miles away.  I was amazed how many people were in the area and how dark and horrible it all was.  Quite a few liferafts were drifting around.  I helped pull in one that came close to shore.  It was a sad sight as the canopy was pulled back.  There was no one inside.  But there had been.  There were cigarette boxes and clothing.

While I was waiting I went down to the beach and was walking along in the water thinking when suddenly I looked up.  I started to run.  In front of me as if it was about to run me over was a huge ship - the Aramoana.  It was heading straight for the beach.  It looked so big and so close because there was nothing to compare its size or position.  It was a grey-out if you like.  Like a white-out on Mt. Erebus.  The sea and sky all merged in the rain of grey.  Size is dependent on comparison, eg. the sun at twilight sometimes looks huge.

Then I wandered off towards the road that lead to the harbour entrance.  I listened to a police radio and then I took off.  I hadn't gone very far when I came across a baby being carried by people who were not its parents.  It was at that point I decided to get thoroughly involved.  I ran on.

I found there was myself, another man and two policemen.  As far as I could see it was a line of wet, injured people walking and stumbling along.  I didn't know what to do.  So many people, so many needing help.  A policeman called to me to help him.  He showed me how to make a seat with our hands and we carried a man some distance.

Then came my first big mistake.  I tired myself out helping someone who could walk who was near help.

People came in waves as lifeboats came ashore.  People were very frightened and most were injured.  All were suffering from exposure.

I didn't know until the next day the ship had capsized in the harbour.  I thought it was at sea.

People left the ship in terrible conditions.  30-40 foot waves.  Over 10 m high in strong waves.  50kmph winds.

Many life boats couldn't be launched or capsized.  Life rafts blown away.  A lot of people who died were killed by head injuries.

I helped quite a few people and often wonder about them.

Ran to people in water.  Stopped as all dead.

I saw a man acting as if drunk; his girlfriend hysterical.  They didn't know where they were.

Talked to an Army Officer.  I saw my first body - wanted to get him.

I went on.  Then was the saddest experience.  I took a short cut across an area I had known well from childhood.  I suddenly came across a man who had just died.  He had crawled up the beach and died 2m from the road behind some scrub.  As I looked down at him lying face down on the ground I felt overwhelmed as I thought of his family listening to the radio hoping Dad was alright.  Only I knew he was dead.

I thought what would happen.  I remembered when my own father died.  Waiting.  The knock on the door.  "Is this your..." etc.  It was very hard.

I went off and saw another body.

Police ran rock under wheel.  Smallest crawled under.  Eventually the truck picked me up.  Slow journey.  We stopped continually to shift bodies.

Eventually we got to Hinds Point - the narrowest point of the harbour.  I saw a lifeboat pitched out of the sea and crack down on the rocky shore.  The force!  We were told not to go into the sea to get bodies.

While I was standing on the beach I watched a body being smashed again and again on the rocks just off the beach.  It was horrible.

I saw a policeman go in and make a human chain where I had meant to go in by myself.  I was shocked at how near to death I had come.

When I saw a lifeboat come in towards the rocks - stop! stop!

We climbed up a bank to get to the roadway.  I slipped and fell down the bank to the beach below. As I fell I called out.  The police stoped and waved out.  They thought I was OK.

I found I was injured.  Lying on my back rain beating against my face.  I remember praying and thinking about my life.  Eventually I found I could roll over, then crawl. I went up the bank.

A Salvation Army Officer I knew from church and his daughter in the uniform of my old school of Hutt Valley High.

Long long walk home - about 6 miles.

Night lights on the water.

What did I learn?
  1. I was a lot stronger mentally than I thought.  I was not a very strong person physically, not good at sports and I was the smallest in my class.  All of that didn't matter.  What mattered was I knew myself and my capabilites, and to keep going.
  2. The people needing the most help are not the people you first come across.  The unconscious and those with broken limbs can't walk.
  3. Need to know what to do - ABC, recovery position etc. are things everyone should know.
  4. Stop and think before you do anything dangerous - the human chain etc.  You could get killed.  Worse, you may get injured and need someone else to help you out.

Coverage of the anniversary by Radio New Zealand National
Wahine rescuer remembers tragedy 50 years later
Wahine disaster hero: What happened to boy I saved?
Wahine survivors reflect on disaster during 50th anniversary
Wahine sinking remembered 50 years on - includes audio from the day of the sinking.
Wahine memorial unveiled in Wellington - includes audio from the day of the sinking.
One Quick Question for 10 April 2018 - the first half of this answers questions related to the sinking
Wahine disaster victims recall their ordeal - the Wahine material starts five minutes in
My Wahine story 
Tears mingle with rain as Wahine survivors gather 50 years on
Sober weather for Wahine 50 year commemorations - written coverage of the commemorations, including an image gallery
Wahine 50 years on | A Gallery from Sunday Morning
 - an image gallery
NZBC Classics - Wahine Disaster | Television | NZ On Screen - TV news footage from the day of the sinking and the day following (to switch between them use the tabs under the image)

Photos by my parents

Wahine funnels at Wahine Park in Mirimar

Wahine life ring at Wellington Museum

Model of the listing Wahine at Wellington Museum

Commemorative plaque at Burdens Gate, Eastbourne

Wahine mast memorial near Eastbourne

One of the buses that carried survivors away from the coast

The 2013 commemoration in Wahine Park

Plaque to the rescuers at Wellington waterfront

1 comment:

  1. I was thinking about your dad when I was listening to some of the coverage on RNZ the other day.