Wellington remembers the Wahine disaster
April 12, 2018
Wild weather eerily reminiscent to that seen exactly 50 years ago forced the Wahine memorial indoors.
Hundreds of rescuers, survivors, their families took shelter from the wind and rain at Shed 6 on the waterfront to commemorate the Wahine disaster which took place 50 years ago today.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and Wellington mayor Justin Lester were also in attendance, along with Rongotai MP Paul Eagle and members of the Wahine 50 trust board.
The Prime Minister took the opportunity to reflect on Kiwi heroism.
“I am humbled by the unbreakable resilience of our people and how we help one another in our times of need. We cannot rewrite history, and those lost cannot be brought back to us, but by gathering in commemoration we ensure the story of the Wahine live on in our nation’s memory. The legacy of the Wahine is one of sadness but it is also one of gratitude.”
“I felt honoured to be there today,” she said later.
“It was astounding to me to walk past so many people wearing name tags that said ‘passenger’ or ‘rescuer’. It had an impact on just so many people and their lives.”
Wellington mayor Justin Lester said it was a ‘poignant time’ for Wellingtonians, and that it reminded the city of its tenacity in the face of adversity.
“It showed the strength of the Wellington communities, people prepared to get out and help as best they could. The Wellington community stood up and were counted.”
MP Paul Eagle, whose constituency includes Seatoun where many survivors were received, said it was a ‘very sad’ time but that it was important to remember that day and the impact it had on peoples’ lives.
Nurse Shirley Lanigan helped rescue people on the shore at Pencarrow Head.
“I was sent round in an ambulance to Pencarrow. It was awful. The weather was just like this, but the waves were just horrendous, it was like a whirlpool really. We had to walk from the corner right round, because they couldn’t get any vehicles through. Eventually they got jeeps in, they got the army.
She said the memorial was ‘emotional at times’ but that it was also good to see how emergency and rescue services had improved in the 50 years since.
“We’re more aware. A lot of good things came out of it, you have to keep thinking positive. We needed it, didn’t we?”
At 12pm the congregation braved the weather to observe a flotilla held in honour of the rescuers.
Police Commissioner Mike Bush stood to attention as the flotilla circled in the harbour by Frank Kitts Park.
He said the experience of being there was ‘very humbling.’
“It’s very important we acknowledge all of the people who passed in this disaster but also the people who risked their lives to save the lives of others.
“A lot of our people, as they do, went out there with everyone else to save the lives of many many people. It’s just typical of New Zealanders that they stand up on these occasions.”
Clive Conland and his wife Jeanette Conland, who were reporters for the Dominion, covered the events on that fateful day.
“The rain was just driving through. First of all it was like, oh it’s a great story. Then it became more sombre as we realised what was going on,” said Clive.
“I was sitting that evening in the newsroom alongside a young journalist who been across that side. He’d got sent over there and he was just sitting in front of his typewriter and he was just zonked out – just exhaustion and shock, he’d probably never have seen anything like that.
“People just didn’t expect something like that to happen, in the middle of the harbour, so close to shore.”