Wahine disaster remembered: Stories of survival and tragedy 50 years on

Fifty years ago today, 51 people were killed on a crossing of the Lyttelton-Wellington ferry Wahine in Wellington Harbour.

Commemorations are underway in Wellington, remembering the 53 people who died in 1968. Source: 1 NEWS

With 734 passengers and crew on board and storm warnings already issued, the Wahine reached the Cook Strait as Tropical Cyclone Giselle collided with a southerly front, leading to violent turbulence and rough seas.

The inter-island ferry went down during a storm in Wellington Harbour, with the loss of 53 lives. Source: Breakfast

Just before 6am, the ferry reached the narrow Wellington Harbour entrance with winds increasing to over 100 knots.

For 30 minutes, the captain battled huge waves trying to turn the ferry back out to sea as it edged closed to the Barrett Reef.

Mr Murphy spoke with TVNZ1’s Breakfast on the 50th anniversary of the disaster that claimed 53 lives in Wellington Harbour. Source: Breakfast

When the Wahine ran aground on the reef just after 6.40am, many passengers were unaware of what had happened due to the storm beating down on the vessel. The starboard propeller had been knocked off and the ferry's engines stopped working.

The ferry drifted further up the harbour past Point Dorset with water coming on board. It was close to shore but rescuers could not reach the ship from land due to the extreme weather conditions.

A survivor later told a journalist, "We all thought there was no danger... we were sinking actually. And they had cups of tea and sandwiches and that sort of thing."

An attempt to tow the ship at midday quickly turned to failure when the tug's line snapped. Other efforts also failed.

At 1.15pm, the ship was listing heavily to starboard. The order to abandon ship came shortly before 1.30pm.

Passengers who had been previously kept unaware of just how disastrous the situation was to prevent panic, were now confused and scared as they tried to make their way to the four starboard lifeboats that could be launched.

Wahine disaster, 1968 Source: 1 NEWS

One boat was quickly swamped, two reached Seatoun and the other came ashore at Eastbourne.

The rest of those on board were now in the surging sea, many being blown across the harbour towards Eastbourne.

Around 2.30pm the ferry capsized near Steeple Rock.

Vessels that were in the harbour started pulling people from the sea.

Wellington Fire Brigade's Mr Varley later told the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation about being involved in the rescue at sea.

"It was quite frightening really, there were some quite big waves by about anyone's estimation, 15 feet at least I should think, some of them," he said.

"To see these people in the water, some of them in this sort of condition and it was fairly frightening. We took quite a few on board the Arahina from the water and a dinghy. We missed an awful lot."

At Eastbourne, emergency services and civilians had to first deal with the road being blocked by slips which delayed getting to the survivors. Many passengers had drowned, others were thrown into rocks and some that reached the shore alive, later died with delayed medical attention.

"Me and my mate said we'll grab a kid each. He grabbed a kid, I lost mine when she went in and no, I haven't seen her since," one survivor told a journalist at the scene.

Around 370 police officers were involved with the overall rescue, as well as hundreds made up of members of the public, firefighters, maritime crew and paramedics.

Wellington's new mortuary was already full at the time, and makeshift mortuaries were set up.

Soon after a NZBC journalist questioned the Union Steamship Company's managing director Mr F.K. Macfarlane over why the official statement remained that nothing was of serious danger for so long during the event, when many on the shoreline could see there was.

"We were in constant communication with the ship, with radio telephone and we knew exaclty what was going on all the time. The message indicated that the ship and the passengers were in reasonable safety," he said.

"I think we got the first indication about shortly after 1.30, when the extreme storm conditions that we were having.. the flotilla of small boats that went out deserve all the credit in the world.. tugs went out, the Aramoana went out and every attempt was made to alleviate the situaiton once the master found that the ship was listing rather more than she had been in the early stages of her dragging down the harbour," Mr Macfarlane said.

"To our way of thinking we seived right down to the bottom of the tin to try and alleviate and do whatever we could to assist not only the ship but the passengers."

Mistakes had been made on the ferry and from land during the event. A court of inquiry 10 weeks after the disaster found the build up of water in the large vehicle deck as the reason the ferry capsized. The captain was criticised for not telling authorities onshore when water began filling the vehicle deck.

Questions were raised over the timing of the call to abandon ship but the inquiry's report concluded many more people would have died if the order had come earlier when the storm was more fierce.

Another passenger died weeks later, while the last victim died years later from injuries in 1990.