The Third Landing Site: Wahine 50 years ago

A story I wrote about Kevin Mitchell’s experience of Wahine Day was published on-line by Stuff today, to mark the 50th anniversary of the disaster this week.

Tucked into Kevin Mitchell’s copy of a book about the history of the Wellington Free Ambulance Service is a typed report posted to him at his home in Wadestown, written 50 years ago. The report, by Major Gordon Stanley of the Free Ambulance service, provided Kevin with the organisation’s official record on the events of 10 April 1968, the day the Wahine sank. It is valuable as a record of Kevin’s contribution to the work of the ambulance service on that dramatic day.

Stanley’s report outlines the three locations at which the ambulance service worked – at Seatoun Wharf, where many of the survivors were landed, assessed and taken to hospital as needed; at Eastbourne, where the most horrifying scenes unfolded; and finally, the third location, the Interisland Ferry Terminal, where Kevin’s experience of Wahine Day unfolded.

Kevin had worked for the Wellington Free Ambulance for 5½ years, and had greatly enjoyed the work, but had since returned to a career in cabinet-making. However, on that day, as the unbelievable tragedy unfolded in the harbour before him, Kevin returned to the ambulance service for just one more day.

Kevin had gone to work as usual but it became clear that the storm that had hit Wellington was something quite extraordinary. When he heard on the radio that the Wahine was in trouble, Kevin rang the Free Ambulance headquarters in Cable Street to ask what he could do to help. He recalled they said “We’ve got a job for you”, but when he got down to the HQ he was confused as there was not an ambulance in sight. How was he going to help without an ambulance? Instead, he was asked to take control of the third landing site – the Interisland Ferry Wharf.

The Interisland Ferry Wharf, where today the Bluebridge Ferry berths, is the place where the overnight Wahine ferry service from Lyttelton was meant to have docked at 7am that morning. But by mid-afternoon it was clear that it would not be ever arriving. Instead, what was to come into the terminal was a flotilla of small boats, piloted by Wellington people who had gone out to rescue people from the water, the old steam tug Tapuhi, and the ferry Aramoana, which were currently out at the wreck site. The Aramoana was too large to rescue people from the water, but she lay next to the Wahine co-ordinating the small vessels.

What Kevin was asked to do was to meet the flotilla of boats, quickly assess and triage all the people who had been rescued from the water, decide whether they needed to go to hospital, and take responsibility for any bodies that may be coming off the boats. A decision had been already made that all survivors that didn’t need to go to hospital were to be processed through the Wellington Railway Station, to ensure that an accurate record of all survivor’s names was made. So the ferry terminal, close to the railway station, was the perfect place to land the majority of survivors.

Kevin quickly plotted out what he needed to do. At this point of course Kevin had no idea the numbers of people who would be coming and in what condition they would be in; all he knew was that there was a disaster unfolding at Eastbourne and Seatoun.

Firstly he borrowed a hat and coat from the ambulance headquarters to make him look like an ambulance officer, even though he was no longer one. Next, he borrowed a policeman: “I needed some authority to control the wharf. So we rang the Central Police Station. They said that all they had left in the building was a young constable”. Kevin’s reply was that a constable was enough – all he needed was someone in uniform to provide an air of authority. The constable was sent to meet him at the terminal.

Kevin’s next task was to prepare for the injured or dead people who were about to come off the boats. He was very concerned about ensuring privacy for any bodies: “I needed to show respect to these people”. He asked the Wellington Harbour Board to open one of the storage sheds nearby, to provide a private place for bodies. There were no spare ambulances to be had, so he rang the furniture moving company Haigh and Hughes, to ask them to provide high-sided trucks. He then rang the Black and White Taxi service, to ask taxi drivers to volunteer their time to take any passengers plucked from the water who weren’t injured straight to the railway station. With these plans arranged, he set off to walk through the storm from Cable Street to the terminal.

He then communicated, through the Wellington Harbour Board, with the Aramoana to ask what the situation was: “I wanted to be kept informed, how far away, how many dead, just so I had some idea what I was in for”. He estimates he had around an hour to prepare for the arrival of the ships. When the vehicles arrived they were carefully arranged along the wharf, all of them facing out so that they could leave rapidly, with the station wagons and trucks closest by to receive the badly injured and bodies.

He communicated with the flotilla to arrange that they land only one at a time, and didn’t try land elsewhere along the seafront, which could have meant that the traumatised passengers were left without being properly seen to.

Then came the moment – he was given the signal that the flotilla was on the way from the site of the sinking, and that they would be at the wharf in around half an hour. He had been working so hard to get everything ready, he hadn’t noticed the weather, but at this point he turned on the wharf, and looked out to sea. He got the shock of his life. As he described it, in that time he was preparing for the arrival: “the whole Wellington Harbour had becalmed. I just couldn’t believe it”. Then he saw the flotilla: “Around Point Jerningham came the tug boat puffing its smoke out, and behind it the flotilla of boats – it was an extraordinary sight”.

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The first to unload its passengers was the tug, which had the largest number of the recue passengers on board. It was difficult, as the wharf was built to berth large ferries, not small boats. Kevin asked if there were any seriously injured passengers on board; there weren’t – but there was a baby, who was the first to be handed off to Kevin. It was an emotional moment: “I had to go down onto the wharf piles to get it from the tug. I picked it up, it was wrapped in white. I couldn’t believe it. I knew there was all this tragedy around, but to see this baby…”. The baby was then handed to the policeman. At that moment, a well-known photograph was taken, which made it onto the front page of the newspaper [as shown in the image above]. About 30-40 people got off the tug, and then people were unloaded from the small boats. Kevin thinks that about six bodies were received. Volunteers carried the bodies to a nearby Harbour Board shed, and later to the city mortuary.

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In one case the sailor of one of the small boats tried to walk away, and leave his boat behind. Kevin was astonished, as it was getting in the way of the other small boats behind waiting to unload. The man confessed he had stolen the boat to take part in the rescue, and was worried he might be charged with piracy. Kevin convinced the man that the policeman at the wharf had no intention of charging him with piracy, and the man agreed to get back on board and leave the boat elsewhere.

The taxi drivers took people to the Railway Station; but some of the drivers came back to Kevin and said they couldn’t get the survivors into their cars: “they were so happy to have their feet on the ground that they refused a ride – they just wanted to walk”.

Kevin said he wanted to say thank you to these people, the truck and taxi drivers, and those who transported the dead. He said in the following days, as the stories of the terrible events at Eastbourne in particular unfolded, the stories of the people who helped him that day at the ferry wharf were lost. He wants their efforts to be acknowledged at this 50th anniversary.

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