My involvement with the Wahine 50 Memorial Trust came through a colleague whose parents were on the Wahine and are both on the Trust board. After meeting them and giving some advice I also said that it was a worthwhile cause and offered to help, so they asked me to be on the trust. I was a young school boy in Whanganui when the Wahine disaster happened. I remember the storm and walking to school in the rain, leaning into the wind on a 45 degree angle. For those who were involved it was probably as memorable a day as the moon landing, the death of Princess Diana, or the 2001 World Trade Towers; you remember where you were when you found out.
The Wahine was probably NZ’s largest maritime disaster in living memory, and the fact that it was on the footsteps of one of our large cities, the capital city, made it quite a remarkable event that was really not just on TV, but taking place out the window.
I think it was important because it’s a milestone that we can reach back in living memory and say ‘remember that?’ 53 people died, it was tragic, but 850 people were saved because people got off their backsides and went out to help. I think it’s an important event to commemorate and to use that to raise the message that it’s as much about volunteers and Wellington’s rescue operations.
We’ve started our lead up quite a way in advance, because there are several things we need to accomplish. The first thing that we’re trying to do is to raise
awareness that there will be a 50th commemoration, and it will probably be the last official commemoration of the disaster.
The second thing that we want is to have an exhibition. This is the last chance to get people who are still alive from that day who haven’t told their story. We’ve got oral historian Anna Cottrell doing our recording. There’ll be a dawn service on April 10th 2018 on the Eastbourne Coast. There’ll also be a midday service on the waterfront in Wellington, hosted by Wellington City Council, which will have a lot of other volunteer organisations like the Coastguard and Life Flight present.
One of the interesting stories that has come out so far, is that the people in the lifeboats going ashore started to sing. It was cold, and they were trying to keep morale up, and they started singing. They sang songs you’d sing to children, the national anthem, ‘Michael, Row the Boat Ashore’, anything. That’s one of the things we are thinking of doing at the midday service, sing some of the songs. We don’t want it to be a depressing commemoration, we want to remember that the 850 people who survived, survived because of the efforts of ordinary Wellingtonians.
We’re encouraging people with a story to tell to go onto the website, register, and give a brief note of their experience on Wahine day. Then we can go through and choose a range of stories that represent the experiences of the disaster.