Wahine disaster

Page 3 – Co-ordinating the rescue

Although the stricken Wahine was close to New Zealand's capital city, the rescue effort was delayed by several hours due to uncertainty over the ship's fate. Those on shore were only just beginning to realise the gravity of the situation. Emergency services were fully stretched dealing with numerous call-outs as the storm tore roofs off houses, toppled trees and caused injuries as people were hit by flying debris.

Because of slips blocking the road, only eight police officers were initially able to get to Eastbourne. Eventually another 100 officers and 150 civilians were involved in the rescue effort there. This was a difficult task in appalling weather, and many worked through the night to assist survivors. In all, 371 police members out of a total of 629 in the Wellington district, national headquarters and the training school were involved.

Chief Inspector George Twentyman of Police National Headquarters took charge of co-ordinating the rescue at 2.05 p.m. He had been involved in the 1953 Tangiwai disaster operation where he had observed first-hand the confusion and stress created by handling inquiries in the same place as the rescue effort. He therefore immediately set up separate groups in different locations to handle the various aspects of the operation and allow the rescue effort to go forward unimpeded. Separate points in the city were established to deal with inquiries about the passengers and crew while a survivor assembly station was set up at Wellington railway station. A mortuary and property section was also established.

Events at Tangiwai had also been hampered by the fact that no national civil defence organisation existed. By 1968 this was no longer the case, and a quick mobilisation of local authority, military and civilian volunteer assistance was now possible. The Wellington harbour master controlled the sea rescue.

Police Diving Squad

This was one of the first high-profile police diving missions, and the divers provided vital evidence at the court of inquiry. Until the Wahine’s sinking, this squad had existed as a group of voluntary enthusiasts from around the Wellington and Hutt districts. Some of these members performed a dangerous dive on the Wahine wreck to recover the radio log from the bridge.

How to cite this page

'Co-ordinating the rescue', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/responding-to-tragedy/wahine-1968, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Sep-2022