Wahine disaster

Page 4 – Court of inquiry

Chief Inspector George Twentyman, who was in charge of the police response to the Wahine tragedy, realised that a court of inquiry was bound to follow. He ensured that a comprehensive and accurate paper trail existed. Every decision and communication was documented, and these records, together with the personal reports of the officers commanding sections, formed the basis for a very full debriefing report on the police organisation during the disaster. This was a first as far as police procedure was concerned and is now standard practice.

The court of inquiry that met 10 weeks after the sinking pinpointed the build-up of water in the vehicle deck as the reason the ferry finally capsized. The ship’s enormous two-tiered vehicle deck could hold over 200 cars and spanned nearly the entire length and breadth of the ship. When water entered the vehicle deck, it sloshed from one side of the ship to the other. This momentum increased the vessel’s list to starboard until it reached a critical point, forcing the captain to order those on board to abandon ship. The rush to the lower, starboard lifeboats produced a slight but sudden shift in weight that was sufficient to cause the ship to lose any remaining stability.

One question focused on the timing of the decision to abandon ship, but the report of the inquiry concluded that more lives would almost certainly have been lost if this order had been given earlier. The storm was so strong that rescue craft would not have been able to assist any earlier than 12.30 p.m.

Captain Robertson was criticised for failing to report to those on shore that the vehicle deck was taking on water and that the ship's draught had increased to 6.7 metres after striking the reef. The extreme nature of the storm, though, was ultimately responsible for the tragic events of that day.