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A road block meant there was almost no-one to help them in. Police said the road was dangerous and compromised by slips, but would-be rescuers were angry. A lifeboatman who stayed to help compared the scene to images of people fleeing the Blitzkreig - vacant faces, staring eyes, utter exhaustion. Reinforcements did arrive, but for many it was too late.

The inquiry estimated 12 people made it ashore alive, but died on the beach. It was pretty horrific watching them getting weaker and weaker. Having safely delivered his cargo to Seatoun wharf, Gibbons and his father went out again to search for stragglers. It was the only time he feared his number was up.

So I panicked and gave the throttle full ahead and hard to turn around. One of the breakers caught us and tipped us over. People watching on another boat said the mast was actually downhill. So it was touch and go. The Tahi Miranda pleasure yacht was not so lucky, a wave smashing it against the rocks. Its volunteer crew barely made it ashore with their lives. Papesch hit the water without going under, baby Joanne still in his arms. Too bad - he could only focus on the baby. He was getting away from that ship and fast. He lay on his back, Joanne riding on his lifejacket like a raft, and kicked out for the lights of Seatoun, which he could see behind him.

A sailor, surfer, swimmer and surf lifesaver, Papesch reckoned he could make it. Joanne was bright and looking around. When she fell quiet he slapped her - her crying a welcome relief. An hour, maybe 90 minutes went past before Papesch saw his saviour emerge from the gloom. F ourth engineer Bennett was assigned to take charge of starboard lifeboat No 2. Passengers seemed more stunned than panicked as they jumped the 50cm from ship to boat. A woman in a red wool suit refused to jump. He hoisted her in by the shoulder and crotch - there was no time for niceties.

They pushed off with people aboard - any longer and the davits would have pinned the boat underwater. Phil Bennett faced down a mutiny on his lifeboat, answering passenger threats to throw him overboard with an axe. They were the last lifeboat to leave and Bennett could still see people jumping from the ship. He, too, faced a mutiny from passengers when he hung around, picking people from the water. A young man threatened to throw him overboard. Bennett was having none of it. An elderly gentleman offered a congratulatory hand smeared with vomit and clutching false teeth, and loudly reckoned it was damn lucky Bennett was in charge and not that shower of bastards.

Bennett was glad of the support. The three big lifeboats could be steered only by a hand crank turning a propeller. The theory was the one motorised lifeboat would tow the others. But the motorised lifeboat was swamped then smashed. Among the waterlogged survivors, Bennett spotted a baby lying on a lifejacket like a raft.

Unfamiliar hands reached down and plucked Joanne from her perch. She was handed into the arms of another stranger - passenger Lesley Morgan, who would become a precious friend. Papesch was also hauled into the crowded craft. They watched as the Wahine exhaled for the last time. It was about 3. Papesch watched as an ambulance carried Joanne to safety. His job was over. He caught the free Limited Express back to Auckland with no money. A fellow passenger shared his bourbon in a paper cup.

His brain raced and he remembered his beloved Triumph Tiger motorbike, now swallowed by the sea. Bennett was quickly bundled into a Union Steam Ship Company blanket and sent off to get clothes. He was given a terrible tweed jacket, then billed for it - only passengers got free threads. Gibbons and Wauchop got on with life.

There was no counselling or insurance; no apologies or accountability. Just memories that have endured for 50 years. I t was 25 years before Joanne Finlayson met the man who held her life in the balance.

Wahine survivors arriving in Wellington ahead of tribute events

She told Finlayson that after drifting away from Papesch she was in a group who linked arms: She was rescued by a lifeboat crewed by Aramoana volunteers, but that smashed on the Eastbourne coast. Her feet were so cut from the rough landing and long walk past the dead that she was taken to Wellington Hospital, where she spent the night consoling Shirley Hick, who had lost her 3-year-old daughter Alma, and whose son Gordon suffered brain damage, eventually dying 22 years later and being added to the Wahine death toll.

While Finlayson was growing up, Lyn refused to stand on the sand - she hated the drag of surf under her toes.

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Finlayson now works as a theatre nurse in Tauranga and has two boys of her own. Wauchop farmed by the sea at Tokomaru Bay, had two kids, and kept up with his teammates, who all survived. In , they played together for the first time, at a reunion game. Bennett also returned to the water. He once had so many boats they nicknamed him commodore. We talk at Paraparaumu RSA - passable coffee and a million-dollar sea view.

Gibbons runs a car parking building. He still rides Triumph motorbikes and every year on April 10 he calls Finlayson for a chat. Like many who put others first that day - from the schoolkids spooning soup on the beach to the volunteer armada of rescuers - he dismisses talk of courage and life-threatening drama.

Map data courtesy of Captain John Brown. Into the arms of strangers — On April 10, , the Wahine foundered in Wellington Harbour in a vicious storm, claiming 53 lives. Wahine survivor Sue Willoughby. It was like a Christmas tree down there. Lights and bells and alarms going off in all directions. I think she will be ashore next swing. The up she got and fairly strode off!

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The first lady off the tug however was bad. She was helped off on two men's shoulders and later I heard she had died a few minutes after in an ambulance. I don't remember any particular elation at being on "dry" land again. But I remember a feeling of utter terror seeing that pale green sea leaping at the wharf. And there were the TV cameras, reporters and spectators. I had been wondering when they were going to turn up. Anne was about second off the tug and I was about fifth - and I couldn't see her anywhere ahead - so she must have run even faster than me!

A bus was waiting there, to take us to the Railway Station. Reunions had started already. A woman off our raft had found her husband and they were sitting on the bus with their heads together, their smiling faces washed in tears. A Chinese man asked the bus driver if he had seen an elderly Chinese lady come ashore and, when he replied that she had gone ahead in a taxi to the station, the man put his wife and children on the bus and then ran to the station on foot, a grin from ear to ear.

It was mercilessly cold sitting on the bus and, being amongst the first on, we had to wait 'til it filled before we were driven over to the station. At the Railway Station blankets were wrapped around us and then we gave our names to the Police and followed others in to the dining room.

I had a terrible pain in my stomach and thought I should be hungry, so got myself a big plate of stew, toast, coffee and sat down to eat it and didn't feel like it. I pushed about half of it down, looked up and saw Mike Michael Burgess, NZ Writer I had met at a party a few weeks prior to my holiday ambling through. I automatically put my hand up and waved, then wished I hadn't, looking - I was going to say "like a drowned rat" - well, I suppose that is very appropriate.

He saw me and came over. Just took my photo, said "That'll be a masterpiece" and moved off again. Fancy going through all that to see him again! Trying to work out what to do. The young policeman we gave our names to said that all telephone wires were down. One of the waitresses came over to talk to us.

She was supposed to be off duty at 2 o'clock it was about 4 o'clock by now , but had been asked to stay on just to feed us. She thought the lines would be up by now, so we went out to try. The operator put me straight through to home. I could hear her asking Mum if she would accept a call from me and Mum absolutely jabbering with relief - my Mum! I just managed to put the receiver down after, then turned into the corner, my face down into the blanket and started sobbing.

So then Anne was crying too. By the time they put her through she could hardly say "Hello". When she hung up we stayed in the telephone box crying for a few minutes and laughing at ourselves. Then we went out, to let the next in, and walked back into the dining room. It was across a long stretch of concrete and I realised there were wooden trestle tables up and people behind them, standing looking dumbly at us. As if they weren't sure they could believe their eyes.

The baby Anne had nursed in the raft was being fed a bottle by its mother.

Sound clip: horrific scenes on Wahine

Its father was out ringing up his parents - somewhere up Gisborne way I think. They had lost "everything" on the ship. We must have sat there some time. I was feeling remote now. I don't know how long it was. I went out to try and ring my Aunty Lois again, but it was still no go. A young man, a Dominion reporter, came up to ask us questions. Mike had directed him. Thank goodness Anne didn't give the reporter our names.

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Not one single statement we were attributed with was ours. Uncle Keith took us upstairs in the station to his office, a heater and privacy. We sat on the carpet drying, wrapped in our rugs. Anne wrung out her socks while Uncle Keith tried to get Aunty Lois on the 'phone.

What it was like at sea during the day of the Wahine storm 50 years ago |

When he did get through Doug had just arrived home. He came flat out in his car to get us. It was about 6 o'clock by now and I went downstairs to meet Doug, and Anne to meet her parents - who had left Levin to come down for her when she rang. That's a bit melodramatic I thought.

She had a neighbour's daughter's big warm jumper, blouse and slacks for me. I put on a big pair of Doug's cricketing socks too and I was dry! I sat in front of the heater and ate dinner. Aunty Lois had cooked my favourite pudding for me! It seemed so incongruous - such a fuss. By now the ground outside was dry, and there was not a breath of wind! She told me that if the weather stayed calm - they would drive me up to Napier where my parents lived, the next day after lunch for Easter. I was so relieved.

I wanted to feel sheltered and safe for the next few days. Then I saw what had happened. That morning I had just been it - now I was an onlooker. It was so terrifying. They interviewed one woman who we had seen that morning - a woman of about 65, in a good jersey suit, hat, spectacles, standing in high heels, feet astride and arms folded, carrying a handbag - while others around clung for dear life to the rails, or sprawled over the floor. A ship had sunk! And I was "a survivor"! That really shook me. I went to bed then.

Next morning Aunty Lois had washed my slacks and jersey. I have a strange affinity for them now. I wonder if I shall ever wear them again? Or ever throw them out? I am afraid I just sat around all morning and - try as I could - could not organise myself. I just listened to the news. The neighbour came in and gave me five dollars "to buy new underwear" and I didn't know what to do - just cried. Then Aunty Lois took me to the shops at Porirua.

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I bought a purse and put my change in it. Then I bought a comb, a toothbrush and a lipstick. I sent Mum a telegram telling her what was going on but, when we got back from shopping, she rang. Uncle Keith came home from work about 12 and after they had lunch I did not feel like eating we left. The journey to Napier where my parents lived has never seemed so long. I kept picturing myself walking over the lawn, up the steps to our front door and the tears would come. And finally, at 7. First Mum, then all my brothers and sisters, just standing there saying "Hello Kay" and then a big hug from my Dad.

This account is by Wahine steward and crew survivor Frank Hitchens. Photo acknowledged to the Dominion and Sunday Times newspapers. Steward Frank Hitchens lies shoe-less and unconscious on the back of a Land Rover making its way north along the Pencarrow road, his legs handing over the rear of the vehicle. At right, the canvas canopy of a New Zealand Army Bedford RL truck can be seen parked near the bottom of the track that climbs over the Pencarrow hills to farmland in Gollans Valley. Burdan's Gate, where ambulances were parked and waiting, is about a kilometre ahead of the Land Rover which was owned and driven by Edgar Burdan.

The man at left, beside the Land Rover, is Mr D. Note the condition of the road. Survivors on foot, most without shoes, had to walk for miles through rock debris washed down from the hills by the rain and thrown up by the seas. The 10th April will always be remembered as the date of the Wahine disaster. At the time I was working on the ship as a steward and enjoying the life of being at sea.

The trip up from Lyttleton was fairly routine with a gale force southerly pushing us along towards Wellington. Abeam of Baring head the wind speed increased considerably, with heavy rain and reduced visibility. As the Wahine reduced speed to enter the harbour entrance, it veered off course towards the shore at Pencarrow Head.

The captain attempted to reverse the ship away from the shore but the ship turned round in an arc and went stern first on to Barrett Reef. The radar had become unreliable and visibility was reduced to the point where the shore could not be seen from the ship.

Going aground caused one propeller to be ripped off and a long hole was opened in the hull below the waterline, allowing the ship to become partially flooded, reducing its stability. After some time, the ship was blown off Barret Reef and it drifted up the harbour dragging its anchors towards Seatoun. We rode out the storm during the morning while the tug boat Tapuhi tried to get a line on to the Wahine's stern to attempt a tow in to Wellington, but failed to do so.

About 1 PM the wind had died down again but the sea swells in the harbour will still quite high and combined with the out going tide the Wahine started to capsize to eventually settle on the harbour floor on its starboard side with the port side above water level. When it came time to abandon ship, I assisted passengers to get from the open door down to the ship's rail to board the four available life boats life rafts were also used ; the steel decks were very slippery with a steep slope down to the rail and not very easy to negotiate.

Well all the passengers had exited the door; I slid down the steepening deck to the rail as the ship's list continued to increase as it was capsizing. The life boats were leaving the ship's side so I jumped over the side into the water and hung onto the rope along the life boat's side. I was soon pulled in to the Number 1 life boat, the one with an engine. But the boat became swamped and the engine stopped leaving us to drift at the mercy of the elements.

The tug Tapuhi came along to try and rescue us but nudged the life boat and it capsized throwing us all out into the sea. By now, we were drifting towards the Eastbourne coastline where the waves were turning into big breakers and three times we were washed off the upturned hull; each time less people were going back to the boat and were being swept away from it. The tug came back and two men tried to pull me up onboard. However, by then I was getting too tired and couldn't help them to drag me up the side of the tug, so I told them to let me go and I then struck out for the shore, my life jacket keeping me afloat.

While in the water and swimming for the beach, I saw the Cook Strait ferry 'Aramoana' arrive on the scene to help with the rescue. Soon after its arrival, I saw the Wahine capsize on to its side and a ball of steam rose up from the vessel. I was aiming to go ashore between a group of rocks when another large breaker ducked me under again.

Everything went dark and quiet and that was all I remembered until I woke up in the Hutt Hospital about 6 PM that evening. I had been washed up on the rocks by the wave and knocked unconscious. Luckily for me, I was also washed up on to the beach and eventually found by rescuers - other people were not so lucky. Forty seven of the people thrown up on the rocks and shore along this coastline were killed.

I was placed on the back of Burden's flat deck truck along with some other injured people and taken to Burden's gate where I was transferred to an ambulance by two policemen. The tragedy was one of the first to be covered live on television. A subsequent inquest exonerated the captain of any blame, finding that he had taken the best possible course of action. His decision to delay abandoning ship for as long as possible had saved lives; the real cause of the tragedy was the violence of the storm.

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