Storm echoes tragedy as Wahine commemorations begin

Bad weather is affecting events set to mark the sinking of the inter-island ferry Wahine in Wellington Harbour 50 years ago.

People gathered at Muritai School in Eastbourne this morning in remembrance of the Wahine disaster fifty years ago. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

At Muritai School in the Wellington suburb Eastbourne, about 500 people gathered for a dawn service to commemorate the sinking of the ship in Wellington Harbour 50 years ago today.

Gale force winds are expected to batter the capital through the day and high seas could close the road to Eastbourne.

Those gathered at the school hall included grandchildren attending for their grandparents, people who were there on the day and a lineup of police officers.

Photographs of the tragic events of the day were lining the walls at the school. The weather had forced the service, which had been planned to be at the Eastbourne memorial, indoors.

The bodies of many of the 53 people who lost their lives were washed up on the shore nearby.

The service opened with a karakia reekers given by Konga Reriti from Waiwhetu Marae.

“The reason behind the karakia ruruku, is to invoke our gods – our atua – and our tÅ«puna, our ancestors, to awaken them to be a part of this … remembrance of what happened aboard the Wahine 50 years ago,” he told RNZ.

After the karakia, survivors laid wreaths in remembrance of those who died.

Among those who gathered at the school was Nusara Banytpiyaphod, who was on the ferry as a six-year-old tourist from Thailand and who survived along with five other members of her family.

She said it was important for her to come – and to meet the people who helped her that day.

“It was a big event in our family, six of us were there together and all of us survived. It‘s big things that happened to me, even though I was small I remember what happened.

“If [her rescuer] had not helped me from the water I could have died, who knows, right? So it was a big, big thing that happened to me.”

A second memorial service set for midday was also moved from Frank Kitts Park on the Wellington waterfront to Shed Six. It will no longer be open to the public.

Events were set to run throughout the day, including one at the central railway station, where commuters would be serenaded by the Wellington Community Choir singing the same songs passengers sang on the lifeboats to keep their spirits up on 10 April 1968.

At noon a flotilla of more than 40 vessels was set to head out to the harbour in tribute to those who sailed into the storm to rescue survivors.

That was set to be followed by an afternoon tea at Seatoun School.