'That horrific day'

NZPA | Sun April 1st, 2018

Former police officer Ian Blackie was an 18-year-old cadet on April 10, 1968, when he and other trainee policemen were sent to help in the Wahine rescue effort.

Wahine sinking

The Wahine sinking in Wellington Harbour. Photo: ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY. Ref: EP/1968/1648a/1a-F /records/22843727

This month, Police and other agencies will mark the 50th anniversary of the sinking of the Wahine passenger ship at the entrance to Wellington Harbour on April 10, 1968.

It will be an emotional day as the Police launch Lady Elizabeth III leads a flotilla of up to 50 boats along the harbour front, each boat dropping 53 flower petals into the water to represent the lives lost in the tragedy.

They will be watched by up to 300 family members, including survivors, the governor-general, prime minister, police commissioner, the Wellington mayor and members of the public.

Half a world away in Vancouver, Canada, Kiwi expat Ian Blackie will be grappling with his own thoughts of “that horrific day” – memories that have stayed with him for five decades and which he wishes he could forget.

Ian BlackieIan Blackie as a cadet in 1968 and today. 

In 1968 he was an 18-year-old police cadet attending the Police Training School in Trentham, Upper Hutt, as part of the Alphonsus Quin Wing.

He recalls the morning well. The rain and the wind were howling outside their classroom windows and they had heard on the radio that the interisland ferry was possibly in trouble as cyclone Giselle bore down on Cook Strait. “At about 10am, our instructors called us together and we were briefed about the situation, and that we might be called out to assist.”

Later in the morning, a bus arrived and they were told to go to the barracks and pick up their rain gear. The bus took them to Eastbourne.

“I could see the waves in the harbour and I was shocked at the sheer size, 20 to 30 feet high, with a couple of hundred yards in between the peaks. The waves were rolling in south to north, but that was about to change.

“We walked through a rickety wooden farmer’s gate onto a farm track in very rough condition just a few yards from the water’s edge. I could see a ship of sorts out in the harbour listing to one side with the waves crashing over the stern. The visibility was very poor.

I couldn't see the other side of the harbour or Wellington, and with the wind and rain it obscured anything happening out around the ferry.

Wahine cadets

Police cadets (in berets) from the Alphonsus Quin and Les Spencer wings were sent to Eastbourne to join other police at the beach where survivors were coming ashore and bodies were being recovered. Photo: IAN MCFARLANE, Museum of Wellington City and Sea Collection, ref 2167

“We had very little information and kept plodding to where the Lower Hutt personnel were. The wind had shifted around from the southwest to west by this time and we were feeling the full force. Within an hour we were soaked through, but I don't recall feeling cold.

“As we approached the Lower Hutt unit, we saw survivors in the water, just their heads were visible. In the distance we could see rescuers at the water’s edge assisting the survivors, with some bodies washing up on the pebbled beach.

“There were two Land Rovers there, an old grey one with a wooden deck on it and a newer police Land Rover. As I walked up, I remember one particular constable who was the shift watch house keeper, Constable Joyce, who I knew from station duty. He was in extreme distress.

“He was sitting on a rock and shivering, as he was soaked right through and obviously suffering from exposure.

“He did not have his helmet or his raincoat or his tunic, which he may have given to one of the survivors.

“The survivors had to walk out along the track, all wearing their life jackets. That was one of the most surreal memories… almost none of the survivors, once on land, discarded the one instrument that had saved them.

“It’s been 50 years since that horrific day. There is more, but it is so graphic and visual still in my mind, it’s hard to give a satisfactory account.

“Most of the New Zealanders who died were washed up on that barren beach. Most, I saw, were elderly… the strain was obviously too much.

“Our members, along with some of the outstanding civilians, loaded the bodies, so respectfully, on to the transport. We were so isolated and short of manpower or help.

“It was an honourable day for New Zealand Police and a few civilian helpers, including the farm employees. Everyone that day stepped up to the plate and did their job, as was expected.”

Wahine rescue

Survivors coming ashore at Seatoun, aided by police. Photo: ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY. Ref: 35mm-01157-24-F /records/23018716

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