It will be 49 years on Monday since New Zealanders witnessed the country's most significant maritime disaster, but the chairman of the Wahine 50 Trust says the significance of the tragedy goes "well beyond the events of the day".

Although more than 50 lives were lost on April 10, 1968, lives are still being saved today thanks to rescue services set up after the event.

"This tragedy led to improved safety procedures on ships and prompted the creation of two significant rescue services: the Wellington Volunteer Coastguard and the Life Flight Trust," said Rhys Jones, the Trust chairman.

Life Flight trustee Bill Day (left), Wellington Volunteer Coastguard president Vicki Rowland, and Wahine 50 Trust chairman Rhys Jones, stand in Wahine Memorial Park. Photo/Jun Tanlayco.
Life Flight trustee Bill Day (left), Wellington Volunteer Coastguard president Vicki Rowland, and Wahine 50 Trust chairman Rhys Jones, stand in Wahine Memorial Park. Photo/Jun Tanlayco.

When the passenger ferry Wahine ran aground on Barrett Reef at the entrance of Wellington Harbour in a ferocious storm, 51 of the 734 passengers and crew on board were killed. Two more later died from their injuries.

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"The loss of life was tragic and those 53 will always be remembered," Jones said.

"But it was thanks to the courageous actions of many others in the face of treacherous conditions, that such a large number survived."

The Wellington Volunteer Coastguard was formed after the disaster and its first rescue vessel launched within a year. A trained duty crew from a pool of more than 60 volunteers is on Wellington Harbour every weekend and public holiday, and on call at other times, ready to respond to calls for assistance.

It was witnessing the demise of the Wahine and loss of life that motivated Peter Button to take flying lessons, and with neurosurgeon Dr Russell Worth he founded a helicopter rescue service able to reach those in trouble as quickly as possible. The Life Flight Trust rescues and airlifts about 1500 people every year.

"The nationwide storm, Cyclone Giselle, that led to the Wahine's demise, also triggered the instigation of mandatory civil defence plans by local authorities," Jones said.

Survivors struggle ashore from the stricken Wahine. Photo / File
Survivors struggle ashore from the stricken Wahine. Photo / File
The Wahine about to capsize in Wellington Harbour. Photo / File
The Wahine about to capsize in Wellington Harbour. Photo / File
The Wahine sinking viewed by people on the coastline. Photo / File
The Wahine sinking viewed by people on the coastline. Photo / File
A survivor from the sinking. Photo / File
A survivor from the sinking. Photo / File
A small boy who has been separated from his parents, is comforted by a soldier. Photo / File
A small boy who has been separated from his parents, is comforted by a soldier. Photo / File

The tragedy will be remembered on Monday with a ceremony run by the Museum of Wellington.

Next year, for the 50th anniversary, the Wahine 50 Charitable Trust will work with local councils to plan a dawn service at Eastbourne, a reunion lunch for those affected by the disaster, and an afternoon visit to memorials at Seatoun.

"As well as a time to remember those who lost their lives, the 50th will be an opportunity for the survivors to thank those who helped in the rescue and disaster relief, and to recognise the organisations that owe their origins to that day," Jones said.

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"The Wahine tragedy reminds us that we live on a group of small volcanic, earthquake-prone islands in a vast ocean with extensive coastline and changeable weather patterns. Safety and emergency response during accidents or disasters, particularly maritime disasters, are always going to be serious issues for New Zealanders.

The 50th commemoration of this disaster will be a powerful opportunity to emphasise the need to maintain vigilance."