Scrap metal flying on to the shoreline. Bodies washing up onto the beach one by one.

As Lesley Little looked out into the distance, she watched in horror as the Wahine, her bow up and with 734 passengers on board, began to roll over and sink while people scrambled off in a last bid to save themselves and their loved ones.

Tuesday marks 50 years since the horrific Wahine disaster that claimed 51 lives - and Little remembers it as if it were yesterday.

"I was 20 years old. I had just got engaged to John and I remember the day clear as bells."

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She was working at Wellington Airport as an "office girl" and when the weather turned bad, alarm bells spread and she was sent home to Miramar in a work bus.

Read our special report: Wahine - 50 years of pain

"When I got home I remember standing there with my dad. Looking out at the Wahine crying as it slowly rolled over. I told dad I wanted to get out there. I was a good swimmer and I think he thought I meant swim out.

"He told me I'd just get in the way and we were best to stay put."

Her husband's boss, Stewart Young, was the one who sounded the alarm.

"In those days, communication was much slower, as you know. Due to the weather, phone lines were cut off.

"It was awful. Bodies were hitting the coastal rocks and dying on the rocks and bits of scrap metal were flying all over the place."

Whanganui resident Lesley Little, who now lives in Whanganui with husband John, can remember the Wahine disaster with horrifying clarity. Photo / Bevan Conley
Whanganui resident Lesley Little, who now lives in Whanganui with husband John, can remember the Wahine disaster with horrifying clarity. Photo / Bevan Conley

Mrs Little said one of her friends found a body all the way over in Petone when she was walking her dog - "that was number 51 I think".

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And it wasn't just people on board who suffered.

"My pregnant friend lost her baby when her bathroom window smashed and she fell."

Every day Little, who lives in Whanganui with her husband, John, gets flash-backs.

"It was awful for everyone involved and I just feel so terrible for those families who lost loved ones."

"It was do or die"

In 2017 former seaman John Hair spoke to the Chronicle about the day.

He was a 24-year-old able seaman working aboard the cement carrier Golden Bay, berthed in Wellington, on the stormy morning when the Wahine ran aground on Barrett Reef.

The wind was so strong that the night watchman, a big man, descended the gangway at 6am and was blown away.

"The wind caught under his coat and it blew him down the wharf like he was a piece of rag."

Wellington's harbourmaster asked everyone in port to grab a vessel from the wharf and go to the rescue.

Mr Hair went to the early opening pub across the road from the Queen's Wharf gates and found his mates Dave Shaw and Jimmy King, both older and more experienced than him.

About 7.30 they jumped aboard a fishing trawler and headed into the harbour, leaving its agitated skipper behind to find another vessel.

Mr Hair didn't like seeing the Wahine in trouble.

Former seaman John Hair recalls the rescue of Wahine survivors
Former seaman John Hair recalls the rescue of Wahine survivors

"It was like something dying, a big thing, that just rolled over. Then the water got into her boilers and she gave a big puff of smoke and steam out her funnel."

Only three of the ferry's lifeboats could be launched, because she was listing so much.
The boats were built to hold 90, and they were crowded.

"The wind picked them up and just blew them across the harbour."

Mr Hair and his friends headed for the Eastbourne side to pick people out of the water. Their trawler had a ramp at the stern, for pulling nets in, which made it easier to get people on board.

One girl was pulled out of the water by her hair.

"I remember her going under and the ship rolling. Her hair was like seaweed in the water. As the boat rolled I grabbed a bundle of her hair and pulled her up."

The wind tore some people's clothes off. He saw a woman clutching the pearls around her neck and not wearing much else besides a lifejacket. The rescuers didn't spend time looking.

"It was do or die," Mr Hair said.

He saw a man who was holding on to his wife but let her go to grab a line. Waves swept the woman away.

Neighbours William Buchanan (left) and ex-sailor Richard Cox discuss the fate of the former Wahine lifeboat which sits on Ikitara Rd in Whanganui. Photo/ Bevan Conley
Neighbours William Buchanan (left) and ex-sailor Richard Cox discuss the fate of the former Wahine lifeboat which sits on Ikitara Rd in Whanganui. Photo/ Bevan Conley

There were young women in the water who insisted on letting others go first. They said they were members of Dunedin's polar bear swim club and used to cold water.

Mr Hair plucked a wallet out of the water. Coincidentally it belonged to a man he had worked for as a teenager. He was able to return it much later.

Being there was dangerous for the rescuers too.

"I even thought myself we could have easily copped it. We were that close inshore sometimes, we could've gone on to the rocks too."

Mr Hair and his mates "got a few".

They wrapped the rescued in blankets and put them in the cabin, two to a bunk for warmth.

They kept in touch with other boats by radio and kept going until they couldn't see anyone else to save.

They were among many who went to help, and Mr Hair was surprised later to be given $12.70 in payment. "I couldn't believe it. We didn't do it for money," he said.

People rush over in an attempt to rescue the survivors.
People rush over in an attempt to rescue the survivors.

Readers share memories

In a post the Chronicle Facebook page, other Whanganui residents shared their own memories.

Frances Puketapu said: "My nana was on that. Sadly she has passed."

Bev Harper said: "Remember that day. Got sent home from school! Blew our front fence down in Marton."

Angie Couchman said: "I was born in Wanganui Hospital that day, still have the newspaper clippings that mum and dad kept for me from the Wanganui Chronicle."