The Wahine Disaster

On 10 April, 1968, the Wahine sunk in the Wellington Harbour. A total of 51 people on board died that day, and two others died due to their injuries - making it New Zealand's worst modern maritime disaster.

The Minister of Internal Affairs asked the New Zealand Red Cross Society to set up a fund for emergency relief. The Shipwreck Society of New Zealand donated $5,000 immediately, which was also matched by the Golden Kiwi.

These donations meant that an emergency relief operation could begin straight away. There were 600 people aboard the Wahine when it hit Barrett Reef and many of them were from overseas, and lost all their belongings.

Emergency relief was provided to 215 people through the fund, both survivors and dependants of those who died. The Wahine fund was closed in August 1968.

A total of $26,844 was raised. The fund marked the first time that the Society worked with the New Zealand Shipwreck Relief Society, which handled shipwreck disasters in New Zealand.

Personnel of the Hutt Valley Centre and the Eastern Harbour Sub-Centre provided help to survivors at Eastbourne. The Wellington Centre and National Headquarters were on duty at Wellington Station and at Seatoun Wharf.

For Margaret Rankine, a York Bay local and President of the East Harbour Red Cross group, that day is etched into her memory."The day in itself was frightening because nobody knew what was going on. All you could see was the inky blackness of the harbour, which was so remarkably strange really, and then the sirens of the ambulance," Margaret recalls.

Margaret realised the extent of the storm when her mother-in-law called her saying that the roof of her house was coming off.

"I came up to her house through the bush, and sure enough the roof was lifting and the panels from the roof had come down and taken the window out," she said.

"So I shut up the house, which is just as well that I did because there was a tremendous vacuum being created by the down surge and velocity of the wind."

The local constable, Gordon Hogg, paid Margaret and her husband Ian a visit soon after the storm. He never wanted the community to be unprepared for another disaster. Constable Hogg asked Margaret to begin teaching first aid in the community because she had been a VAD (a trained Red Cross volunteer) before she got married.

"I think that's where my days with Red Cross really started. My life changed from then on because I realised, and Ian realised too, just how important community awareness to any disaster was."

Nearly 50 years later, Margaret is still active in emergency preparedness and response plans in the area. A Red Cross frequency is run from her house as well as the Civil Defence radio frequency and the Red Cross garage is always stocked and ready to go.

"I went to a meeting last night and two of my other Red Cross ladies went as well and we are recognised here in Eastbourne as being the welfare group around here that would work together in an emergency," Margaret said in a 2014 interview.

"We’ve still got the garage, we’ve still got the plan that was set out years and years ago, it would still operate because we’re known to be doing what we’re doing in the community."

Feature image: Permission of Eastbourne Historical Society must be obtained before any reuse of this image.