Wahine Disaster: Koroua recalls helping survivors

By Aroha Mane

Today marks what has been described as the worst modern-day maritime disaster in the history of Aotearoa, the 1968 Wahine ferry disaster.

51 people died in the Wahine disaster, with a 52nd succumbing days afterwards and a 53rd in 1990 from injuries sustained in the tragedy.

Lanz Priestly (Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti, Ngāti Porou) was 9-years-old when he and his Aunty Kara witnessed the tragedy unfold.

Carrying 734 people from Lyttelton to Wellington the Wahine hit the hazardous Barret Reef on April 10 1968.

The vessel had encountered the combination of a cold southerly from Antarctica and tropical cyclone Giselle, causing violent turbulence.

“The weather was really bad and I distinctly remember it was really cold.  We didn’t know what was happening.  We just saw crowds gathering on Eastbourne beach, so we went to have a look,” says Priestly.

At 1.30pm that afternoon the order had been made to abandon ship.  Passengers and crew swam and were helped to shore by locals and authorities.  Priestly and his whānau did everything they could to help.

“When we realised what was happening my Aunty got us all to pull blankets from the back of the car.  I remember we helped pull four people from the water.  Our kaumatua later took them to get some food.”

It's a memory Priestly, who is now in his 60s, will never forget and he takes solace in the goodwill and humanity he witnessed that day.