The Wahine Disaster | The Salvation Army

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The Wahine Disaster

A personal account by Major Joan Beale.
Majors Gilbert and Joan Beale
Posted April 29, 2013

On the morning of 10 April 1968, the Lyttelton to Wellington ferry Wahine was blown off course by a severe storm as it approached Wellington Harbour.

The boat struck Barrett Reef, where its starboard propeller was ripped off. With its port engine also disabled, the ship foundered. As water flooded the car deck, the ship began to capsize. In the early afternoon, the captain gave the order to abandon ship. Of 734 passengers and crew on board, 51 died that day.

My husband Gilbert and I were stationed at The Salvation Army in Lower Hutt in 1968. On the 10th of April, we awoke to a dreadful storm beating its fury on Wellington. Schools were closed and children sent home because of the dangers of strong wind and flying debris. Many work places and factories closed because of extreme weather and the damage being done to workplaces and homes everywhere.

Gil was in his office preparing for Easter services and I was busy in the kitchen when he heard the news on the radio that the Wahine was on the rocks at Barrett Reef, close to land at Seatoun. It was never envisaged such a disaster would follow.

It was about 1 pm when news came that the ship was listing badly and people were to abandon ship. Many made the safer landing onto Seatoun Beach where rescuers were in attendance, but others were being carried by freak tides across the Harbour to the Pencarrow rocks on the Eastbourne coastline.

Gil jumped straight into action. Filling urns with tea and taking paper cups, he headed for Eastbourne, taking with him our son Stanley (17) and daughter Joanne (14).

Eastbourne coastline

Once they managed to reach Eastbourne, with urn and cups in hand, the three trudged along the rugged coastline, intending to meet survivors along the way and offer a hot drink and a word of encouragement and direction.

Not far along the track, a jeep picked them up and took them more quickly round the coast to where survivors were coming ashore. Some were in rafts, but many were swept in by huge waves that threw them against the rocks. 

Gil, Stanley and Joanne were confronted by a terrible scene. Stanley was asked to assist eight men who were carrying a well-built man with severe head injuries. It was quite a trek, made all the more difficult because the heavy seas had covered the coastal track to Pencarrow Lighthouse with logs, rubble and general flotsam. A bulldozer and front end loader had begun the task of clearing the track, but the faster they worked, the more the sea seemed to throw rubble across the track. The sea swell was so violent that one minute they could see the Wahine on its side off Seatoun, and the next they could not even see the hills around Seatoun.

Stanley was pulled away to assist back around the coast to ensure no other injured or dead people were still in the rafts. Once the rafts were checked, the task was to deflate them. It was here that Stanley was confronted with a body that had not yet been recovered.

Gil realised this was all too much for a 14-year-old to cope with, but it was too late to get Joanne away, so he kept her close as they gave out drinks together.

When the last of the survivors had come in, it was time to head back to the road. The jeep drove the remaining survivors while the rescue workers walked. What a terrible sight, as the rescuers walked past the many bodies smashed against the rocks.

Once back at the road, cars took the survivors to Wellington Railway Station, where a survivor assembly point had been set up. Gil transported three people to the station before heading home.

When Gil brought Joanne home, she was a very tired, shocked and shaken girl. Our doctor prescribed tablets to settle her, and I remember going to bed with her wrapped in my arms for the next few nights.

Where Stanley was I did not know. Eventually, somewhere around 7 pm, he made his way to the Eastbourne RSA, where rescue workers were being coordinated and fed. Someone eventually gave him a ride home.

Hutt Hospital

When Gil realised the enormity of the rescue, he went straight to Hutt Hospital. The superintendent immediately put two wards that were soon to be opened at Gil’s disposal and recalled staff. Gil and a Church of Christ Minister, the Rev. Doug Rose, stayed at the hospital all night. Survivors that had been dashed against the rocks, some suffering grave damage, were rushed straight into surgery. Others were sedated and put to bed.

When I arrived, at dawn, I heard the cries, groans and yells of shocked survivors as they came out of their induced sleep. I immediately rang The Salvation Army Training College in Te Aro and asked for a vanload of cadets to be sent out. ‘Good training for them!’ says I.

I divided the cadets between the two wards, telling them to go bed by bed and provide comfort for those that needed to talk out the horror of what they’d gone through.

The doctors then decided that as many people as possible were to be readied for their relatives to collect, as it was thought doctors elsewhere could cope with two or three shocked and battered people more easily than the hospital could cope with so many in various stages of shock. Only the extremely serious cases were to remain.

The switchboard ran hot with phone calls from anxious relatives. Gil and I undertook the task of coordinating relative pick-ups, but an urgent obstacle was that most survivors were without clothing. The force of the waves and the rocks had torn the clothes off most people.

One man said he had jumped overboard fully clothed in suit, shirt and tie, but after the first wave hit him, he came up with not a stitch of clothing on. Those that arrived at the hospital in damaged clothing had it replaced with hospital gowns.

Gil went straight to Hannah’s Shoe Store and asked for a quantity of large-sized soft slippers—everyone needed larger than usual sizes because of their swollen and cut feet from walking those rock-strewn paths in bare feet. Then it was on to a men and women’s outfitter to ask for large sizes of singlets and underwear. And then to our Salvation Army thrift shop for boxes of warm clothing in any and all types and sizes.

The hospital gave me the use of another room, which I set up as a clothing room. Then I went back to the wards, armed with clipboard and pen, moving from bed to bed to take names, details of destinations and clothing sizes.

I found myself flanked by a sister and a nurse as I entered each ward. They were ‘there to give Major Beale help with anything she needed’, they said. When I reported this to Gil, he laughed and said, ‘Have you not seen the big notices on every ward noticeboard?’ ‘No,’ I replied, ‘I was too busy to look.’ The notices read, ‘When a Mrs Major Beale appears in your ward give her every attention!’ Phew!

Then the work really began. The sister and nurse assisted me in the washing and dressing procedure. One lady, we dressed except for her feet, which were badly swollen, bruised and cut. Her feet could not take tight slippers or bandages, but needed protection. Coming towards me was a nurse carrying two hot water bottles with covers. I asked for the covers, slipped them on the lady’s feet and tied them round her ankles. Mission accomplished! Feet protected, she set off home to Palmerston North.

Survivor stories

A man who had been in a tour party with his wife and two daughters had become separated from them. He did not know if they were still alive or where they might be. As we got him ready for the road, Gil was in touch with the Wellington base. The news came through that his daughters were there looking for their parents, so Gil took the father to meet the girls and together they set about looking for the mother. In the end, Gil accompanied him to the morgue where he found his wife so badly beaten about that he could only recognise her by the rings on her fingers.

As I passed one bed, a distressed elderly man called to me. He wanted to find a little boy. The man had been standing on the deck waiting to jump when he saw a lady with a baby in her arms and a small boy. He suggested she could not manage both children and said he would take the little boy.

The boy clung tightly to the old man as they jumped. He kept saying, ‘You won’t let me go, Grandad, will you?’ The pair washed ashore at Eastbourne, where the man collapsed. Again, Gil continued his work of reconnecting people. He learnt the boy had been taken to Wellington Railway Station where he was reunited with his mother and the baby after they had gone ashore at Seatoun. When the old man was told, he cried and said, ‘That little boy thought I saved his life, but I didn’t; he saved mine. The belting of those waves I could not have fought but for the little boy who clung on to me and called me Grandad. I had to keep going for him.’

Then there was the man who told Gil he had a wad of notes in the pocket of his jacket. He was heading up north to start a new life. Now, all his money was gone. Gil had one of his hunches and went down to the boiler room in the hospital where an array of sodden clothes was drying. He went through them all, finally discovered some notes in a coat pocket. He took the soaked money home, laid it out on baking trays and put it in a warm oven to dry.

Later in the day, he called in home, counted the money (a large sum), rolled it up, and returned to the gentleman to ask how much he’d lost. Gil could happily report, ‘Well, I’ve found that exact amount!’ What a joy for the poor chap.

I approached a petite lady to clothe her for going home. She smiled sweetly and proceeded to tell me what bra size she required. ‘Well, my dear,’ says me, ‘we do not and cannot supply foundation garments. We will clothe you warmly for your journey and you can see to the rest tomorrow.’

Then there was one dear woman I left nearly till last, as her folks were not arriving until later and also because I knew I had nothing large enough to fit her, particularly with her badly swollen shoulders and arms. Then I remembered a frock at the thrift shop we’d had for ages with never a buyer as it was so big. So I sent Gil down to the shop with directions to find it.

The dress was so big, but made of a very soft and warm material. Her sister and I eased the woman’s poor pained body to a sitting position on the side of the bed. We carefully slipped the dress over her head and it seemed to fit perfectly. In fact, it looked rather nice. We eased her onto her feet … and the frock dropped to the floor. The three of us collapsed on the bed, laughing.

It was good that she could still laugh, and I said, ‘What am I going to do with you?’ She replied, ‘Don’t worry about it, this dress is wonderful. I’m going to the Wairarapa and I can wrap the skirt around my legs and keep warm. In the morning, my daughter will cut it to a better length and hem it, and I’ll wear it until I can get some more clothes sent up from Christchurch.’

After the rescue

Good Friday dawned, and with it the usual combined Salvation Army services, with three meetings at Wellington City Corps. Gil was still working at the Wellington depot and I did not go to the morning meeting. In the afternoon, our band was on duty and I was one of three speakers. God had given me the message and it had been well prepared early in the week, but I felt the weakest and sleepiest person to deliver it.

Just as I was about to rise to my feet, a bandsman tapped me on the shoulder with a message that my husband, who had been on his feet for two days and two nights, had just left for Wanganui. All I could say was, ‘Dear God, don’t let him fall asleep at the wheel’ as I stepped up to the lectern.

After the meeting, I learnt that this elderly gentlemen was badly shocked and obviously ill. Those at the depot were about to put him on a bus for Wanganui when Gil came along. He saw what was happening and said, ‘You cannot put that man on a bus unaccompanied in that state. I will take him.’ The Divisional Youth Officer of the day, Captain Alvin White, knew Gil had not stopped for two days, so he said, ‘Gilbert I’m coming with you to help with the driving.’ The pair delivered their patient to a grateful family and returned home safely.

On Easter Monday, we drove to the Beacon Hill lookout. This was at the invitation of George Todd, a friend and fellow Salvationist who was on duty there. With awe, we looked down on the Wahine, well on its side in a calm sea and low tide, so close to the Seatoun Beach. It was unbelievable that the ferocious seas had made it so dangerous for people to reach the shore.

On Tuesday, when Gil returned the unused slippers and under-wear to the stores, asking for a bill for all he had used, no bills were given. Both shops were so glad to be a part of the local Salvation Army rescue mission team.

About 14 years later, after Salvation Army appointments around the country, I went into a hosiery bar in Wellington in my Salvation Army uniform. The lady serving me asked if I knew a man by the name of Major Gilbert Beale. ‘Yes, I do,’ was my reply.

She went on to tell the story of Gil taking the elderly man to Wanganui and said, ‘He saved my father’s life. Dad would never have made the journey if it had not been for his care, and we have always been sorry we never met him again or knew where he was to say thank you.’ I then told her that I was Gilbert Beale’s wife and would gladly convey their thanks to him

By Major Joan Beale (abridged from War Cry, 20 April 2013, P5-7)

  • Major Gilbert Beale OBE was promoted to Glory on 26 August 2013, and Major Joane Beale QSM on 5 December 2014.