ABOARD the pilot launch Arahina, they received the message that the Wahine no longer needed the pumps they were carrying.
“We got the call at Point Jerningham to say ‘She’s over’," says John Bowman, Launch Master with Wellington’s Wharf police and a member of the new Wellington Police Dive Team.
“When we went across Evans Bay and round the corner you could see all the lifeboats in the distance.
“One inflatable was getting blown up the harbour with two seamen in it. We went after it and got them out.
“By the time we got to where the people were they were already in the big seas.”
The sea was rough but the wind had dropped. With swells of up to 30 feet (9 metres) from the south and the tide running out, those in the sea without power – in lifeboats, rafts or floating in lifejackets - were being pushed toward the rocky Pencarrow coast.
The Arahina plied back and forth, pulling out as many people as the Police, Fire staff and crew could reach.
“I lost all concept of time,” says John. “Paul Doggett and I were working as a team and I don’t remember how many we pulled out. We were very aware that the survivors were heading for a rocky coast being pounded by waves.
“It took two people to pull someone out. They were heavy – waterlogged and wearing their big lifejackets.”
Other vessels were also trying to pick up survivors. The inter-island ferry Aramoana dropped its lifeboats, which ended up smashed on the eastern shore.
Captain Doug Newey took the Arahina as close to the shallows as he could, on at least one occasion feeling the hull scrape the seabed.
The Arahina rescued 55 people, and took them to Seatoun. All survived. John, however, cannot forget one man he could not save.
“I lost one,” he says. “Psychologically it’s still with me.
“I had hold of him, his lips were blue; a young man. The skipper had to gun the boat because there were these massive waves coming. I just couldn’t hang on to him. I’d say he died, because he seemed to be on the way out.
“I was tempted to jump in and assist him in the water but if I’d done that there would have been other people who couldn’t have been pulled out.”
Eventually the people still in the water were swept out of reach. “The harbour is very shallow where we were. We knew it got a hell of a lot shallower. We just couldn’t follow any further.”
John is still in awe of the courage and skill of Captain Newey in keeping the Arahina steady enough in shallow water and mountainous waves for them to pull so many people aboard.
The skipper received no official recognition and the Arahina was not even mentioned in the report of the Court of Inquiry. Captain Newey died in 2009.
PAT KEPPEL was at Seaview, heading back to Lower Hutt, when he was told to turn around.
Senior Sergeant Bryan Courtney had heard news of the capsize via an intercepted radio message from a police car in the Seatoun area at about 1.30pm.
He ordered Pat to go through Burdan’s Gate and as far as he could along the Pencarrow road. By 1.40pm Bryan was in a car heading to Eastbourne, with Tom Penrose and Constable Stan Hopper.
At 2.05pm came the announcement that Chief Inspector George Twentyman was assuming command of operations, and Bryan was appointed commander of the rescue on the eastern side.
“That was good news,” says Bryan. “Until then police stations had been operating spontaneously, doing what needed to be done.”
George Twentyman had been involved in the 1953 Tangiwai disaster operation and saw first-hand the confusion created by handling inquiries in the same place as the rescue effort.
He established separate groups in different places to do well-defined tasks – including a clearing point for survivors at Wellington Railway Station, mortuary and property sections - and allow the rescue effort to proceed unimpeded.
Bryan took up position at Burdan’s Gate, with his police car as rescue HQ and its radio the main means of communication. In the storm he unable to take notes and any messages from beyond the gate had to be brought by runners.
“We didn’t realise at the time what the two great difficulties would be – the state of the road beyond Burdan’s Gate and difficulties with communications,” says Bryan.
“Remember this was 50 years ago – there were no mobile phones. We had nothing except car radios and they were not really satisfactory. The landlines were overloaded. People were running back and forward with messages.”
Though the Wahine was invisible in the storm, they knew the sea would bring survivors their way.
Pat Keppel found the Pencarrow road to be in a far worse condition than it had been earlier in the day.
“Rubble had come down from the hillside and stuff had been tossed in by the sea,” he says. “We had no vehicles that could handle it until a civilian turned up with a flatbed Land Rover, which in those days were scarce. Even Army Bedford trucks couldn’t handle the rough ground.”
POLICE had picked up a message from the ship which stated passengers would be taken to Seatoun. The first survivors were landed there at 2.30pm.
Waiting for them were Police, Army and Ambulance personnel, Salvation Army and Red Cross volunteers and dozens of locals with hot drinks and blankets supplied by the Union Steamship Company, the ship’s owner.
Roads were closed to reduce congestion and keep sightseers at bay.
Transport was standing by to take survivors to Fort Dorset, with an Army medical team on standby, though it was quickly decided those who did not need hospital treatment should go to the railway station instead.
As lifeboats came close to shore, police and volunteers rushed into the surf to help pull them in and get the survivors ashore. Among them was Sergeant Owen Jacobson.
“I was there when the first of the boats came in,” he says. “We helped people ashore, helped them on the buses which took them to their next port of call.
“When these events occur and you’re involved in them you don’t think too much about what’s going to happen – you’re involved to such an extent that you just get on with what you have to do.
“There was very little drama at Seatoun compared with the other side of the harbour. Those people in boats that came across to Seatoun were fortunate. It was the people who got into the water and were blown across to Eastbourne that got into trouble.”
At the peak of the rescue 88 police officers were deployed to Seatoun. In around two hours, 515 survivors came ashore in lifeboats or rescue craft there or at the inter-island terminal. Most were in shock, many required hospital treatment.
Among the arrivals at the inter-island terminal were the bodies of four victims.
SURVIVORS had started arriving on the Eastbourne side at 2.15pm.
Lower Hutt Police threw everything they could at the Pencarrow road – by 2pm there were 33 police there; by 3pm there were 55, 15 minutes later there were 92, rising to 113 by 4.15pm.
Among them were the entire available police strength of Lower Hutt, everyone Wellington could spare – including some redeployed from Seatoun - and cadets and recruits from Trentham.
They were supplemented by Army personnel, Fire, Ambulance, hospital teams, civil defence volunteers from Hutt Valley factories and local people desperate to help.
At the time of Tangiwai there had been no national civil defence organisation. By 1968 there was, and this allowed the quick mobilisation of rescue professionals, the military and civilian volunteers alike.
To avoid adding to the congestion and confusion beyond Burdan’s Gate, Bryan kept strict control on who was allowed through, and when.
Had they been warned that Wahine was in danger of capsizing, says Pat Keppel, they would have had rescuers all along the road in good time, waiting.
As it was, the tactic was for rescuers to head south, hauling people out of the sea, helping them to safety for others to collect, then pushing on to the next rescue.
Pat was about a kilometre south of Burdan’s Gate, where he acted as a link in the chain of command, relaying messages back and forth. He had not been there long when the passengers started arriving along the coast.
“After I got to where I could get to people started coming ashore further round from Burdan’s Gate,” he says. “As more manpower arrived they headed off to deal with people struggling in the waves.”
The struggle was immense and terrifying. Large numbers of people arrived floating in lifejackets and many were hurled into the rocks and seriously injured or killed. The lifeboats that hit the rocks fared little better.
Rescuers waded waist, chest or neck deep into the raging surf to pull people ashore, helping them up the beach to where others would take over. Some passengers were naked or near-naked, the clothes torn off them by the surf or the rocks.
Waves broke over the rescuers’ heads and against the cliff. Heartbreakingly, some of those pulled from the surf were snatched back by the next wave. As the rescuers headed back into the surf, they often did not know if the last person they pulled out was alive or dead.
AMONG the rescuers was Ivor Bastable, a member of Recruit Wing 39 and one of the Trentham contingent pressed into service.
The journey to Wellington was hair-raising enough, he says, with waves smashing into their van as they drove alongside the harbour. From Wellington they were dispatched to Eastbourne under a senior officer.
“We went into the tide to help the boats, and helped them in to the land,” says Ivor. “Then we’d pass the people to someone else and go back for the next one.
“If there was no one in the sea we’d help with the people on shore, help them up to the road and on to the buses.”
He has no idea how many people he rescued, going waist deep or further into the waves in his heavy black Police raincoat. “The funny thing about it is I couldn’t swim but it didn’t stop me.
“I was sure that if I’d got into difficulties, someone would have helped me. Like everyone else, I just went in and did my best.”
Tom Penrose and Stan Hooper stayed at Burdan’s Gate, doing what they could for the survivors, and later loading bodies into trucks.
“There were people I could see in the waves,” says Tom. “I was shouting to them ‘Come on, you can do it’ but by the time they came in they were done for.”
One officer lent his coat to a shivering survivor. When he got it back his week’s wages – Wednesday was pay day – had gone from the pocket. When news got out, public donations flooded in.
DETECTIVE Sergeant Dave McEwen, floating in his lifejacket, prayed as he was caught by massive breakers near the shore and repeatedly dragged under water. It was, he says, like being tumbled in a washing machine.
"I went under I don't know how many times but managed to get back to the surface," he says. "Very luckily I got thrown ashore on a little gravel beach. If I'd missed that beach I'd have been battered against the rocks."
Once he had got his strength back he spotted a young man – 17-year-old steward David Bradley – in trouble in the waves. "He was in the surf and not doing very well. I went back in and helped him ashore."
They came ashore near Hinds Point, more than 3km south of Burdan's Gate, before any rescuers had got that far.
Dave was certain he recognised the shore as being in the Red Rocks area of the south coast, and that he had been in Cook Strait rather than Wellington Harbour. He and David Bradley set off along the road - in the wrong direction.
After helping some other people coming ashore behind them, he realised the mistake and turned around.
David Bradley was too tired to continue and sat down to await help. Dave headed up the coast road, stopping to help people in need as he went. He gave his jacket, and lifejacket for further insulation, to an elderly lady he found shivering and nearly naked on the shore.
"I hope she survived," he says. He never saw the jacket again – but police later returned his ticket for the crossing, which had been in a pocket. "I've still got it, a souvenir of the day."
MOST of the passengers came ashore further south between Camp Bay and Hinds Point, meaning a journey of several kilometres for rescuers - and a desperately long haul for the traumatised survivors who could walk.
Bryan Courtney requisitioned whatever vehicles he could to get the survivors out, and earthmoving equipment to make the road passable.
Magnus Motors of Lower Hutt provided 22 new Austin Gypsy four-wheel-drive vehicles, driven by the company’s managers and staff. Five Eastbourne buses were brought in.
The buses added to congestion on the narrow road, with one taking 20 minutes just to turn round, but provided shelter for the survivors who reached them. Eventually bulldozers cleared the way through the debris.
Survivors were taken to the RSA and other local venues where medics and volunteers were waiting. “The Eastbourne community were just unbelievably useful and volunteered and got things going, got places open,” says Pat Keppel.
“That was the benefit of having Len Satherley – he knew who was who and knew who to go to.”
Passengers were later moved to the clearing point at the railway station, where lists of survivors were being compiled.
In the final count, 223 people landed on the eastern shore and survived. Many were less fortunate. By the time the last survivors were pulled out of the sea, at around 5pm, 43 people were known to have died on the eastern shore.
Some victims came ashore alive but succumbed to injuries or exhaustion. One man died at the RSA, another on a rescue vehicle.
Four more bodies were found by later patrols. On one such patrol, Recruit Ivor Bastable remembers finding a severed arm, still with a wedding ring on a finger, among the rocks.
FOR many Police staff, a monumental day that started at 7am or earlier continued until long after midnight.
At Taranaki Street, Peter Coster was shaken when he saw the shocked state of the men he had sent to Eastbourne on their return. When Tom Penrose got home, he found himself shaking uncontrollably.
Bryan Courtney says some police were in as bad a condition as the survivors.
“A big issue for me was to hope like hell that none of my men were getting into trouble,” says Bryan. “With a touch of luck we came out of that one all right, apart from them being shocked and cold and wet.
“I said at the inquiry I had no doubt that a lot of staff doing the work were just as shocked and in a similar state to the people who were being rescued. They encountered a lot of terrible things. They were absolutely bloody fantastic.”
As was the way then, most of the rescuers were soon back at work, some with new uniforms to replace clothes ruined by the sea.
“There was no counselling, you were on your own. You just got on with it,” says Bryan. “I was exhausted like everyone else was, and probably suffering a bit of hypothermia. Back at the station a bottle of whiskey appeared from somewhere and a few of us dealt to it.”
When he gave evidence to the Court of Inquiry, Bryan deviated from his prepared statement to stress the heroism of police faced with what the Court itself called conditions of awesome violence.
“I wish to state that I have never in my service in the police seen men display such courage and, if the Court will excuse me, sheer guts and unity of purpose as I witnessed on April 10 last. I am proud to be associated with them.”
“There were acts of great heroism,” he says. “I didn’t want the inquiry to close without that being recorded.”