The foundation of disaster response

On 10 April 1968, disaster struck in Wellington Harbour as the Wahine hit Barrett Reef and sank, killing more than 50 people. It was a tragedy that remains burned in the consciousness of Wellingtonians, even 50 years later, and it led to a fundamental shift in the way New Zealand Red Cross responds to disasters.

The day before the Wahine sank, a 19-year-old Louella Jensen had just finished her passing out parade for the air force. The fresh recruit was on top of the world, despite it having literally rained on her parade.

She thought little of the bad weather as she and her fellow recruits prepared to board the ferry from Christchurch to Wellington.

"The boat was 20 minutes late leaving and it was sort of bobbing up and down at the dock," she recalls.

The bobbing caused mutterings of a rough journey ahead. For Louella and her friends, however, their first official day as air force personnel was cause for a celebration so they headed straight to the cafe to order milkshakes and toasted sandwiches.

“When we were going back to our cabins from the cafeteria it got very rough,” she says. “You had to hold on to each side of the passageway where there were railings all the way along.”

The Red Cross does such a lot for everyone, everywhere and a lot of the time it just flies under the radar.

Despite the rough seas, Louella still wasn't concerned. She’d completed the same journey as a child and knew this was a common occurrence. She went to bed and slept through the night but the next morning everything changed.

"All of a sudden there was a loud noise and it felt like a car going up a very steep hill," she says. “The power flickered on and off and you could hear the crockery breaking.”

Soon an announcement was made that the ferry had hit a rock and everyone needed to get dressed, put their life jackets on, and make their way to the muster stations. The boat was moving and the sea was rough but Louella recalls that there was little panic amongst the passengers.

“One of the stewards had a guitar in his room so he went and got it and gave it to one of our girls so we were just singing songs and taking requests.”

As it neared one o'clock in the afternoon, seven hours after they’d hit the reef, passengers were told that a ferry would be coming out to rescue them.

"We looked out the window and a boat did come up but it was too rough and couldn’t get close enough," she says.

The passengers were ushered out onto the starboard side of the deck as the boat listed dangerously. Louella remembers the crew forming a human chain to pass the passengers from hand to hand so they didn’t fall on the slippery, steep deck. She suffers from vertigo and reaching the top of the deck was in no way reassuring for her.

“It was very, very high, when I finally reached the outside I looked down and there was a black speck in the sea and it was a boat that had come out to rescue us.”

Louella and her friends were among the last to get off the Wahine and make it to shore. She vividly remembers a woman from Red Cross wrapping a blanket around her shoulders and, as she turned away, being caught by the TV cameras.

That night her family was relieved to see her on the evening news cameras and realise she was alive.

The sinking of the Wahine was a grim day for Wellington, 53 people died in the rough water and pictures from the time show exhausted survivors lying on the beach, barely able to move.

The Wahine disaster changed the whole focus on disaster management for New Zealand Red Cross.

Andrew McKie is New Zealand Red Cross' 'disaster man’. He’s been with the organisation for more than two decades and has responded to some of the biggest emergencies the world has seen over those years.

But in 1968 he was a 14-year-old boy standing on the shore at Seatoun with his parents.

"We came down to the beach [the day after the Wahine sunk] and it was really quite a sight seeing all the lifejackets and lifeboats lying on the beach," he says.

“It was really quiet, there was no wind, people were just standing on the beach reflecting. You could see the bridge of the Wahine just by Steeple Rock and hear clanging sounds from things moving around on the boat. It was an eerie sight and I’ve never forgotten it.”

Community efforts to save passengers on the Wahine were enormous. Many who had boats - from homemade dinghies to fishing trawlers – took to the water to try and rescue the passengers.

It really highlighted the need for trained teams of volunteers to form emergency management teams.

The emergency also had an enormous effect on New Zealand Red Cross as an organisation.

"It really highlighted the need for trained teams of volunteers to form emergency management teams," says Andrew. “It changed the whole focus on disaster management for New Zealand Red Cross and was the foundation stone for the work we do in disaster management now.”

Later that year the first Disaster Response Teams – now Disaster Welfare and Support Teams – were created in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch. These teams have responded to countless disasters throughout the country, including the Christchurch and November 2016 Earthquakes.

The disaster also had a huge impact on Louella's life. She says the support she and her friends received when they ended up back on shore inspired her to join New Zealand Red Cross later in life.

"We all need people in our lives to help us and we just expect that they’ll be there," says Louella. “The Red Cross does such a lot for everyone, everywhere and a lot of the time it just flies under the radar, so I thought I’d like to give time back not just for me but also for everybody else on that day.

New Zealand Red Cross has Disaster Welfare and Support Teams around the country. If you're interested in volunteering for disaster response, you can find more details here.