• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

The long wait

Only now, after 40 years, is the true story of the mistakes and negligence that contributed to the horrific Wahine tragedy being exposed.

On December 5 last year, Jeanette Johnson received a phone call asking about her dead son.

It was 39 years and 239 days since six-year-old Colin Johnson drowned in Wellington. But that call, my call, was the first to enquire how Jeanette and her husband, Geoff, had coped with their loss.

The Johnsons, like Colin, were victims of the Wahine disaster and of a nation that at the time had no idea how to cope with people who had been involved in a tragedy.

Only now, after all these years, are accounts seeping out of some of the true horrors, the real heroism and the prize stuff-ups that happened on that day - a day etched in the memories of older New Zealanders as indelibly as the assassination of President John F Kennedy five years earlier.

Jeanette Johnson, who was nursing Geoff through the last stages of cancer when I called (he died on December 28), wanted to talk about the Wahine and the loss of her son.

She is still offended that, after all these years, a solitary wreath sent to her son's funeral was the only acknowledgement of her loss by the Wahine's owners, the Union Steam Ship Company.

(The only letter of condolence the Johnsons received was from then Wellington Mayor Sir Francis Kitts saying how sorry he was the disaster had happened in his city.)

The USS Company, which was later sent out of existence by Brierley Investments, never wrote and apologised for the ordeal Jeanette and her family went through.

Nor did it offer help with clothing, funeral expenses or even a ticket home. Compassion was not a word in the company's lexicon.

"It is not like they couldn't find us," Jeanette said. "We're still living in the same house we lived in when we caught that boat."

The Social Welfare Department certainly knew how to find the family. When Jeanette and Geoff and their two remaining boys finally flew home to Christchurch two weeks later, after spending time with relatives, there was a letter from the department telling them that child support payments for Colin had been stopped.

The Johnsons, like most of the passengers on the _Wahine that day, were travelling on what was known as the "Steamer Express" because it was the cheapest and simplest way to travel. Flying was not yet common.

Jeanette and Geoff, a Christchurch glazier, were on their way to a family wedding in Palmerston North. With them were their three boys: Neil (seven), Colin (six) and Ian (five). When the "abandon ship" call came, they decided each boy should be with an adult.

Geoff looked after Neil, an air force woman volunteered to look after Ian, and Jeanette had Colin.

But as Jeanette made her way down the deck of the steeply listing ship, she slipped and tumbled into the water. A man still on board called out that she was not to worry, because he had Colin.

But Colin never made it. His body was found washed up on the rocky Pencarrow coast.

All these years later, Jeanette wonders what happened to him. She asked the police, "but nobody would make any attempt to find out - they just weren't interested. I don't blame the man who had him. But it just makes me sad thinking that he might have been out there in the sea all on his own ... and then getting washed on to those rocks. It is a horrible thing to think about. I just hope he wasn't all on his own out there."

The indifference afforded the Johnsons was typical of the official response to the ferry sinking. Because so much went wrong that day, it seems there was almost a collective will by all in authority to have the matter quickly dealt with and then forgotten.

Murray Robinson, a Wahine historian and the godson of the ship's master, Captain Gordon Robertson, believes the ship's sinking was the last disaster before the public started challenging authorities.

"Ten years after the Wahine, there was Erebus. Look at the difference in the way the two events were investigated, the way people wanted answers," he said.

The Wahine inquiry was done and dusted in under four months. Erebus was contentious and litigious, with first a report laying the blame squarely on the pilot, and then a Commission of Inquiry finding systemic errors and "an orchestrated litany of lies".

There was no such robust investigation of the Wahine disaster. Why?

Robinson believes New Zealand in 1968 "was still locked in the mindset of World War II. There was acceptance of whatever officialdom decided - and a belief among those in authority that they had to limit bad news - that after disasters it was best just to get on with life."

Robinson firmly believes Robertson was rightly cleared to go back to sea by the Wahine Court of Inquiry, which in essence found the disaster happened when the ship was overwhelmed by a storm "of great violence and the worst weather ever recorded in any part of New Zealand while in turbulent seas in narrow waters".

However, he says a need to maintain confidence in institutions such as the police, the Wellington Harbour Board and the USS Company, then the backbone of the nation's transport system, meant mistakes and negligence that contributed to the disaster, the "systemic errors", were never fully exposed.

He points out that the Wahine, just two years old, had a serious design flaw that allowed water to get onto the vehicle deck. It was that water, sloshing around on the large exposed deck - creating a free-water effect - that was ultimately responsible for the Wahine losing stability and capsizing.

USS Company engineers at the Wellington head office would have been acutely aware of the problem, but they made no effort to pass the information to Robertson or anyone in authority, Robinson says.

Equally, he believes, the Wellington Harbour Board had a responsibility to offer Robertson more assistance than it did.

The Wahine's SOS call, which demands the ship's master be given all necessary help, was never retracted. But Robertson, battling for more than seven hours to keep a ship afloat in a storm, was largely left on his own, prompting him to later sarcastically comment at the inquiry that "it wasn't just a question of sitting in a warm room and planning this and planning that ... everyone [on the Wahine] was tired, wet and hungry. In those conditions, a man cannot be expected to act in a rational manner ... it would have taken a superman to do the right thing at the right time."

Robinson also says the Wahine life rafts, which could have saved so many people, were inadequate, with many blowing away in the wind when inflated, or flipping once in the water.

Many Wahine survivors tell horror tales of the life rafts.

Tokomaru Bay farmer John Wauchop was thrown from life rafts three times as they flipped. He says these overturnings trapped people underneath the rafts.

Wauchop recalls holding onto an upturned life raft on which a distressed young couple were sitting. "They'd been on the raft with their son when it overturned. They'd managed to climb back on board the upturned raft, but couldn't find their son. Then they felt his head bouncing underneath them. They just had to sit there feeling that."

Journalist Max Lambert, one of the co-authors of the book The Wahine Disaster, largely shares Robinson's view of a malleable, phlegmatic nation. He says the nation's psyche was different in 1968. "People who were pulled out of that harbour were put on a bus down to the railway station, given a cup of tea, and then they caught a train home. That was the sort of people we were then. You just got on with it, you did not challenge.

"I was surprised at how docile everyone was. They went through a lot, lost personal possessions, but apart from a few who were taken down to James Smith and bought some new clothes, they got no compensation."

Lambert says the submissiveness ex-tended to the Court of Inquiry where the USS Company got off lightly.

Like Robinson, he says the company's naval architects and experts at head office must have known the ship was in grave danger after water reached the vehicle deck - "but they did not tell anyone. They could have warned those on the ship, they could have alerted the police and rescue people to get boats ready. But they did nothing."

However, Lambert does not believe the court was in any way influenced to clear everyone of blame. That is because he said it did not need to be.

"It is a bit like saying in those days that no one censored newspapers - they didn't have to, newspapers did it themselves. That would have been the same with the court. I don't think anyone would have said 'go easy' to the magistrate who heard the inquiry - he would have done it naturally."

Things were done then "in that polite New Zealand way - we don't want to blame anyone".

Former High Court judge Paul Neazor was part of the counsel for the Marine Department at the Court of Inquiry. He says the speed with which the Court of Inquiry was convened and its report released was not an attempt to sweep the matter under the carpet.

Shipping mishaps were a regular occurrence even in the 1960s, and inquiries were "relatively commonplace [so] all the mechanisms were in place. It was all there - it [the Court of Inquiry] was a set piece."

Certainly shipping tragedies were not unusual. Just nine years before the Wahine disaster, 15 seamen drowned when the Holmglen was lost off Timaru. Then in 1966, 29 died when the coal carrier Kaitawa sank off Cape Reinga. And just two months after the Wahine sank, nine seamen lost their lives off the Coromandel Peninsula after cargo moved on board the grain ship Maranui, causing it to roll.

The Wahine inquiry, Neazor admits, "was certainly something to get on with - we had had 50 dead people scattered around the harbour".

But he says while today "when something goes wrong, within 10 minutes someone in the media says whose head is going to roll - there has to be someone at fault", that was not the case back then.

Although the Marine Department had the task of challenging Robertson's decisions, Neazor says he was happy the ship's captain was not blamed for the disaster and was allowed to return to sea. After spending almost a month observing the Wahine's master in court, Neazor says he came to the opinion that Robertson was "no swashbuckler ... put your foot down and give it hell" sort of person.

He accepts the Wahine was overwhelmed by a storm of a severity that caught the ship's officers by surprise and that Robertson made decisions based on a "professional assessment" after years at sea judging "risk and responsibilities".

So, in the end, no one was to blame for the Wahine sinking. Not the captain, not any systemic failure.

And the rescue operation was also cleared, even though neither the police nor the harbour board set in place any serious contingency plan for the Wahine sinking, and both were clearly caught unawares when the decision was made to abandon ship.

Heroic action by small boaties, first at Seatoun and later off Eastbourne, saved many lives, but the cockleshell heroes initially went to sea in defiance of authorities.

And it is the way these heroes, and the many others who showed amazing bravery that day, were later treated that perhaps best illustrates the official desire for events surrounding the Wahine to be quickly buried.

Men like milk-bar owner Jim Toulis took little runabouts out into the wild seas and saved lives. Worser Bay surf club members rowed their surfboat into the harbour and plucked people from the water.

And then the bigger boats from the Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club joined in, battling the huge waves along the Eastbourne coast. Former Olympic rower John Gibbons was on the launch Rewanui that plucked more than 20 people from the water, including John Wauchop.

He remembers being so close to rocks near Eastbourne "that we could almost touch them".

But later Gibbons was surprised there was no official thanks, no acknowledgement for the efforts of the boaties.

The Government did not award any medals for heroism that day. Gibbons wonders whether that was because to do so would have highlighted the failings of the official rescue.

Along the Pencarrow shoreline, where many of the survivors washed up, initially there was no help. Police staff had been withdrawn from the area. Many of those who perished would have survived if there had been help to pull them from the sea.

It is where young Colin Johnson's body was found. A six-year-old boy being pounded by heavy surf on a rocky shoreline had little chance of survival without help.

Even though Colin's body was recovered within hours, it was two days before Jeanette and Geoff were told their son had been found. They'd checked with hospitals and the police, "but we were told there was no one fitting Colin's description".

So the Johnsons had travelled to Palmerston North to be with family while they waited.

"We kept hoping someone had taken him to their home, but when a day went by and we didn't hear anything, we knew there was not much hope. But then to be told he'd been lying there on his own in the hospital morgue for two days - that was horrible."

And, of course, there was no apology.

David Lomas, with Jill Graham, produced a documentary on the Wahine sinking. Lomas was at Breaker Bay with his father and two brothers shortly after the ship hit Barrett Reef. From a hillside overlooking Seatoun, he watched the ship sink. One brother, working for the Dominion, abandoned pen and paper to help with the rescue at Eastbourne. Lomas' father, an air traffic controller, went with airport firefighters to Seatoun and ended up in the water, helping people from the lifeboats.