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Last survivors of Wahine ferry accident rescued in New Zealand

Rescue workers pick up the last survivors of the Wahine ferry accident on this day in 1968. The ferry had capsized after hitting sharp rocks off the coast of Wellington, New Zealand, the previous day. Fifty-one of the more than 800 passengers and crew on board perished in the accident.

The Wahine was built in 1963 in Scotland, but was not put into service until 1966 in New Zealand. It could carry 927 passengers, and at 488 feet long and 9,000 tons, was one of the largest ferries in the world.

The ship began the last of its 67 career voyages on April 9 at the same time Cyclone Giselle was wreaking havoc over New Zealand. When the ferry took off from Lyttelton with 734 passengers, the crew believed the cyclone was too far away to pose any danger; this proved to be a fatal error. The following morning, the terrible storm, with winds approaching 100 miles per hour, arrived as the Wahine approached Wellington Harbor.

Compounding the difficulties of navigating through a storm and rough seas, the Wahine lost its radar. With visibility severely diminished, the ship struck a reef. Although the passengers were barely aware of the collision, the damage to the bottom of the vessel was extensive. While life jackets were distributed, the ship dropped its anchors.

Tugboats were dispatched to assist the Wahine, but their efforts proved futile in the fierce storm. The ship continued to be battered by the storm throughout the day, while the crew continually reassured passengers that there was no danger. Eventually, though, they announced that the ship would have to be abandoned. The delay of this decision and the crew’s failure to properly prepare the passengers would prove costly.

The shore was in sight and there were several other boats nearby, but escaping the Wahine was not easy. The lifeboats flooded easily in the rough seas and most of those who died drowned after their lifeboats were launched. Captain Hector Robinson was the last one to jump ship, just before the boat sank; he survived.

Efforts to bring the Wahine back to the surface were hampered after a May 1969 storm broke the ship into three pieces; it was later dismantled where it sank in the harbor. A memorial now stands at the site.

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