Rescuer takes 50 years to share 'haunting' Wahine experience

It's 50 years today since the Wahine sank in Wellington harbour, in the worst storm to ever hit the capital.

Fireman Terry Kelliher, who rescued people that day, told his haunting story for the first time as hundreds of people gathered at a dawn service in Eastbourne to commemorate the 50th anniversary.  Fittingly, stormy weather drove proceedings indoors.

Mr Kelliher said conditions were so cold on the day the Wahine went down that people in the water were too cold to even climb into the liferafts.

"Being the youngest and silliest probably, I went over the side of the Zodiac and swam over to the liferaft and assisted four or five people into the raft," Mr Kelliher said.

He managed to pluck many people from the sea, but it's taken 50 years for him to tell his story.

Mr Kelliher holds of a photo which features him on the left during the rescue.
Mr Kelliher holds of a photo which features him on the left during the rescue. Photo credit: Newshub/ Emma Jolliff

"I've never really discussed it with my wife or children or grandchildren, it's something that's quite haunting in a way," he said.

Haunting because of the bodies - the final death toll was 53.

"There were a number of people who had drowned floating in the harbour and it was fairly traumatic," he said.

Rob Ewan's family of five survived.  He dropped his mother into a lifeboat and helped others as he reached land.

"The surf was awful. But at the same time, these two kids popped up beside me, and another guy, and we helped them ashore."

One of those kids was Nusara Banyatpiyaphod, who was six at the time.  For the commemoration, Rob Ewan tracked her down in Thailand.

"Rob came to help me because I couldn't swim," she said. "I couldn't tell you how it felt that I get to meet someone who actually saved my life."

A flotilla in Wellington marked the anniversary, including vessels that took part in the rescue.

The Wahine disaster was ultimately blamed on the weather, but gave rise to changes in Wellington's emergency responses, with the creation of both the Lifeflight Trust and Volunteer Coastguard.