Emotional Wahine commemorations

Cambridge’s Florence Shearman and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the Wahine 50 commemorations on April 10.

In a moving twist of fate, Florence Shearman’s attendance at the April 10 Wahine 50 commemorations brought her face-to-face with someone who was just a child when brought into Wellington’s railway station during the immediate aftermath of the 1968 tragedy.

The child of a Nepalese family, Nusara Banyatpiyaphod – who was then Nusara Assakul – is now in her 50s, a successful businesswoman living in Bangkok.   At the time of the sinking, she was one of two of the family’s children still missing after their parents were brought into the station after themselves being rescued.  The family had remained unresponsive and silent up to the point when the siblings were returned to them.

“When I heard she was there, I just cried,” said Florence. “And then when I was taken to meet her, we just hugged each other and cried again. I have no idea what she remembers – I don’t remember what we said to each other, but it was a really emotional moment for me.”

The rescue of the children became symbolic of the kindness of strangers to those in need.  They had been found in crashing waves on the Pencarrow coast after the lifeboat carrying the family had overturned. Other survivors shepherded them into the arms of rescuers and back to their family.

Florence spent 19 hours helping survivors at the emergency centre at Wellington station after the ferry Wahine sank on a stormy April 10, 1968.  The 50th commemorations were marked by eerily similar weather; Florence said her departure from Hamilton Airport earlier in the day had seen her “helped across the tarmac” by two burly blokes who prevented the wind blowing her over.

Survivors of the 1968 Wahine disaster make it to shore.

Once in Wellington, she was squired around the commemorations by a volunteer, and the number of reporters and camera crew at the event saw Florence relating her story several times.

“There were a lot of tears that day.  I hadn’t expected it to be as emotional as it was.  Even after I got home I was still pretty upset – it took me a couple of days to get over it.”

Florence said the disaster re-shaped her life. After the sinking of the Wahine, she left the world of nursing and trained in counselling and psychology to prepare herself for a career first in hospital chaplaincy, and then industrial chaplaincy.  It has seen her work with police and other authorities over many decades.

“I’ve really seen the raw side of life since then.  I think in some way my experience with the Wahine made me even more determined than I was before to help people.”

During her years spent working with the police, Florence brushed up against Ross Ardern, father of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

“Jacinda was at the Wahine 50 commemorations. I was talking to her for quite a while, about my role in the rescue and about the fact that her father had at one time been my boss! That was lovely, too.

“The police also took some pictures of me for the stories they want to write about the commemorations.”

Florence said she was extremely grateful she had been able to attend the event.

“Those memories will always be with me, of course, but this trip was so worthwhile. It has helped me put some of it to rest. The Wahine disaster was life-changing for so many people. I know it changed me, and I’m grateful I was able to be part of those commemorations.”

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