Crash Fire emblem

Since 1968 many survivors from the Wahine along with those who went to their rescue have told their stories in television documentaries, radio programmes, books and in countless newspaper articles. But there is one account, ranking among the most courageous of all the rescue endeavours on 10 April 1968, that has never been given the prominence or acknowledgement it deserves. This is the story of Jack Maddox who in 1968 was a senior crash/fire officer and inspector of crash/fire with the New Zealand Airport Fire Service:

Wednesday 10th April 1968 will forever be etched on my mind as one of the most frightening days I have ever experienced. I was on a train from Porirua on the way to my office in Aurora House on The Terrace in Wellington. The train stopped some way out of town, where some of us were transferred to a bus for the remainder of the journey. Others were told at the station to go back home, so my wife Maureen went back on the return train and sat out the storm at home. I arrived downtown about 9 a.m. as the storm was building to a peak with 220 k/h winds reached just after 10 a.m. I witnessed sheets of corrugated iron being ripped off roofs and skimming about like frisbees - real scary as these could take your head off. It was difficult to keep your footing and city streets had to be negotiated very carefully. The high-pitched wail overhead of the howling gale was terrifying and painful to my ears. At the office I learned that the fire crew at Wellington Airport needed assistance so I made my way out there (I cannot remember how).

I was in time to assist the fire crew tying down aircraft on the apron that had not been flipped onto their backs. It was an amazing sight seeing so many aircraft upside down. We soon ran out of concrete blocks being used to anchor down undamaged aircraft. Several Bristol Freighters and DC-3s had been moved about by the wind.

Just before the storm reached its peak of screaming winds up to150 knots, we learned the ship Wahine had struck Barretts Reef and was in trouble. We knew this area well, having sailed around the reef many times during training exercises with the Airport Fire Services’s Zodiac inflatable rubber dinghies. We contacted the Deputy Harbour Master, Captain Bill Galloway, and offered our rescue craft and crew to assist in any way we could. He derided this and said “you would be mad to go out in those corks in that sea, your assistance is not needed.” But when we got further reports that passengers were jumping into the sea, we made the decision to go anyway.

With Senior Crash/Fire Officer Paddy Cranston in charge, we took three Zodiacs to the beach at nearby Seatoun. Once there, we attempted to launch the Zodiacs into the tremendous surf, conditions beyond anything any of us had ever experienced. The wind was so strong it got under the bow of each Zodiac, threatening to flip the craft, so one of us would spread-eagle ourselves across the bow to weigh it down. We swamped two Zodiacs before successfully launching the third with Paddy Cranston, Crash/Fireman Taffy Williams and myself aboard. The Zodiac was powered by a Johnson 40hp outboard motor, which we got started. We then proceeded out to the Wahine to render assistance and save life.

The Zodiac was designed for a total of four occupants. There was a huge confused sea running in the harbour, and our little Zodiac was only about 15 feet in length. Most of the time we could see nothing because of high winds and spray. In those conditions it took all our skill and effort to control the boat and prevent it being upended.

In total we made two trips out to the Wahine and the stories of our adventures that afternoon could fill a book. We pulled 12 people out of the sea and from upturned life rafts, taking them back to the steps at Seatoun Wharf where we got them ashore. At one stage we could not lift a woman out of the water because she had so many clothes on so Taffy Williams, a big strong fellow, leaped in and gave her his life-jacket. But the current washed him away, taking him over to Eastbourne on the other side of the harbour where he was tossed onto sharp rocks, suffering injuries to his back. He ended up in hospital with hypothermia, not knowing who he was. He was gone for three days; we had no idea what had become of him. When Taffy eventually walked into the fire section we were very relieved and very impressed with the scars from the rocks all over his back and legs. The woman survived.

Zodiac

The Airport Fire Service’s Zodiac coming alongside Seatoun Wharf on the afternoon of 10 April 1968 with survivors from the Wahine. Jack Maddox is standing in the centre of the Zodiac.

Afterwards we were not given any time off, and none of us received any acknowledgement from the Airport Fire Service command or from Wellington Airport’s management. Instead, the principal fire officer and his deputy both grizzled at us for "damaging government property.” We were required to submit a report justifying our having turned out to assist the Wahine, as we were supposed to provide emergency services to crashed aircraft, not shipping!

Around mid-1970 we were informed that "a gold medal from The Royal Humane Society has been mounted over at the airport control tower" in Miramar. It was never "presented" to anyone specific. We went over and found it hanging up in the passageway leading to the stairs up to the control tower. A short time later, the medal disappeared never to be seen again. We were most upset about this, as the fire crew were the only people employed at the airport who were directly involved in the Wahine rescue and we believed the medal should have been displayed at the fire station.

For months afterwards, our Zodiac dinghy training exercises would include a circuit around the capsized Wahine, usually in solemn silence. We eventually got word from Deputy Harbour Master Galloway acknowledging the rescue work of our Zodiac. Presumably he never referred to the Zodiacs as “corks” again! Our training had certainly paid off.

On 10 April 2008, 40 years to the day, I flew down to Wellington and joined those commemorating the anniversary. A plaque dedicated to the rescuers was unveiled at Frank Kitts Park not far from the Museum of Wellington City and Sea. I met many others involved in the rescue: survivors, rescuers, authors, TV crew and journalists. It would appear I am the sole “survivor” of the airport fire crew from that day, for regrettably I learnt that Tom Rowe, Taffy Williams, Malcolm Yates and Paddy Cranston are now all deceased. Despite many efforts using various methods, not one other airport firefighter has come forward. Meeting so many survivors in the hospitality lounge provided by the museum, not one person was aware of our efforts, including Captain John Brown, who was master of the pilot launch Tiakina and who explained to me the “missing 30-minutes” immediately before the Wahine struck Barretts Reef.

(c) Jack Maddox, 2014

plaque



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