This was John Laker’s home in Kingston, Wellington on 11 April 1968, the day after the Wahine sank.
What\'s you story?
Contributed by John Laker.
I awoke suddenly. The noise, the flashes, what were they? Another huge flash lit up the night sky and an ear-splitting crack, like thunder, but much closer. I blearily looked at the time, 6.10 a.m., still dark. The house was shaking, I mean really shaking. It took me a while to focus on what was going on. I got up, and my wife Hilary, who was five months’ pregnant, was half awake.
I hurried to the southern bedroom window – another flash. The next door’s house roof was tearing itself apart by the force of the storm. Debris was flung into the sky, shorting the overhead electricity cables. The wind and rain were tremendous. The neighbour’s house was pulsating, like some enormous heart, as the gusts of wind entered and tried to escape its confinement. Before long I saw it partially disintegrate, as if in slow motion. The house was ripped apart, as if an explosion had occurred inside. Another huge flash – and a severed cable hung, swinging in the wind.
Debris hit our house with tremendous force and added to the cacophony of noises. I hurried to the western end, away from the bedrooms. The window panes were doing a crazy dance. In, out, pulsating alternately to the pressure and the vacuum.
What was that screaming, tearing noise? I suddenly realised, it was the hundreds of nails in the roof being wrenched from their timbers. Dozens of metal screeches added to the howl of the storm. Frightening and deafening.
The western end of the house was some four metres above ground and it shook more vigorously. I was scared. The house had been built overlooking Happy Valley Road, some 200 metres above sea level in a new subdivision, Kingston, south of Wellington city. Wellington is renowned for its winds, but this was special.
I looked for masking tape to stick across the windows, as my parents had done during the war to stop the glass scattering into the room, but I had only a little, and it would not stick properly. I felt a sudden sense of panic and helplessness.
Pale light could be seen as the dawn approached.
Hilary heard a banging on the front door on the lee side of the house. One of our other neighbours, a police constable, was shouting something above the roar of the storm. He told us that some of the basement fibrolite had broken. We went out to see if we could cover the hole. It proved futile. We could not get to the southern side as the wind, still increasing in intensity, drove us back. The force was intense. The rain stinging. Debris flew everywhere. We shouted at each other that it was too dangerous.
Back inside we decided to evacuate and try to get to this neighbour’s house. My wife and I pulled some old clothes over our pyjamas and crawled, commando style, across the front garden and around the corner to the lee side of the storm, constantly avoiding flying roofing iron which was whipping along at head height across our path. Fine debris stung our faces. The pressure of the wind made standing impossible.
We found other neighbours at the police constable’s house. All had evacuated to this haven away from the full force of the storm.
We heard that all the emergency services were concentrating on Wellington Heads where the Wahine had foundered on Barret Reef, near the entrance to the harbour.
Someone shouted that we were needed up the hill to stop a mini car from being blown away. Some of us took off and sat on the vehicle until the owner drove it to safety. On our return I found that Hilary had seen the roof coming off our house in one piece and ‘floating’ on the wind like some animated butterfly, down the valley, taking the top of a giant macrocarpa tree before crashing to the ground. ‘How will I keep the water out of the house now?’ I thought ...
News came through that the town hall was being used as an evacuation centre, and we all decided the safest place was there. We were in a state of trance. The next few hours vanished without any recollection of what was happening. We were stunned and bewildered.
Around 1 p.m., when the wind had dropped completely, we went back to the house to witness the devastation nature had inflicted on us. The house was split in two. The floor and walls of the lounge /kitchen /dining areas were upside-down, crushed in a pile. It was as though a huge chain saw had cut the house in two and a giant hand had grasped it and tossed it up-side down, dumping it back on the section and crushing the jack stud foundations. All other walls angled outwards, unsteadily. The laundry tub teetered on the split floor edge, a metallic sentinel, unmarked by the storm.
The walls of the house next door were wrapped around the small hill across the road from our house. Most of the foundations had been pulled up and lay in the road. The fence I had built on the northern boundary was still standing, upright!
We stumbled through our debris on the steep section to find precious belongings. Where is the sideboard I made, I wondered? There was my model galleon, just completed, and now crushed, its delicate masts and sails split and muddled. There were some spoons and forks, pots and pans. Split sides of house mixed with four-by-twos and numerous plates, ruined food and curtains. Records and furniture littered the hillside and hung in the gorse bushes. The easy chairs, from the suite, were under the house, but the large settee was down the hill in the gorse. I’ll leave that for a while, I thought. The guitar had a damaged back. Our belongings were everywhere.
What power had done this? Why us? Where would we live? We had been in New Zealand three years. The house was only six months old, would the insurance cover it? We wondered around like zombies, numb.
Some scavengers arrived to pick though OUR stuff! I got them to help bring the carpet up the steep ground to the road. And told them to leave. Someone had stolen the food from the fridge that lay crazily halfway down the section. Where would we sleep tonight? Are yes, staying at Greg Culpit’s place. I had used the phone, earlier, at the town hall and rang my ex-boss of five days. ‘Hi Greg, we’ve lost our house in the storm, any suggestions of where to sleep tonight?’ I had no power of rational thought. A large truck arrived, slowly manoeuvring around the debris in the narrow road.
It was my new boss at Cable Price with half the engineering staff, ready to help take the remaining furniture and items away for storage and safety. What a relief. We easily pulled the whole front of the house down to the ground to gain easier access. This was too easy. Poor workmanship, not enough nails. Who knows?
Another neighbour arrived with my wallet and watch, left on the bedroom side table in our morning rush. He had rescued this and our sideboard dresser from the rain. So that’s where it had gone.
We were stunned by the help, and thanked all profusely.
No authorities arrived that day or over the next few weeks. The local MP, Mr Nordmeyer, arrived and gave some consolation, but I remember little of that.
Hilary rang the doctor later that week for a prescription. ‘What is your address dear?’ ‘I don’t have one,’ she said, and cried.
Eighteen months later we moved back to a new home on the same site, but of a very different design. Hilary had endured living in semi-isolation at Cannons Creek, Porirua, without transport or friends, with newly born twin girls. I commuted to Wellington to work, and spent many weekends demolishing what remained of the house. We paid rent and mortgage to keep the original low-interest loan!
We moved 18 months later to Auckland. Too frightened of the high winds that constantly blow down the valley from Cook Strait.
We survived. Fifty-one people on the Wahine did not, God rest their souls.
Te whakamahi i tēnei tūemi
Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.