Real Life

Wahine survivor’s priceless find

Ferry survivor Diane relives that fateful journey and the frock that put her in her fave mag!

They called it a harlequin dress, a knee-length jersey knit featuring brightly coloured diamond patterns.

That dress was one of the few items Diane Wilton was able to salvage from the Wahine ferry which sank on April 10, 1968.

Diane, now 81, and her late husband Ken were passengers on the ill-fated sailing from Lyttelton to Wellington in which 53 people died. The couple, who had recently married, were on their way to Masterton to see Ken’s family when the Wahine ran aground on rocks at the entrance to Wellington Harbour.

Diane and her husband fled the Wahine on a lifeboat.

“Our car was filled with our wedding photos, golf clubs, even two hats I’d packed to wear to the races,” says Diane, who has lived in a retirement village in Masterton for three years. “We lost the lot.”

But six months after the couple were rescued by a fishing trawler, authorities managed to salvage their car from the wreckage.

“Ken brought home two suitcases, which stank,” recalls Diane. “Everything was covered in black gunk and we couldn’t save much.”

But when Diane spotted the harlequin dress, she knew she had to try. It took the dry-cleaners 20 attempts, but they finally managed to return her favourite frock to its former glory. Noticing the dress’ Woolmark logo, the dry- cleaners also alerted the Wool Board, who arranged for a story in the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly.

Diane with her copy of the 1969 Weekly in which she starred.

A long-time fan of the magazine, Diane immediately agreed to take part. “Even when Ken was setting up an accounting firm, we had three small children and money was tight, I always scraped up enough for my Woman’s Weekly!”

It didn’t quite work out how she thought, though. “I was interviewed and photographed, but when the story came out in July 1969, they used a small black and white photo of me, and a large colour photo of a gorgeous model wearing the dress and posing in quite a provocative pose with hunky males. I wish I’d had the chance to pose with hunks!”

The mum-of-three and grandmother-of-seven admits she only wore the dress once again – to a fundraising dance where it ended up smelling of fish! “Ken and I were dancing when I detected a distinct fishy smell, but thought they were just bringing out fish for supper. Then I realised that heat from dancing brought out the fishy smell from the dress!”

Besides, laughs Diane, she can no longer fit into the dress. “It’s a size eight and I’m a matriarch now!”

Diane in her recovered dress.

Diane can still remember that fateful day 54 years ago.

“It was an overnight sailing, so we’d gone down to our cabin and at 5am when the steward brought us a cup of tea, the weather was starting to get bad. Ken was up on deck and saw the ship hit the rocks. When we tried to get into the lifeboat, the mechanism had jammed, so Ken and a crewman had to cut it down with an axe.”

Along with a handful of others, Diane and her husband spent four hours on the harbour before a fishing trawler managed to save them.

“We tried so hard to help others onto our boat, but the weather was ferocious. Bodies of children floated past and others were thrown onto the rocks – awful things I’ll never forget.”

It’s an experience that Diane says changed her. “It was a wake-up call. When you’re young, you think you’re indispensable, but I’m thankful every day to have survived that tragedy.”

It’s not the only brush with death she’s had. Diane was born with a hole in her heart, which wasn’t diagnosed until she was in her 30s. “I had no energy and as child the doctors thought I just didn’t want to go to school. As an adult, they told me to take a Valium and pull myself together!”

Diane finally had life-saving surgery, which also allowed her to once again enjoy the sports she loved, including golf and squash.

“I don’t think they want me up top just yet,” she jokes.

Although Ken died three months after she moved into the retirement village, Diane says her life is busy. “I love walking and I’m in two book groups. And I love happy hour at the village! I’ve had a really happy life and I’m still having a ball.”

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