Recognition for 53rd Wahine victim

Last updated 01:10 09/04/2008
JESS PARKER/Timaru Herald
EMOTIONAL MOMENT: natalie Pierce will attend the 40th commemoration of the Wahine sinking to see the name of her mother, May Brightwell added to the victim's plaque.

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Three years  ago, Jane Pierce took her two young children to see their great-grandmother's name etched on a plaque honouring those who died when the Wahine foundered.

They ran their fingers down the list, but failed to find the name of May Elizabeth Brightwell. Her name wasn't there, the list incomplete.

Tomorrow, 40 years to the day since the ferry sank in Wellington Harbour - and 39 years and 346 days after Mrs Brightwell died - her name will finally be added, taking the list of victims to 53.

"We just took it for granted that her name was there," said Natalie Pierce, Mrs Brightwell's daughter, from her home in Timaru.

"For what she went through, it deserves to go on the list. I just thought, `We have to get this done before I pop my clogs."'

During anniversary commemorations tomorrow, the Museum of Wellington will unveil an updated list of those who lost their lives in the Wahine tragedy.

For many years, the list went unaltered, the official death toll standing at 51. That changed 18 years ago, when the name of Gordon Hick was added. Mr Hick suffered brain damage as a baby when when the ferry sank and died young.

Mrs Brightwell's name will probably be the last. Forty years on, the list is not expected to grow.

Brett Mason, the museum's director, said family members contacted staff early last year inquiring whether Mrs Brightwell's name could be added to the list of victims.

They found her death certificate, which stated she had died of injuries suffered when the Wahine rolled over, and the adjustment was made.

"It was easy to see that this was an anomaly that should be corrected," Mr Mason said.

Mrs Brightwell was travelling to Wellington on the Wahine to surprise her son Charlie for his 49th birthday.

She slept through most of the crossing, but woke on the morning of April 10 when the ferry listed violently.

She was thrown across the deck, crashing into furniture and breaking several ribs and her collarbone.

"She either got herself over the side or was thrown over the side," Mrs Pierce said.

"She told us later that she had never seen waves like that. It must have been terrible ... It was terrible for everybody."

Mrs Brightwell was pulled from the sea by rescuers on board the launch Cuda. She was joined by the Wahine's captain, Gordon Robertson.

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She spent about a week in Hutt Hospital, then several days with her son in Wellington.

Just days after returning home to Waimate, South Canterbury, she suffered a blood clot in her lung and died.

She was buried on what would have been her 67th birthday.

Mrs Pierce will attend the 40th anniversary commemorations at the museum with her daughter and granddaughter.

She is thrilled that her mother's name has been added to the list.

"It might not matter to other people, but it does to this family. I think it will be quite sad, it will bring back lots of memories. But it will be good to have her name there, with all the others."

- The Dominion Post

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