Mystery Otago rescuer - where is he now?

As New Zealand prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the sinking of Wahine, the search is on for an Otago man who disappeared after helping the rescue effort.

Wahine, a passenger ferry carrying 734 passengers and crew, rolled over and sank, with the loss of 51 lives, after striking Barrett Reef during a savage storm on April 10, 1968.

Survivors and their rescuers will gather in Wellington next week, on April 10, to mark the 50th anniversary of the disaster.

Among the many rescuers who helped that day were four South Island men, caught up in the drama while returning from a three-month stint at the Waiouru army base.

The men turned up at Seatoun wharf on the afternoon of the disaster, helping passengers from the icy water, and later helped deal with the bodies arriving at a makeshift morgue set up for  Wahine’s victims.

Three of the men - Steve Ellis and Chris Wilson, both of Christchurch, and Roger Mahon, of Timaru - have remained in touch over the years, but their group’s “missing fourth” has not been heard from since.

All that was known was that he was believed to be from Otago, Mr Ellis told the Otago Daily Times.

“He was a rather robust kind of fellow and a good guy.”

Mr Ellis said the four men met when conscripted for the Officer Cadet Training Unit at the Waiouru army base.

They were the only South Islanders in an intake of about 20 men, and their bond strengthened after they were caught up in the Wahine disaster, Mr Ellis said.

The men said their goodbyes in Lyttelton, the day after Wahine went down, and “just went our own ways”, he said.

“The missing fourth, he just kind of disappeared, really.”

None of the other three men can remember the name of the missing man, which continued to frustrate the group, Mr Ellis said.

“That’s the part that really rankles. Just nothing comes forward.”

Mr Ellis decided to try to find him after hearing of plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Wahine’s loss.

However, attempts to search old army records had proved fruitless, in part due to difficulties with the army’s old paper-based system, he said.

“It all just went nowhere.”

There was nothing to suggest the missing man was still alive, 50 years on, but if he was, Mr Ellis still hoped for a reunion.

“If he turned up, it would be fantastic. I would like to have a chat to him.”

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