As he has every year, Gordon Vogtherr has two "must attend" dates in his diary at this time of the year.

Today, the Havelock North 90-year-old will be at the public commemoration service being staged at the Hastings Clock Tower - along with other survivors of the 1931 earthquake which struck at 10.47am 86 years ago.

"Oh yes we always go to that," Mr Vogtherr said.

"It is something we have to remember - and catch up with these people.

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"It is an important part of our history.''

He will also once again attend the Hawke's Bay Earthquake survivor's afternoon tea on Sunday afternoon, February 12, at 2pm, at the Napier Boy's High School Hall.

On the day of the great earthquake he was 5 and attending his first day at Mahora School in Hastings.

"My first recollections are of playtime looking around inside the building - then absolute panic - the world seemed to be turning upside down. The ground was shaking madly, doors were slamming and children screaming...I could not find the right door to get out."

He said that once outside his first instinct was to run as fast as he could back home.

"The first thing I noticed was the water had been overflowing from the school swimming baths, then once on the way home children, some with bikes, leaning against fences crying."

He watched in awe and fear as a great pall of smoke drifted over the town.

"Soon my father Ernest arrived home on his bicycle with his suit all covered in dust and a hole in his trousers."

He had been standing outside the Thompson Brothers Butchery in Heretaunga St when the earthquake struck.

"When the quake stopped he found himself propped up against a telephone pole with bricks coming pelting down on him...hence the torn trousers.

"He then cycled home to see if we were alright."

The inside of their house was a "shambles" Mr Vogtherr said.

"As with nearly all houses the chimney had fallen through the roof into the living room.

"What a mess...and that smell of brick and mortar still lingers...I can still smell it today," he said.

"Aftershocks were commonplace and regular and being young I had no idea what was happening."

The family slept outside in tents and in the garage.

"We did not dare go inside."

Mr Vogtherr said for many years afterwards if there was ever an earthquake his heart would race.

● The public commemoration today will start at 10.30am near the Hastings Clock Tower in the city centre, with the chimes ringing out at 10.47am.

● Hawke's Bay Earthquake Survivor's Afternoon Tea, at Napier Boy's High School, Sunday February 5, 2pm to 4pm.