The human cost of the Hawke's Bay earthquake of February 3, 1931, took time to unfold. Initial guesstimates put the death toll at 300. However, official figures had to wait on grim evidence, which emerged slowly as the search went on.
By February 5, the toll was 100 and rising as more bodies were found - and as critically injured victims died. Appeals went out for residents to report anybody missing. There were fears that bodies still lay under rubble below Napier's Bluff Hill.
Just to compound the calculation, a few survivors decided to leave their identities and debts behind and quietly disappear. Police tracked one of them down to Auckland.
Eventually, police compiled a list and the official death toll of 256 dead and 454 hospitalised came mainly from their figures.
Half a century later, former Daily Telegraph editor and historian Geoff Conly discovered that the lists included 230 named dead and 28 un-named - totalling 258.
Since then the figure has been questioned again. A 2005 study of quake casualty risks in New Zealand listed the uncertainties in documents published before and after the quake, added three airmen killed near Wairoa soon after, and proposed a statistical range of 257-273.
That was a fair assessment of the published data. But it did not consider every known ambiguity - still less the human reality of the post-quake search.
The men who picked their way through the rubble of Napier and Hastings had fought on the Western Front less than 15 years earlier.
Theirs had been the war of the "unknown soldier", of lost men who, as Kipling put it, were "known unto God". In 1931 Hawke's Bay, men who had survived that living hell were not going to let the tragedy of the missing happen again.
Not in their own homes.
Efforts to account for every lost soul were extraordinary. Burned debris in Napier was sifted for bones. Fifteen boxes of charred remains were collected. Witness E. F. Scott discovered that even the "bones of carcasses recovered from the ruins of butchers' shops, and dressed wax models from drapery establishments" were brought in. Just in case.
Everything was recorded, "including measurements down to size of foot, and samples of clothing and all trinkets etc".
Authorities knew there were uncertainties - but in 1933, F. R. Callaghan reported that "unrecorded deaths" did not "exceed 10 at most".
Such remarks lend credence to the final official total.
Historically, of course, we achieve little by playing numbers games. History is about human meaning and what mattered in that sense was not whether 256 died, or 258 - or some number around that.
From the viewpoint of Hawke's Bay people what mattered was the magnitude.
There were hundreds dead, not dozens. The loss struck every family.
That general scale made the quake a profound human tragedy for Hawke's Bay - giving it a historical depth that still resonates today.
Matthew Wright's book Historic Hawke's Bay and East Coast is published by Bateman. He blogs at http://mjwrightnz.wordpress.com
The Roachs' article by Michael Fowler will feature in Wednesday's Hawke's Bay Today.
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