This year marks the 90th anniversary of New Zealand's deadliest natural disaster – the 7.8 magnitude 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake.
While the 2011 Canterbury earthquake (and I find it hard to believe it was now 10 years ago) recorded accurately the 185 victims and the locations of fatalities, this did not occur 80 years previously in Hawke's Bay.
Napier's fires after the earthquake made identification impossible in many cases, while Hastings fared a little better in the absence of widespread fires in the central business district.
Only in recent years has there been efforts to get a more accurate total and take into account people that died months or years after the earthquake, or were missed off, or died of natural causes but included as an earthquake fatality.
Ancestry.com in 2016 found the death toll to be 253 – three less than the 256 official figure, but researchers from Otago, Massey and Auckland universities in 2019 found 17 new victims and discarded another 17 – which kept the total at 256.
Most of the deaths occurred in just 15 buildings – with Roachs in Hastings (where Farmers is now) contributing about 17 deaths – most of them young female shop assistants.
Early newspaper reports around New Zealand indicated that loss of life would be heavy. They were correct. As well as the dead – there were hundreds injured.
As the body recovery was significant, a decision had to be made where to put the bodies in temporary morgues.
Napier chose one of the few buildings not wrecked or burned down – the courthouse on Marine Parade (now Department of Conservation).
Hastings chose the YMCA building on the corner of Market St and Avenue Rd West.
The YMCA would send a number of people to Hawke's Bay to operate information bureaus to list missing friends or relatives.
In Napier it was mainly the sailors of the HMS Veronica on the day of the earthquake who at first looked for survivors and then began the grim task of body recovery.
It was, as expected, a gruesome task.
The task of searching and identifying of the dead was co-ordinated in Napier by Sub-inspector Lopdell.
Every corner in the building was said to be occupied in the Napier courthouse.
Bareheaded police directed those looking for relatives. Faces were covered, and only revealed for those seeking to identify relatives.
The cloths were not long enough to cover the rest of the body and laying next to each other were the girl with the fashionable stockings and shoes; the boots of a labourer; the neatly creased trousers of a businessman, or the body of a young child. Most of the bodies recovered were not badly mutilated but receiving a masonry blow to the head was enough.
Inquests into the deaths – a normal procedure, were waived when a Post Office representative stated they won't be necessary.
A dozen men in Napier got to work building coffins.
On February 5, 59 plain wooden coffins containing bodies of the victims departed on the back of lorries for Park Island for burial that afternoon. Names were chalked on the coffins.
At that stage on February 5 the death toll stood at 90, and it would rise to 162.
Under police supervision, the mass grave was dug. The ground was so hard to dig, explosives were used to break up the ground.
One hundred and one people would be interred in a common grave, including 14 unidentified, and 23 were buried elsewhere in the cemetery.
The unidentified bodies were buried later after police had made detailed descriptions of them.
Bodies were lowered into the mass grave into orderly rows.
Clergymen from all denominations shared the service, with only a few mourners attending.
Similar to Napier, victims in Hastings were laid out on the floor of the YMCA, and relatives came to identify the bodies.
In Hastings, undertaker S T Tong's wooden buildings survived, albeit twisted out of shape. Oswald Tong was making coffins on the second floor of their factory building when the earthquake struck and jumped out of the building. He couldn't get his car out, being blocked by bricks from a next door building, so he ran to Hastings High School to collect his daughter, Rona.
Fearing that fires would consume the building on the night of the earthquake, coffins were hastily removed and taken to the Tong residence on Willowpark Rd and stored in a tent. It was there they built more coffins.
Clergy in Hastings of every church denomination were stationed at the YMCA building mortuary and hospital to assist with the bodies being dispatched for burial.
Unlike Napier, who suffered more than Hastings, every identified Hastings victim was buried in his own church plot, with crosses put over each grave and names painted on.
Michael Fowler will be giving a talk to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake titled "Hastings and Napier's immediate response to the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake, A contrast in Approach". The talk will be at 7pm in Havelock North on February 3. Tickets $15 available from Wardini Books Havelock North or Napier.