By Doug Laing and Laurilee McMichael
It's 87 years since the Hawke's Bay earthquake but there are expected to be about 150 survivors at the annual survivors afternoon tea tomorrow.
It will be about a quarter of the 600 who attended the first afternoon tea in 2001, but just three years later the number had already dwindled to about 380, highlighting the inevitable.
The occasion is specifically for survivors, the youngest of whom could be 87 if born on February 3, 1931, when the 7.8 earthquake hit at 10.47am, just as most schools were taking the mid-morning break on the first day of the new school year.
"It is an event that might have a finite time, but it is still a very good event," organising convenor and Napier Deputy Mayor Faye White said.
"I think for a lot of them it is the highlight of the year."
Organisers are anticipating that two centenarians will be among those present. Sadness is always felt not only for the 256 killed by the quake and survivors who have since died, but also for those living further afield who have been unable to take part in commemorations.
Among them is Taupo widower Don Lock, who this week at the age of 91 recalled being a pre-schooler when the quake struck while his family were visiting from Te Awamutu and staying on a sheep farm run by family friends "Mr and Mrs Miller" off what he believes was Omahu Rd, between Hastings and Fernhill.
"I think the earthquake ended its days as a sheep farm," he said.
"I do remember the tanks and the windmills coming down, so I think it was pretty much not good after that. I have been back to look for it, but I think it's in orchards now."
Mr Locke said he had been invited to the commemorations over the years, but had never been able to attend, firstly because of work and in recent years because he doesn't "travel well."
"This particular morning I thought it was time for our walk down the farm so I went into [Mr Miller's] bedroom," he recalled in an interview with the Taupo Weekender.
"I guess he had been up early and he was having a rest on his bed," he said.
"I must have said something about 'are we going down to the farm?' and I guess he replied yes, so he got up off his bed and took a couple of steps and — Bang! That was when the earthquake struck. Of course, I had no idea what an earthquake was. It was just a dreadful noise."
Timing probably saved him from possible serious injury; a freestanding wardrobe crashed down on the bed where he had been lying just a minute or so beforehand, he said.
"The noise was terrible. All the old brick chimneys were crashing down on the roof and the house was getting rolled and twisted around. We tried to get out but the door was jammed and the windows didn't work."
Older brother James (now deceased) had been outside and opened the door for everyone to escape. His mother was the only one who was injured; she was outside in the laundry at the time and was struck and grazed by a swinging tree in an aftershock.
Fearing further shakes, the families slept that night outside. Don was under a plum tree, and every time there was an aftershock, plums would fall on him.
He vividly remembered the porridge cooked outside over a makeshift fireplace being burned, and his complaints.
"I don't think I was the most favourite 4-year-old around!" he said.
The family left Fernhill a couple of days later, travelling the badly damaged road.
"There were gaps in the road where the car would have gone through," he said.
Being young, he did not appreciate at the time what he was living through, but he says now: "I think now how lucky we were when so many people were killed."
He regularly returned to Hawke's Bay as a child to visit relatives.
The earthquake was something he still thought about often, and not just at anniversaries.
"It's one of life's experiences," said Mr Locke, who would later serve 24 years in the RNZAF, including 18 months in Malaya during the 1948-1960 Malayan conflict.
The earthquake didn't frighten him, he said.
"I only hope I don't go through it again."
Guest speaker at Sunday's afternoon tea will be Napier's BHS principal Matthew Bertram.
The event is one of two commemorations over the weekend. The first will be the public ceremonies at the foot of the clock tower in central Hastings, starting at 10.30am tomorrow.