In the wake of the Christchurch earthquake, Hawkes Bay Today reporter Matthew Wright looks back at the destruction of 1931.

On February 3, 1931, an earthquake centred near coastal Aropaoanui, 12km north of Napier, turned Hawkes Bay into a virtual war zone. The shock brought down buildings between Gisborne and Waipawa and toppled chimneys from Taupo to Wellington. On a per capita basis it was New Zealand's most lethal single calamity. Historian Matthew Wright's book, Quake - Hawkes Bay 1931 pieces together the day's shattering events and the community response which followed, using first person accounts, newspaper and official records. The book, first published in 2001, has been revised and re-released for the 75th anniversary.

Today, in the first of two edited extracts, we focus on the immediate impact of the shake and the chaos that followed.

The morning of Tuesday, 3 February 1931 dawned like any other midsummer day, a little still and sultry, but warm, fine and with a promise of a sleepy afternoon and long balmy evening to follow.

The sea was spray-swept but calm, a contrast to the terribly rough conditions of the previous two days.

As the sun climbed, people perhaps started their day with porridge, eggs, toast and a cup of tea. Some men and women - more men than women in those days - left their flats, bungalows and villas to go to work. Others left in the hope of finding any kind of miserable job to keep the wolf from the door. This was the second summer of the Depression. Unemployment had soared to levels not exceeded until the 1990s, and many families faced unprecedented hardship.


In some households the day began with a turfing of sleepy children from their beds. It was the first day of term after the summer holidays.

Mothers across Hawkes Bay packed reluctant youngsters off before beginning their own day's chores, perhaps boiling the copper for the laundry or getting out the carbolic soap to give the floors another scrubbing.

For Napier harbourmaster Captain H. White Parsons the day started with an unexpected surprise. He had been expecting the sloop HMS Veronica with her crew of 104 to arrive that afternoon, but was told she would arrive early at 7am. The warship was safely berthed in the inner harbour before eight.

... A few people felt uneasy as the morning wore on. Havelock North resident Wilf Leicester, recovering at home from a broken leg, noticed that the air "became very still and there wasn't a sound, not even a bird singing".

At Waimarama, Dorothy Campbell saw the sea was now "so calm and still that Brother Frank ... remarked on it". The air "had grown still and oppressive".

Most people felt the first sledgehammer blows at 10.46am as an uplift. Dogs howled, cats ran screeching, and horses - still hauling suburban milk carts and trade wagons in 1931 - reared and tried to bolt.

All went unheard amid a tremendous noise that Llewellyn Mitchell des Landes, working in the meter repair shop of the Napier Gas Company, compared to an express train.

Buildings lurched violently, many shedding outer walls or decorative pediments. People inside were hurled this way and that, some injured by furniture and debris, or pinned by collapsing ceilings and roofs.

Others, caught on footpaths, were injured or killed by debris crashing from walls and buildings. Chimneys in the housing districts bent like reeds in a gale, then cracked and broke, sending debris tumbling. Telephone and lighting poles swayed abruptly, some remaining canted at crazy angles. Vehicles skittered on roads as the carriageway surged and rippled.

About 30 seconds passed. Suddenly the ground heaved again, a different kind of movement that some felt as a downwards jolt. This time the effect was completely devastating, mind-numbing waves of destruction that swept across the province, smashing weakened buildings and walls.

Rubble poured into the streets, and many who had rushed outside after the primary shock died as shattered masonry crashed on and around them.

Avalanches of bricks and debris slammed into vehicles, a few with their occupants still inside. The tortured earth rumbled, a massive sound punctured by the crisp treble of shattering glass, the bullet-like cracking of buildings, the thuds and thumps of falling furniture, the crash of glassware and crockery, and the sliding rush of collapsing masonry.

At last the shock waves rolled by, leaving a terrible trembling in the ground that some observers compared to boiling water. For a few moments afterwards the silence seemed complete. Dust from crumbled mortar and shattered concrete in the business districts of Napier and Hastings rose into the air, thickening to a white powdery fog that briefly obscured vision even a block away.

Everyone who lived through it experienced the earthquake differently. W.H. Ashcroft was sitting in his office in Napier's business district when he felt the uplift, which he compared to a terrier shaking a jack rabbit. His office fell apart around him; he looked up and saw blue sky.

Eighteen-year-old Jessie Atkinson, staying in a house on Napier Terrace near the hospital, "watched a piano lurch from one side of the room to the other and back again".

In the Napier Technical School on Munro Street, teacher W. Olphert yelled at the boys to dive under their desks as the earthquake slammed the building; however, "several dashed into a narrow corridor, where they were buried under the fallen walls".

Other boys escaped then "rushed back to extricate their pals, ... but were shockingly injured when the remainder of the building fell".

Building after building swayed in the town centre, sending debris pouring into the streets as curtain walls and facades failed. The Masonic Hotel at the seaward end of Emerson St cracked and broke.

Local tobacco magnate and philanthropist Gerhard Husheer was recovering from hip surgery in Dr Moore's private hospital on Marine Parade. The bed in which he was immobilised skittered across the floor while a wardrobe rocked crazily and crashed down.

Suddenly the three-storey building began to tilt backwards. Husheer feared for his life as his bed slid to the back of the room. but when the angle reached about 15 degrees the collapse stopped. The hospital had slumped into an underground carpark.

... The shock smashed into the public hospital, a long-standing landmark at the southwestern end of the [Bluff] hill and by 1931 the only base hospital in the district. It levelled the isolation block and wrenched ward after ward, smashing some of the buildings entirely and leaving others shattered and twisted.

The adjacent Spanish Mission nurses' home swayed violently and disintegrated, watched by horrified local resident Criton Smith, who felt a "terrific jolt" and heard "screaming voices" before the home "collapsed like a house of cards" amid more screams and cries. ...

There were 19 people inside, including 16 nurses asleep after the night shift. Seven nurses died immediately ... and an eighth nurse succumbed later.

... The quake hammered Hastings. In one mighty upheaval the town became a vast charnel house, the main business street reduced to a "gully of destruction beneath whose ruins could be heard the cries of women and children".

Seventeen people died as Mayor G.H. Roach's drapery store on the corner of Heretaunga and King Sts collapsed. Further down the road, Herald Tribune reporter A.L. Ryan died when the Post Office clock tower fell on him.

In Wairoa, 80km northeast of the epicentre, a span collapsed on the town's main bridge and shop frontages crashed down along the adjacent Marine Parade. Two people died.

The quake affected the whole North Island. Lights swayed violently in Hamilton and the town clock stopped in Ngaruawahia. The shock drove people into the streets in Tauranga, swayed buildings at Te Puke, bent the steeple of St Stephens Church in Opotiki and broke water pipes in the town.

In Wanganui, a chimney toppled through the roof of the Metropolitan Hotel, shop windows were broken, and another falling chimney almost squashed Mrs Stiver of the Kosey tearooms. Glassware and crockery was broken at Tokaanu. People ran from their houses in Taumarunui, while at Taihape "dozens of chimneys fell" and the railway bridge over Sulphur Stream near Tangiwai was found to be out of alignment. About 20 chimneys fell at Ohakune.

The shock rolled south over the Wairarapa, stopping the Eketahuna town clock.

Trapped and pinned

As the quaking subsided ... people from Waipukurau to Wairoa - but mainly in Napier and Hastings - lay trapped and pinned by fallen debris, crushed, bruised and in many cases critically injured. Others had been hit by flying bricks, glass, wood, furniture or other objects.

Among the first to react were old soldiers, servicemen who had fought on the western front a decade and a half earlier. For them the wreckage of Napier and Hastings was an all too familiar sight. They knew what to do. Former British soldier F.C. Wright ... compared the destruction in Napier to what he had seen in French villages bombarded by shellfire.

Doctors seemed to spring from nowhere, rushing from their surgeries and private hospitals to help. Rescuers quickly organised trucks to take the casualties to the hilltop hospital. However, the commandeered vehicles reached Napier Terrace to find another calamity unfolding. Horrified rescuers were swarming over the ruined nurses' home in the hope of extracting survivors, while a steady stream of doctors, nurses and orderlies were wheeling patients from the ruins of the hospital beyond. Parts of the only base hospital in the district were no more than wreckage - including the new Jellicoe Ward. Other wards were upright but clearly unsafe.

Although evacuation had to proceed past the dusty ruins of the home where nurses lay dead or dying, hospital pharmacist J.S. Peel noted a "complete absence of panic". Criton Smith was very admiring of the nurse who had run from the collapsing home less than an hour before. "Although temporarily dazed by her experience, she quickly went to the aid of the other nurses brought out from the home and she has not been to bed yet", Smith told reporters later in the day

Dr A.G. Clark organised an emergency surgical station in the Botanical Gardens. An operating table was put under an archway at the top of the gardens, and within an hour life-saving operations were being conducted with full sterilisation and anaesthetic procedures. Aftershocks rocked the ground as the doctors worked.

Clark had a nurse alert him while he worked: when she called "Stop" he lifted his hands and waited for the shock to pass.

Casualties far exceeded the capacity of emergency facilities.

"All we could do was to lie them on the lawns to wait their turn for treatment," Sister Mary Eames later wrote. Off-duty doctors and nurses who had been in town quickly returned, among them one nurse who tried to help schoolchildren during the earthquake itself. Later she recalled: "by degrees surgical stores, drugs, etc were extricated from the ruins ... all Tuesday we worked like war nurses ... We were washing wounds and dressing them and pumping in injections."

Local residents pitched in to help. George Brown arrived at his Napier hilltop home to find his wife, Jean, and two daughters safe. When doctors came looking for sterilised water he "kept kettles going for tea, of which large numbers of people gratefully partook".

A major rescue effort focused around the nurses' home. There was no hope for the three clerical staff on the lower floor, but the nurses "were placed in a slightly better position and it was thought that some at least might be saved".

Two were found trapped by a fallen slab of wall and collapsed staircase. A dozen rescuers spent three hours trying to free them. Every effort proved fruitless, and in the end the slab had to be broken with sledgehammers. Six nurses were pulled from the debris, seriously injured but alive.

Plans for an emergency field hospital [at the Napier racecourse] were quickly dusted off ... because it had water and was far enough inland to be out of reach of a tsunami. Four surgical teams were on site by mid-afternoon on February 3, though it was the next day before the hospital was fully set up. That did not stop emergency surgery. Doctors worked under the stark glare of car headlamps until 2am. A dressing station was also established in McLean Park. A total of 454 wounded were tended in Napier and Hastings. Some 333 patients were subsequently evacuated to Wanganui and Palmerston North.

Terrific explosion

Harbourmaster H. White Parsons had boarded HMS Veronica to see her captain, Commander H.L. Morgan. They were sitting in Morgan's cabin when "suddenly we heard a terrific explosion". Both men thought the magazines had blown up, but when they rushed on deck they found a greater disaster in progress.

"The corrugated iron walls of the stores on the wharf were bursting asunder and disgorging bales of wool. The railway lines were twisting and bending under our eyes, and, with a crashing sound, the wharf a few yards in front of us gave way and fell into the harbour. The bed of the sea rose beneath us, and the stern wires gave way."

The harbour bottom slammed into the keel and five of the six heavy hawsers holding the sloop to the quay snapped. The quayside astern - where Morgan had originally intended to moor - slumped and broke.

Out in the roadstead, the freighter Northumberland had been at anchor for some days taking on frozen meat ferried out by lighters ... The earthquake shook the ship violently, and eighteen-year-old cadet A.F.R. Irwin and others on deck saw an old wreck boil to the surface. The hulk paused long enough for Irwin and others on deck to read the name Northumberland on the stern - then vanished again.

Anchored in the roadstead nearby, [the freighter Taranaki] vibrated as if in a gale, her derricks and rigging sounding like harp-strings. A few on board thought she had blown up, then someone cried, "Look at the shore!" Horrified seamen and dockers saw "the town of Napier crumbling before their eyes amid a fog of dust".

[Radio operator J.J.] Grundy hastened on deck to watch as "the whole of Napier" seemed to elevate itself and then subside. Bluff Hill slumped.

All around the coast they saw "great clouds of dust from falling headlands," as if the shore was under bombardment.

The spit "undulated for its entire length" and one of the harbour beacons "waggled like a pendulum" before settling on a 30-degree angle.

Suddenly the sea bottom smashed into Taranaki's keel - no slight touch but a massive blow that observers half a mile distant on shore heard as "an ominous grating noise."

... Just after noon, Captain Upton of the Taranaki suggested "getting decent water then asking [the] Veronica if we can assist". Fortunately the bow was pointing out to sea. There was so little water beneath the Taranaki's keel that the propellers churned through the mud, and she bumped against the bottom several times until, about three miles [5km] offshore, she finally floated clear.

... Five of the six hawsers tying HMS Veronica to the wharf snapped during the quake, and when water rushed from the inner harbour like a tidal race, the ship hit the bottom threatening to cant over if the last hawser parted. Commander Morgan rallied the crew to secure the ship. The valves in the Veronica's receiver were smashed when the ship was hit by the harbour bottom, but this did not prevent transmission, and at 10.54am Morgan signalled his commander-in-chief in Auckland by morse.

While this exchange was carried out Morgan made arrangements to land parties of men with medical supplies, food and rescue material. ... During the afternoon these parties were joined by merchant seamen from the Taranaki and Northumberland, who arrived to put themselves under Navy authority.

... Cabinet met early in the afternoon to discuss the emergency. Early news did not seem good, and Minister of Lands R.E. Ransom and Minister of Health A.J. Stalworthy left by train at 2pm for Palmerston North, intending to drive to Hawkes Bay that night to co-ordinate relief efforts.

Just after 3pm Commander Morgan advised that it was "impossible" to estimate the extent of damage but "it is very severe. Have taken charge and am endeavouring to organise situation ashore. Have assistance of SS Taranaki and Northumberland every available man landed and refugees are coming on board Veronica."

A further signal at 4.30pm dissipated any thought that the disaster might have been restricted to a single town: "Am informed that Hastings and Waipawa and Waipukurau have suffered equally with Napier [stop] Medical assistance is urgently required there and organisation for food, etc, in all towns [stop] Am endeavouring to do this at Napier, but assistance is urgently required elsewhere."

For Cabinet this was the worst possible news; the quake was no local shake but a major regional catastrophe. It had nationwide implications.

* * *

Saved in the nick of time

Gerhard Husheer's vigil in Dr Moore's precariously-standing hospital ended when Mervyn Barggren, Ernest Barr and Alfred Hopewell arrived. Barggren had been in jail awaiting trial for burglary, and the other two had been undergoing questioning by police over alleged vandalism when the earthquake hit.

After the trembling subsided, all three were released to assist. Barggren heard that a patient had been trapped inside Moore's hospital and climbed the front of the building to reach him.

With block and tackle the three lowered Husheer to the ground, and he was taken to the beach with the other patients from the hospital.

Barggren went on to rescue a number of others and volunteered his services as a cook in the Nelson Park refugee camp - acts that earned him the respect of the courts when he was sentenced a month later.

* * *

Watching Napier burn to the ground

Havelock North resident W.H. Ashcroft was working in Napier when the quake struck: "The earthquake continued for about 2 1/2 minutes, during this time we could only hold on to one another and wait for what would come next ...

"The wall of the Ford Garage, a new building, took on the most extraordinary contortions, a convulsion would come and the wall would wriggle from the bottom to the top like a snake, sometimes it would bend over and very nearly hit the Post Office ... The peculiar thing was that I felt all this was happening to others, not to me, and I was merely a spectator; others have told me since that they had exactly the same feeling ... We all felt we were certain to be killed and just wondered how soon it would be."

Ashcroft's son, Bill, drove into Napier mid-afternoon to look for him.

"Napier was burning and looked worse as I approached. From miles away you could see the smoke and flames streaming inland on a strong sea breeze. As I went up the Parade I passed people carting their furniture from their houses to the beach which was crowded with people surrounded by their possessions. Everyone seemed quite cheerful and curiously indifferent.

"All the way along brick fronts had fallen out exposing the interiors of rooms ... The Masonic Hotel was a blazing ruin.

"There seemed every prospect of the fire sweeping the whole area. Not seeing Dad, I went home to find him there, having arrived just after I left."