New Zealand's third most deadly recorded earthquake struck 90 years ago today near the town of Murchison, southwest of Nelson.
Now thought to have been centred north of the spot in the Upper Buller Gorge where the road split apart with a 4.5m vertical gap, the magnitude 7.8 shake was accompanied by what some said sounded like cannon blasts.
The earthquake is estimated to have caused nearly 10,000 landslides, many of them in what is now Kahurangi National Park. One destroyed the lighthouse keeper's house at Kahurangi Point.
Today, the Herald looks back at the quake and remembers the 17 who died, many of them entombed within landslides.
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On a cold, foggy winter's morning, Jim Peacock was on a river terrace working on the family farm when the earth beneath him began to convulse violently.
"He looked up to see the hills on the east side - the rocks didn't roll down the hill; they were thrown out of the hill," his daughter-in-law, Judith Peacock, said.
"That was the slip that engulfed a house and killed Mrs Gibson, her son and Miss Ferguson, who was a school teacher."
The Murchison earthquake had just struck, at 10.17am on Monday, June 17, 1929.
Jim wouldn't have known for some time that two other slips within a few kilometres of his home in the Maruia Valley and an enormous one over the hill in the Mātakitaki Valley had overwhelmed homes and killed seven people.
The death toll from the earthquake reached 17: 12 in the Murchison area, four on the West Coast and one in Golden Bay. The bodies of 11 of the 13 people killed by landslides around Murchison and in a valley inland of Seddonville were not recovered.
The earthquake remains New Zealand's third deadliest since European settlement began, after the magnitude 7.8 Napier shake in 1931 which killed 256, and the 6.3 Christchurch quake in 2011, which killed 185. The 1968 Inangahua earthquake, 31km west of Murchison, killed three.
The magnitude 7.8 Murchison shock was felt all over New Zealand. It was preceded for weeks by booming noises. The main shake on June 17 was described by a World War I veteran as sounding like artillery on the Western Front.
Even in Hawera, nearly 300km away from the epicentre west of Murchison, people heard a series of explosions, chimneys fell and shop windows cracked, the Press Association reported.
Earthquake expert Associate Professor Mark Quigley, of the University of Melbourne, says the noise would have been caused by seismic slip on fractures in the rock.
"... the rock masses in the northern South Island, particularly moving through the Alpine Fault and Marlborough Fault zone, are constantly adjusting to accumulations in strain resulting from plate tectonics and changing topographic stresses, fluids moving through the crust etc."
NZ Herald report, June 19, 1929. Source / National Library
The 1929 Murchison/Buller quake was preceded by smaller shocks in the area and aftershocks continued for months, including a large one on Sunday, June 23.
More than three months earlier, on March 9, a large, magnitude 7.1 shake struck the central South Island from north of Arthur's Pass. It damaged railway lines and closed the Canterbury-West Coast road for months and caused a remote mountainside to collapse. Only two years later did trampers discover the enormous landslide off Falling Mountain that spewed over Tarahuna Pass and funnelled 5km down the Otehake River.
In the Mātakitaki Valley, at the farming locality called Six Mile, about 5km south of Murchison town - and about 7km east of Jim Peacock - the June 17 quake flipped up 18 million cu m of wet, bushy hillside. Unleashed, it raced down into the valley as a destructive landslide more than 1.5km long, 1km wide and up to 50m thick.
Mavis Gigg was a student at the Murchison District High School. "Sit still, it's only a little quake," the pupils were at first told, she recalled in a Murchison District Historical and Museum Society booklet.
But almost in the same breath the same voice called: "Get out." Outside, they saw great cracks opening in the road around them and tangled piles of fallen telephone and power cables.
"And then in awe and horror we watched a hill appear to split and roll over, slowly like a giant wave it moved forward. Later we learned that it had blocked the Mātakitaki River and buried a family."
The first Nelson Evening Mail reporter on the scene said locals were describing it not as an earthquake, "but as an eruption".
"Running up the Mātakitaki road one sees on the far side of the valley the whole face of the range gone, and then approaching to the edge of the terrace opposite this, the whole floor of the valley for nearly a square mile is one great tract of shattered rock, mud and debris of all sorts."
Methodist minister Bernard Teague was walking his bike over the Maruia saddle into the Mātakitaki Valley when the quake hit. He was unharmed and, as he picked his way down valley, he saw the wrecked landscape where the slip had covered two farms and much of a third.
"Mr [Sam] Busch had delivered cream to the factory and was almost back at his farm when the earthquake struck. He saw the slip fall over his farm with his wife, son and daughter buried beneath it. He lost everything he had, the whole of his farm, house, buildings, animals.
"Some weeks later I was one of the search party which traversed the drying mud and rocks of the slip looking for any bodies. We did find two small remnants of human bodies. One piece was merely a leg from the knee down, with a man's boot still laced on. These pieces were buried in the Murchison cemetery."
Murchison Dairy Company chairman Charles Morel, 57, and his wife lived on the other side of the valley in a two-storey house. The slip broke it in half. The lower storey was smashed apart, while the upper was carried 100m before it came to a halt, intact but twisted, with the bones of a car upended alongside.
With the slip bearing down, Morel tarried to unhitch his horse from a cart before he and his wife ran for their lives. The slurry caught both: she survived, with a broken leg; he died almost immediately. His body was recovered and buried in Murchison two days later.
Teague later went with a rifle to euthanise the horse and found only its head was out of the mud.
In the Maruia Valley, farmer Sonny Holman had just taken his cream across the river when the shaking began.
"He looked across to his house to see his wife rush out to the veranda and snatch up their infant son," Teague recorded for the museum society. "As she did so the hill behind the house collapsed, and swept them, the house and all into the river."
This was the same valley in which a slip pushed the Gibson house across a road and into a gorge. Gersh Gibson had been at hospital when his wife Eliza, son Len, 16, and the teacher Thelma Ferguson were killed. Daughter Minnie was visiting the Peacocks and survived.
In the Glengarry Valley, a tributary of the Maruia, Leo Westbrook, 16, had been with his father and returned to where they had been fencing to collect his coat. A slip fell and buried him beside the fence.
Judith Peacock said none of the bodies of the six people buried in the Maruia area, nor the three Busches in the Mātakitaki was recovered.
A seventh person died in the Maruia vicinity, Nellie Thomson, 38. A diabetic, she died because earthquake damage to transport routes prevented supplies of insulin reaching her.
But the deaths weren't confined to Murchison.
Two miners, William Chamley, 55, and Robert McAllister, 45, were suffocated by falls of coal in mines at Seddonville on the West Coast north of Westport. They are buried at Mokihinui.
Two gold prospectors, father and son David and James Russell, disappeared and were presumed killed by a massive landslide the Mokihinui River. They had left Seddonville just hours before the earthquake, heading for a camp in the upper valley.
At the Golden Bay Cement Company at Tarakohe, near Takaka and 117km from Murchison, engineer Arthur Stubbs was killed when a large limestone block fell from a cliff and through a building.
In the Upper Buller Gorge, road worker Tom Welch, 31, was fatally injured by a landslide. A heroic effort was made to save him by his workmates and a doctor who was led in about 24km from Inangahua by one of the workmen, Sid Reid. Injured too, Reid had first had to walk out over the ruined road and slips.
Welch had suffered a broken arm and broken leg. He was strapped to a board and carried by four men about 6km over a hill to the township of Lyell. From there he was stretchered a further 11km, then taken by car to Reefton Hospital. He died six days after the earthquake.
The Murchison area was a disaster site with damaged buildings, farms and infrastructure.
"Hell had been let loose in the place," Captain Walker, of the Salvation Army, said in the days after the earthquake.
Brick chimneys crashed down, water tanks fell, many buildings were thrown off their piles and some, including Hodgson's general store, were wrecked. Farms were ruined by landslides smothering pastures and stock on some were killed by slips.
Large rivers, including the Buller, Mātakitaki and Maruia were dammed by the slips and stopped flowing. Lakes formed behind the slips, causing fears of the dams breaking suddenly, but only two did so, in the Mokihinui River, flooding Seddonville, and in the Little Wanganui River, flooding a settlement there. At Seddonville there were reports of livestock and buildings being washed out to sea.
Thirty-eight landslide lakes were formed, of which 21 remain.
One of the slips in the Maruia diverted the river. The water eroded down to an old bank, forming what became known as the Maruia Falls, now a popular stopping place beside the Shenandoah Highway, State Highway 65.
A 2002 study at the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, GNS, says the usually cited epicentre of the quake, 11km west of Murchison in the Buller Gorge, is "somewhat doubtful" and locates the "probable epicentre" about 30km north, near the Mokihinui River North Branch.
The earthquake may have caused nearly 10,000 landslides, of which more than 50 were "very large", each containing at least 1 million cu m of material. The largest, 12 times bigger than the Mātakitaki slip, was at Little Wanganui Head on the coast. The Mātakitaki lake lasted for 10 years before washing out - without catastrophe. In total, 28 landslide lakes were formed, of which 21 remain - as do numerous landslip scars.
Roads and bridges were wrecked by the shake. In the Buller Gorge near the Whites Creek Fault at the heart of the earthquake, the road was displaced vertically by 4.5m and 2.5m horizontally. Electricity, phone and telegraph lines were downed. The Nelson railway, which had reached to within 30km of Murchison, and lines on the West Coast were damaged.
If the quake, which was of the same magnitude and depth as the Napier earthquake, had occurred in a large town rather than in a sparsely populated rural area the death toll could have been much higher.
The loss of communication lines meant it took until late afternoon on the day of the quake for the wider world to learn it had been centred in Murchison.
The Nelson Evening Mail published its first report without knowing the epicentre, stating: "The worst earthquake shock within living memory struck the City of Nelson at 10.20 o'clock this morning."
In Murchison, two men were dispatched on the road north. At about 5.30pm they reached the Glenhope railway station and got a message through to Nelson.
In Nelson, like all along the West Coast, chimneys fell. Several students were injured when masonry and plaster crashed down at Nelson Boys' College. The tower of the school's main building broke off and fell. In the central city bricks fell and many shop windows smashed. At the Griffins factory in Nile St, the 20m-tall chimney snapped off at one-third height.
Karamea was cut off by slips onto the road south to Westport and food ran out. No help arrived until a Tiger Moth plane landed on the beach two weeks after the earthquake.
In Westport, the Post and Telegraph Office building was wrecked. "Nearly every brick building in the town is down, and there is not a chimney standing," the Press Association reported.
In Murchison, a tent camp was set up at the school but many of the shocked residents of the district left for Nelson and some went to Christchurch.
Lyell farmer Mr J. Mangos told the Herald at the time that the earthquake had scattered the terrace on which he was working on to the land below. He leapt back just in time and shouted to his wife and children to get out. The paddocks were ruined.
Judith Peacock says the earthquake caused years of disruption.
Her father-in-law's parents left their land in the Maruia and resettled on Four Rivers Plain, closer to Murchison town. A chunk of their Maruia Valley farm's surface was washed away in the river diversion and erosion that formed the Maruia Falls.
Her own grandparents walked off their farm at Fern Flat beside the Buller, near where a temporary dam formed, and moved into Murchison. They had lost their access when the then-main-road bridge across the Matiri was lost. A small, difficult farm, it was "pretty much inundated with the river and the earthquake".
"My grandfather went to work on rebuilding some of the roads."
Peacock says it took Murchison five years to start making real progress. The earthquake - and the Great Depression - ended the extension of the Nelson railway. But the road repairs laid the foundations of economic growth.
"It opened up a lot more land for settlement because of the improvements made to the roads and new roads getting put through so people had better access, particularly to the lower Maruia."