1931 Earthquake Rescues – Michael Fowler

Michael Fowler, speaking on 1931 Earthquake Rescues

This morning, right about now the earthquake was starting seventy-eight years ago, right at this minute. There’s no earthquake happening at the moment, so … you always tempt fate when you say something like that, don’t you? But nothing’s happened, so welcome along this morning. As you can see, my talk is going to be on rescues and rescuers in Hastings.

Right … the earthquake would have just been in duration now, 7.8. Before that it was a still, hot day, probably not too dissimilar to today, or more like – from the eyewitness accounts that people have told me – it was more like probably what it was like on Saturday if you were at Hawke’s Bay on Saturday, or Sunday without the wind. It was deadly still, and very hot.

Now, there’s a saying of course, about earthquake weather. I don’t know the origin of that – possibly it was because of the earthquake. It was a hot day and there was an earthquake. But there’s no link between hot weather and earthquakes, it’s a bit of an urban myth. They can happen in Alaska when it’s below freezing, as well.

Okay – so, basically the earthquake [was] 2.5 minutes, so it’s still going … from when I started, it was still going, and about probably now, there was a thirty second lull.

Many people were trapped in buildings – some had gone out. So they’d gone out now, people were now getting out of the building … out of their buildings … those that could, and then their thoughts turned to money inside. Many people – or the cashiers, normally young girls – were sent back inside to go and get the cash box of course. And then the earthquake resumed.

Now a lot of people you’d be aware, think of the earthquake you know, as just one event. You know, it just happened at 10:47 and buildings fell down. But there was actually a series … we call ‘the earthquake’, which was the main one which was 7.8, but on the day of the earthquake there were 170 earthquakes of over 3.8. I mean there were about another three hundred of them which were below 3.8. So basically the ground was shaking every two minutes, or a minute. So can you imagine half the town falling down, and then just being there, and just shaking the whole time? You know what it’s like … you’re sitting in your living room and then an earthquake comes ,and you mentally think, ‘How bad’s this going to get?’ You know what I mean? Some people think like that, anyway. So you can understand why a lot of people … well, a lot of people did leave – they just ran out towards Pakipaki. Just went.

[Shows slides and photos and discusses these throughout]

So I’m going to look at some of the rescues and some of the significant buildings, or talk about … one of them the Grand Hotel. That area there now is where the Noodle Canteen is. So we all know where the Noodle Canteen is? Yep, the Noodle Canteen. And that is the Grand Hotel obviously, next to it. There is a Grand Hotel still there now, but it’s not as grand as what it was – a little Grand Hotel. It opened in 1908. The previous hotel there was the Railway Hotel, which was sort of on the corner where the Noodle Canteen is now. That burnt down, so everybody was worried about burning to death in a hotel at night. So what happened was, they boasted that it was fireproof. And I’ve actually gotten an advert at home – I probably should have brought it along – which actually says, you know, ‘We Are Fireproof.’ No need to worry about a fire. The problem with that – it might’ve been fireproof to a certain extent … well, it wasn’t in the end, but the facade was not securely attached, so – you can see the ridge … may be able to see that there. That was not securely attached, so the problems that a lot of the buildings had was they used limestone mortar, and over time the limestone just basically disintegrated. And my old optometrist, Derek Shattky, said as a young boy he could go up to the Grand Hotel – at the back of it – ‘cause his father had an optometrist’s shop. If you look at Russell Street, round about here … and he could go out the back and he could scrape with his fingers the mortar, and it would just disintegrate, and you could pull a brick out. So that’s how unstable that building was. So we’ll come back to that again.

The next one is Roach’s Department Store. If you’ve lived in Hastings, you’ll be familiar with Roach’s. It stopped I think about three years short of its hundredth anniversary, 1981 … started in 1884. My cousin who was a relative of the Stanley Brothers Builders, said – and you can see the internal of it – that of course is on the corner of King Street. You know the TSB, the turret building – that’s the internal part of it. The Stanley Brothers buildings … that was a Christchurch architect – they said it was unstable. They just didn’t basically think it would last, or survive an earthquake, and unfortunately that was correct. There was various rumours too, that – can you see these poles here … supports? I had a diary of a man that worked in there, and he said that they were removed … some of them were removed. So not only was it unstable, the supports were actually removed as well. Can you actually here me with this? So that was a huge problem with that building – come back to that again.

The Cosy Theatre – it’s now where the Embassy is, or The Baby Factory. Once again, absolutely no reinforcing. At least nine deaths in that whole building and it was right across the road from Roach’s. When it collapsed there was so much dust that you just couldn’t literally see, hardly … in front of you.

Now the last one I think we’ll look at is the Hastings Public Library. Since we’re in the library today I thought ‘why not look at the library?’ And it was built in 1907 … think … and by the Grand Hotel Napier architect, C A Vautier, so it was actually built by the same person that built the Grand Hotel. Needless to say, it didn’t have a hope of actually staying upright. Why was it unstable? Well, nowadays they have like steel reinforcing and the bricks are actually wedged in the steel, so if the ground moves, you know, the steel and the bricks sort of move together. They didn’t have very good reinforcing, and sometimes the bricks were just plonked on one another, and they had like a sheet, you know, where you hang your wallpaper on, beside it. So they were totally unstable. And these things up here … all the decorations were probably just plonked on … a bit of limestone cement on it. And you can see the aftermath of it there.

So there were two main groups of rescuers, really, in the 1930 [1931] earthquake – one was the Fire Brigade, and the other one were basically … a huge group were actually Maori – little-known fact that Maori were actually involved in most of the rescues. Various people, or some people I talked to, said that the Maoris actually weren’t scared of the continuous shaking. And there was a rumour that went round Hastings, basically saying that because the Maori had been here for a long, long time and [were] used to earthquakes, they had a natural, in-built immunity to earthquakes, whereas the Europeans had come from England where … I think they had an earthquake a couple of years ago which made the headlines over there … they didn’t have a lot of earthquakes. But Maori showed a lot of courage, and we’ll talk a bit about them shortly.

So this is a bit of the aftermath of the station – they really got a bit of a hard time, the Fire Brigade, ‘cause what had happened obviously, there was a storey and the engine was in there, and I’ll show you a picture of the engine shortly. It all collapsed and they couldn’t actually get the Dennis fire engine out.

The Station Master’s wife was quite badly injured … ‘cause in those days the Station Master and his wife lived upstairs. She was quite badly injured in the collapse, and he went to her rescue and helped her out. And afterwards when this was known, he was severely criticised by a few letters to the Editor, of ‘why did he look after his wife and not try and help get the fire engine out?’ So some people were quite … very callous.

The Fire Brigade was also criticised because as you could appreciate the place was a mess, and they just grabbed what uniform … fire uniform … they could get – some of them grabbed ten year old uniforms. The fire brigade were criticised, can you believe, for wearing uniforms which were out of date. I mean that’s the type of pettiness that went on, and in fact … I think it was Colin Henderson … wrote a big letter to the Otago Daily Times, probably venting what he thought about all of that.

That’s the engine, when it was trapped. Reg Colwill below Neil and Merv Tong all helped to try and remove the rubble to get the fire engine out. But this man, Bill Draper, who was a carrier … truck carrier … turned up with his truck, so what they did was they loaded hoses and made for Roach’s – so word had already got back that Roach [Roach’s] was on fire. Webber’s Pharmacy … the building’s actually still there now … it’s along … couple of buildings down from the Noodle Canteen in Russell Street. You’ll see at the top it’s got Webber’s building, there was a fire there, the Cosy Theatre was on fire, Roach’s was on fire – and so he made off for Roach’s. When he got there there was no water, because the Power building – and it’s just down the road down there, you know, the Power Board building that faces, it’s actually got The Hawke’s Bay Electric Power Board on it – they couldn’t get enough pressure to pump the water. They didn’t have any to start with, so the Fire Brigade actually started to try to rescue people that were in there – ‘cause they didn’t have the water – that were stuck. And as you can see … well they’ve got the fire hydrant plugged in there, but at that stage they couldn’t get any water. And about half an hour after that photo, you can … I don’t know, but there is a spray of water that you can see there. And that there – you can see that there’s a hole actually in the hose, because water’s spilling out all over. So they eventually did get water in there.

A lady called Dot McRobbie was rescued. I think I’ve got the next photo here – you can see this is probably not long after the actual earthquake, and this picture astounds me. Here you’ve got two men walking along, one in a three-piece suit, as if it’s basically just a walk in the park, you know what I mean? Just a normal walk down the street and having a pleasant conversation; meanwhile everybody else is sort of just, crowding around, and that man there’s probably trying to look. I mean you’ve got to remember too, that a lot of people were scared to actually go into a building because the earth was shaking the whole time and it might actually fall on them, and obviously not get out again. So there they are, crowding around. They couldn’t get water pressure at that stage. Here’s another picture of them rescuing. I think this is facing more King Street going towards the racecourse on the other side. So once again they’re desperately trying to get people out that were stuck. As I said, a lady called Dot McRobbie was in there, and they managed to pull her out.

That’s actually the next day, and as you can see what happened at night, if there was anybody left that had survived in there that was trapped when they had a big earthquake at night – they had a huge one again at quarter to nine at night, which was about … oh, 6.7, and that actually restarted all the fires. ‘Cause what had happened, as you’ll probably appreciate you’ve got little splinters of fires, and if it’s got no oxygen they just go out. But when the buildings moved they were exposed to oxygen, and what happened was of course, they would flare up again, and that was the constant problem that they had. And they lost water again completely at night, so Roach’s basically just burnt down.

Now a couple of ladies that survived and rescued – Frances just died a couple of weeks ago actually, God bless her. She was an amazing woman, and I had the privilege of talking to her about three years ago and talking about her experiences. So she was serving somebody at a counter, and what had happened was, she just said “oh, it’s an earthquake,” you know, when it started. And the whole building just obviously collapsed down on her and she was near the counter, and a beam must have just fallen over her head, hit the counter and sheltered her from real bad damage. The customer near her was … the lady she was serving was killed instantly. And she actually crawled … she just looked for a light, and crawled past … unfortunately some of her friends, other shop assistants … a couple of them died. And when she got to the top, Gordon Roach, which [who] was the son of George Roach, actually pulled her off, so she actually climbed up onto the roof. So the whole building had just collapsed down.

Another lady across there, Vena Murray, she’d written about it, and I’ll just read from the book I wrote – they had a mezzanine floor so she was on that floor. And she said: “I looked at Mr. Roach and said, ‘Oh, an earthquake.’ And at first, it did not seem to be very violent. Suddenly it was earth-shattering – utter chaos amongst the smothering dust and din. The front of the building rose in the air. Tables and chairs slid to the end of the room. We grasped at these and held on grimly, while Mr Roach tried to reach the door and clung to the wall. He called to me to hang on to him, but I could not make it. I struggled to the entrance and at that stage, I must have been thrown to the floor. I remember someone being cast against my legs, and the indescribable noise of breaking glass. Next I was falling downwards. Dust and water made everything dark. I was buried under a showcase. When the big shock stopped, Mr Roach called out to see if I was all right. When I assured him that was so, he pulled away the debris and the showcase and rescued a women who had been thrown against me. I managed to scrambled out from below, and followed out.”

So what had also happened – there was another lady called Jess Baddely trapped under a shop counter. She yelled out to Vena to basically help to pull her out, so they managed to pull her out as well. So if you can imagine this whole building which we saw before, just collapsed on itself, and all these shop assistants just wriggling around underneath, trying to find a way out of that.

The Grand Hotel. In today’s terms … it was actually five storeys – it doesn’t look like five storeys from this angle, it just looks like … you know, but from a different angle you can actually see the different levels of it. There was unfortunately a … this wasn’t a rescue, but there was a sign-writer up there, or cleaning that or something, and you can just imagine … right at the earthquake he fell right down and he was killed instantly. And you can see that the front façade there, had fallen off, so that photo there was probably within half an hour of the original earthquake, and you can see the mess everywhere. The proprietor, Jack Ross, was apparently trapped in the cellar – stocktaking, not having a tipple. Apparently. So he was down in the cellar. Somehow – no one’s actually been able to confirm to this to me, but I’ve heard it from lots of different people – that he was actually alive. And apparently a brick brigade formed after a while – and what they did is, they just started to remove all the bricks to try and  get him out. I don’t know the exact position of it. I love this photo – this man here. Look, his head’s at almost right angles to his body. He’s walking along and probably just seeing the … you know, the Grand Hotel in its state, and his head just went whof … away like that.

Now you can see here – all of these people here … it’s not a good reproduction … are all Māori. They’d come from Paki Paki … those original ones would have come I was told from Paki Paki, and later Waimarama. So they were there to try and pull out Jack Ross … to help him get out. So they formed a brick brigade, as I talked about before. And you wonder why they’re probably standing around – the reason why they were, is because every time the building shook, obviously more of it started to fall down. So they obviously didn’t want to get too close.

As I said before, Māori from another Pa were actually made Special Police. And the Special Police were designed to wait at the … you know, surround the CBD from looters. And Bishop Bennett had a lot to do with organising them as well – the help with the rescue effort. Sir Apirana Ngata came down, who [he] was a Minister of the Crown, and he came down and personally thanked, you know, probably forty or fifty or sixty of them that actually helped. So they were, probably to Hastings, what the Veronica sailors to Napier. They were, but you hardly find any references. And actually when I started writing my book on this, I noticed that they were popping up in photos everywhere, and then I saw some anecdotal references to people. And as I said before, they were not frightened by the earthquake’s tremors at all, and they just kept moving. There were unfortunately, a couple of people that weren’t happy to see them there, but overall they were [an] absolute God-send to Hastings, coming in and helping.

Any help or rescue for Jack Ross, the publican … ‘cause they were going all this time, even ‘til night … the Fire Brigade was there with the fire hoses, you know, ‘cause the fires were continually breaking out every time the buildings moved. Finally the big shake – the whole thing just went bang! Tinder dry, and just exploded in flames, so unfortunately Jack Ross perished in the fire.

Ron Shakespeare – no, it was actually another lady that lived out Riverslea Road, said you could see a big glow over Hastings from the fires from the Grand Hotel and the block. That’s the Grand Hotel the next day, and … bit morbid this, but those there are all that apparently remains [remained] of Jack Ross. And he was found with basically … well, they knew it was him because he had a key that he used to hang around his waist. So that’s all that was left of that building.

That’s another shot of it the next day. As you can see it just looks like a big war scene from World War I, doesn’t it? Just debris absolutely everywhere.

The next building is the Cosy Theatre – it’s a postcard of it there – once again, very unstable. You can see two gentlemen there, trying to desperately look for survivors. It is thought – there was a couple of girls in the Cosy Theatre building that ran a cake shop, the Haxton sisters – and we think that that is her brothers, desperately trying to find them in there. So, unfortunately they both perished.

As you can see there, people trying to rescue as well or look for people. What one person told me who was alive at the time of the earthquake … obviously walking along, that he could hear cries of people crying out in the afternoon, not rescuing them, but I don’t think that’s quite correct, because I think there’s lots of photos of people actually rescuing, so his memory’s probably not that good on that aspect.

There again is the Cosy Theatre … trying to pull people out and rescue them. One lady who was rescued – a fireman crawled, apparently, in there, right into the building. She could hear … and pulled her out after half an hour. So she was the only one that managed to escape, or actually, that was trapped that survived, actually in the building.

There’s another view of it, probably taken the very next day. As you can see the street hasn’t been cleared properly – see there’s the mess and that. Part of that’s Roach’s … Roach’s building, which is on the diagonal … fell across the side of the road as well. And that is another one – there you can see the Fire Brigade just collecting up all the hoses after they put the fires out.

One person that did escape was Colin Kirkpatrick, and that’s his mother, Mary. Mary ran the sweets shop at the Cosy Theatre, and at the time of the earthquake, she was setting up for the day, and her son Colin was making the ice cream. And when the earthquake happened, they both I think managed to get out of the building. But there was so much dust around that Mary started apparently calling out for Colin, and apparently he heard her calling out. And then when the lull happened, ‘cause there was so much dust she actually went back into the building, and then the earthquake resumed and she unfortunately perished, caught in the rubble coming down.

The Hastings Public Library … Carnegie Library. Andrew Carnegie … probably just a brief history … was a Scottish steel merchant, made a lot of money – he was probably the equivalent of Bill Gates today. Made a lot of money. And you could write to him, and he would pay for a library for you, for your community – if it was free. Except for the councillors [chuckle] decided that they’d pretend it was going to be free and then they tried to introduce charges. The librarian’s smiling at me … [the] councillors tried to introduce charges again which actually stopped them from getting another one built free, because the Carnegie Foundation was not particularly impressed. As I said before it was built by the same architect, Vautier, of Napier, who designed the Grand Hotel – as you can see, principally of brick. And ironically, the Hastings Council said “all buildings must be built of brick, because if they’re not, they will catch on fire like they did in 1893 and 1907, and we’ll have a terrible mess to clean up, so … in brick.” Tragically though, the same problems and things like this, occur. So that photo there, given to me by a private collection, shows what happened immediately after. And they’re trying to pull people out. You can see a bit of activity there. As there is today, there’s a reading room down there. Most of the people that died were actually the men of the town. Even in 1931 the elderly men of the town wander in and read all the newspapers. So a lot of them were killed. A young librarian apparently managed to survive by going into – it was told to me that it was a chimney, but I don’t think there was any chimneys in that building. But she must have gone into a cubby hole, and she actually went into that and survived. I don’t think any librarians were killed – I could find no reference of librarians that had died.

As I say, a lot of people when the first ‘quake stopped, you know – the earthquake started, then when the lull happened of thirty seconds – some people actually thought ‘that’s it.’ And their building had actually survived it – if it had survived – and they stayed. And then when it resumed the building was sufficiently weakened enough for it to collapse. Some buildings like Roach’s collapsed straight away … the Grand Hotel collapsed straight away, but I believe and understand from a person that was an eyewitness that this did not collapse straight away. In fact, he saw a lady come out and then go back in, and told ‘oh, my handbag’s left in there’ – went in to get her handbag and then it just collapsed, with tragic results.

There it is – obviously the rubble’s been pushed to the side so you can use the street. The Hastings Club, which is next to it … I mean the only damage it really caused is probably a bit of the library falling on top of it. But once again, a wooden structure … moved with it. So ironically, if it’d built wooden buildings, the death toll would have been quite a lot less.

I thought I’d just finish today with the role of the sailors in Hastings. I mean you all know that, you know … the Veronica, the Bell, and the role that the sailors played in Napier. Of course they were right there, they’d just got into port, and they could go in help them. There were no sailors made their way across from the Veronica into Hastings. They were probably unaware ‘til late in the day that Hastings probably had a problem like Napier – that in fact, some of them – if it’s like today – probably didn’t even know that Hastings exists [chuckle] – let alone that there was an earthquake there. I was on an Art Deco walk, one I did in there, and a lady said, “oh, did Hastings have an earthquake too?” So there’s a quite a bit of misinformation and ignorance about Hastings.

So there they are – that is King Street, heading up King Street. Roach’s is in that area there, so that gives you an idea of some of the bearings. Those sailors were from the HMS Diomede. So the HMS Diomede came down the day of the earthquake when word was sent back to Auckland. And they were sent to Hastings, not really to be too much involved in rescue, but more to help search for bodies and maintain law and order. So there were two lots: there were the Marines – they’re the ones that carry the guns and do the shooting … you know, when they land. And then there were the sailors, and those are the sailors. So the Marines relieve some of the Special Police, and there’s a couple of photos around of them with guns. There they are – that’s right outside of Westerman’s on Heretaunga Street. So if you think of the iSite – where these men are here, that would be basically almost going into the iSite building in there. And they are unfortunately doing a body recovery – perhaps they’ve found the body there, as they’re starting to gather around that part of it. So the sailors weren’t so much involved in rescue in Hastings, but more recovery, and law and order, and things like that.

That there is taken – there’s buildings on there now, but that was Westerman’s old sample room – some of you may remember – I think that became part of McKenzie’s – some of you that are a lot older than me. It was used, I think as Westerman’s Number 2 store for a while as well, I think. But they were sample rooms of course, where salespeople came and put out their wares and said, you know – “would you like to buy those?’ And they rented the room. So I guess where they are now would be where the Shattky … you know, where Shattky and Eagle building is – the optometrists? So that’s about the day after the earthquake, and they’re just having a bit of a break there.

This is the plan. So they were ‘round about here, so possibly a bit more over than Shattky’s, so the sailors were congregating ‘round about there. This block plan was about 1925, so there was obviously no Russell Street that went through in 1925.

This man here is … the sailor there is Bill Forrest with his mother. Bill was from Napier. And he lived at Number 1 Battery Road with his family. And he obviously joined the Royal New Zealand Navy, and he was on the Diomede. So the Diomede came down to Napier the next day. And even though the ship docked pretty much close to … well, within reasonable walking distance of Battery Road, he was not allowed to enquire after his family – ‘cause he had brothers and sisters and a mother and father – so he wasn’t allowed. So he was sent to Hastings to help with the clean-up. On the third day he’d had enough of this, so he went AWOL, which you’ll know as “away without [official] leave.” And he went AWOL to Napier and found out about his family. His sister’s still alive … May Blair … some of you may know May. And she survived the Napier Technical College collapse. And when he found out all his family were alive and well he scarpered, because the Navy were after him. And they eventually caught up with them in Wanganui, and he was sent to prison in Mount Eden for six months … at His Majesty’s pleasure, in Mount Eden. So … just shows you … you know, he wasn’t even allowed to leave to enquire about his family or for anyone in Napier to find out, and in the end it just got too much for him and he left, and he ended up being in jail. So you know, you’d like to think that it wouldn’t happen today, but who knows? But it left a huge mark on that family – with his mother there, and of course you know, you could imagine you know, your son being in prison … just enquiring after his family.

The other role of the Navy was in demolition. That building there was Griffith’s shoe store when it was next to the BNZ. So you know the BNZ now? BJ’s Bakery … is it BJ’s Bakery, or John’s Bakery? There’s a café there. So on the corner used to be the old Bank of New South Wales … that’s the BNZ. Sutcliffe’s used to be there. And so they are there demolishing that building there – that’s the other role that they had.

And out of interest, the last shot was that many of the – this is actually some of the HMS Veronica sailors – as they went round they rescued budgies and … what’s the other word? Budgies and … canaries, that’s the one I’m searching for, canaries. Yes, so they rescued those and took them onto the ship.

Another interesting thing was too, that dogs and cats voluntarily made their way to the ships and jumped on them. Yeah – they just found their way to the port, so they had all these dogs and cats actually on the HMS Veronica and Diomede, ‘cause they probably thought it was the safest place to be instinctively – to be on the ship. So they had all these animals like a zoo – yeah, Noah’s Ark, literally. Somebody gave me a copy of that photo a few weeks ago that I’d never seen before, with a caption about the story. So not only were people rescued, but animals as well.

Right – so that’s the end of my talk. That’s the book I wrote – I have got a couple of copies for sale at $50 if anybody wants to buy a book. Otherwise, they are actually in the library. There’s quite a few copies in all of the libraries here. And there is an article going in tonight about Bill Forrest in the Hawke’s Bay Today tonight, if you’re interested in reading a bit more about that.

I don’t know if there’s any questions for a couple of minutes?

[Reply to question] A lot of it was taken – you know St Leonard’s Park? Out that area – a lot of it was taken out there. And a lot of it was used to make the bridges at Cornwall Park … you know the bridges? And also outside the Methodist Church, there used to be the fence and the seats? Made those, yeah. That’s why that park is a bit lumpy and … or it was anyway. ‘Cause remember, in those days that was quite a way out of Hastings, [chuckle] you know? Today, you know, in the car it’s five minutes.

Right, is that about all? Thank you [very] much for coming along, and thank you very much too, Carla, Katrina and Madelon and Ross too, for setting it up and getting all the gear.

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Landmarks Talk 3 February 2009

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