Bricks rained on quake-day shoppers
By CLINTON LLEWELLYN
Even at age 99, Valda Colwill’s memories of the 1931 Hawke’s Bay Earthquake are “quite clear”.
She was 15 and shopping with her mother in the old Westerman’s Building when “the shake came” at 10.47am on February 3 – 84 years ago last Tuesday.
It could have been far worse, but fate intervened.
Colwill and her mother could have been inside the old Roach’s Department store in Heretaunga Street, where 17 people died during the quake.
“My mother and I, we got onto the railway line heading towards Roach’s and it was so hot mum said, ‘it’s too hot, We’ll go back to Westerman’s.’ ”
The thing she “really remembered” about being inside Westerman’s during the quake was lying on the ﬂoor with her mother “watching all the bricks come down”.
She and her [and] mum were lucky enough to escape unhurt, Colwill said.
“I had my best hat on and it was absolutely sliced to pieces and I didn’t have a scratch,” she said.
Others inside the building in the quake, which killed 258 people, including 93 in Hastings, were not so lucky.
“There was a girl beside us, who was serving us at the time, she was pinned. We could hear her, but we couldn’t see her. They got her out later. She was alive, but she lost a leg.”
Due to the destruction, Colwill and her mother could not get out the front of the building.
“It was disastrous to go that way, anyway,” said Colwill, who remembered a boy she went to school with at Hastings Central who was killed by falling debris when he tried to ﬂee one of the city’s crumbling buildings.
“He was killed out on the footpath. Had we gone out on to the footpath we would have been killed, too. But it was not our time,” she said.
Mother and daughter returned to the family’s home on the corner of Southampton and Hastings Sts to ﬁnd it unscathed – except for the loss of a lone bottle of whisky.
“My father had the house built on what “they called ‘ﬂoating foundations’ and everyone said ‘why on earth would you want to do that for?’
“Well, we had nothing broken. The only thing we lost was a bottle of whisky and that’s because the [liquor cabinet] door fell open.”
Colwill said she thought about the events of the quake every so often and her memories of the day were “very strong”.
“It’s quite clear,” she said.
She shared her experiences after taking part in last Tuesday’s memorial service in the Hastings city centre where she accompanied deputy mayor Cynthia Bowers to lay the ceremonial wreath at the base of the city clock tower.
The sound of a lone bagpiper ﬁlled the city streets before performers from the Kahurangi Maori Dance Theatre opened the 30-minute service with a haka.
Led by master of ceremonies, councillor Kevin Watkins, the service commemorating 84 years since the disaster attended by about 200 people including more than 50 pupils from St Matthew’s School in Hastings.
Special guests included representatives from emergency services, Civil Defence and the district health board and Napier Mayor Bill Dalton.
Cynthia Bowers performed the ceremonial duties in the absence of mayor Lawrence Yule, who she said was having a sick day for the ﬁrst time she could remember in the 14 years she had been his deputy.
The Reverend Numia Tomoana recited a prayer before the Hastings clock tower tolled at 10.47am, the time of the earthquake, before she led the crowd in a period of silent reﬂection.
Photo caption – Eighty-four years on: 1931 Hawke’s Bay Earthquake survivor Valda Colwill, 99, accompanies Hastings deputy mayor Cynthia Bowers to lay a ceremonial wreath at the base of the city clock tower at last week’s memorial service.
Photo: CLINTON LLEWELLYN