Thursday, 12 February 2009

Rescuers and the Rescued by Michael Fowler

On February 3, 1931, at 10.47am 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. Completely demolished shops and buildings lay in ruins after Napier's earthquake; rescue teams, navy personnel, nurses and members of the public are amongst those trying to assist in rescue operations etc. On 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". 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." Trapped and pinned – Rescuers and the rescuedAs 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. The servicemen worked hard sifting through the rubble looking for survivors and bodies of those who had died.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. Rows of tents were erected to cater for the urgent needs of Napier and Hastings community’s, affected by the disaster.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.