[Searching for Survivors]
The story of Doreen Barbara Jane
Survivor of the Napier Earthquake
It was a sunny morning in Napier on Monday the third of February 1931. Doreen Jane was ten years old and lived in a small brick house in central Napier, with her parents and eight other siblings. It had been a very hot dry summer and this day was no different, stifling even in the early morning. It was all action in the Jane household because it was the first day back to school after the summer holidays. Doreen and her brothers and sisters were busy hunting for shoes, pencil cases and all the other school paraphernalia that had been cheerfully ignored during the long hot days of swimming and playing. Today was also special because her brother Laurence turned five during the holidays and this was to be his first day at school.
Times were hard and families were big. New Zealand was still recovering from the depression and parents struggled to provide everything that a growing family needed. Finding clothes for everyone was the biggest problem; every family had a sewing machine and they learned to use whatever fabrics were available to them. People had to be resourceful; Doreen’s mother taught her daughters how to carefully stitch home-made underwear out of the used flour bags. Laurence had been fully kitted out in new clothes for his big day at school and he was very excited.
Finally everyone was dressed and ready. “Keep an eye on him, please, pet”, called their Mother from the front door. Doreen promised that she would as she waved from the street. She took little Laurence by the hand and along with Samuel and Lorna they began the short walk to school. The first day was always fun, the children were excited to catch up with all their friends and had a lot to talk about after such a long break. The morning passed quickly and before they knew it the bell went for morning tea.
This particular day they were really lucky because the teachers had a meeting and the children were allowed an extra fifteen minutes of playtime. Skipping was the favourite game of the day. One child on either end busy twirling while the others lined up and took their turn to skip. Doreen was on one end of the rope, as she swung, round and round, her sister Lorna jumped. Suddenly she noticed that the ground started rippling. Doreen though that maybe they were jumping too hard and wrecking the playground. She stopped turning the rope to tell Lorna, just as she did a huge old Kauri tree started to lean back and began ripping its roots right out of the ground. The children had all stopped playing by now and everybody stood fascinated, watching the giant tree groaning and heaving. Eventually the roots were free and the tree crashed down with an almighty bang right in the middle of the street, scattering dust, branches and a cloud of squawking birdlife.
Just then the headmaster came rushing out of the school, red faced and with a strange look on his face. Doreen thought “we’re in big trouble now”, it was strange though, they had skipped just as hard in previous years and never knocked anything down, certainly not a whole tree. “Get up the gate”, the headmaster shouted. “Come on right now, all children, get up the gate”. Then the ground started shaking, there was a low rumbling sound. Doreen suddenly recognised the look on the headmasters face, raw fear, she glanced around and all the teachers looked the same. She didn’t understand what was happening but she knew that it was serious.
All the children started to run to the gate. Suddenly Doreen stopped to look for her little brother. She turned to Lorna, “where’s Laurence?” she cried. Lorna said that he was in the toilets when the tree fell over, the noise frightened him and he ran out bare bottomed, without his new trousers. When he realised he ran back in to fetch them. Both sisters looked on horrified, as part of the school including the brick toilet block came crashing down in a heap of rubble, dust and smoke, on top of their little brother. Doreen felt sick; she had promised to look after him, what was she going to tell her Mother?
They ran to tell the headmaster what had happened. He raced to the caretakers shed and pulled out a shovel. As he dug Doreen and Lorna and the rest of the teachers worked to clear the bricks and rubble from the pile. The stench from the cracked sewage pipes was overwhelming but they struggled on. The headmaster dug frantically, his shirt black with sweat and forehead dripping. Suddenly he stopped and looked down into the hole in the rubble. He cleared a patch with his hand and then stuck the shovel in again. They heard it connect with a dull thud. “Ouch”, cried Laurence. “Watch my head”. Tears of relief flowed down the girls faces as they gently pulled little Laurence out from under the debris.
He was alive but both of his legs were broken. The head master ran out to the street and hailed a passing truck to take him to the hospital. Unfortunately when they arrived, the hospital was in worse shape than he was and Laurence was treated by the Red Cross who were busy setting up tents across the street. Many people had been killed and injured by the collapse of the hospital building. The unfortunate timing of the quake meant they there had just been a shift change and a lot of the night duty staff had just gone to bed. The nurse’s home had completely collapsed on top of them crushing eleven of the sleeping staff.
Doreen and Lorna were sent home with the rest of the children. They ran along the street anxious to be reunited with their Mother. As the girls hurried up the hill they passed what had been, a couple of hours previously the technical college, it was now reduced to a giant heap of debris. Some of the students, bloodied and bewildered were sitting outside crying. It felt like some kind of nightmare, everywhere they looked all they could see was thick dust, broken buildings and injured people. They hurried on, becoming more and more worried about what they were likely to find when they got home. Doreen realised that so far she had not seen a single brick building that had survived the quake. Fear squirmed inside her and she grabbed Lorna’s hand and hurried on.
They turned the corner and there it was. The home that they had all been so eager to leave that morning was now a dusty pile of bricks and rubble. It had been completely destroyed. The girls stood there in complete shock, trying to reconcile this mess with the house they had left just a few hours before. Too scared to say anything Doreen stood stock still, terrified that her mother was dead. Just then Lorna said “it’s ok, she’s over there”. They turned around and there she was, in the park across the street sitting on a bench with their little brothers and sisters. It was going to be ok, they were all alive. Their Mother was feeding little Desmond who was only four weeks old and when she saw them she stood up and waved them over. The girls rushed over and hugged her, almost sick with relief that she was still alive. Tearfully they told her everything that had happened that morning.
As they were talking the priest rode up on his bicycle and said that there was a tidal wave coming and that everyone had to get up to the top of the hill as fast as possible. They loaded the little ones into the pram and took off as quickly as possible. It felt like the longest walk in the world, the younger children didn’t know what a tidal wave was but Doreen did. She kept looking back over her shoulder, expecting to see a giant curl of water coming at them any second. Once they reached the top, their mother assured them that they would be all right.
Even the biggest wave couldn’t reach them now. Just then their Father arrived and started organising everything. They were all to stay on that hill for the night so they needed some sort of shelter. Doreen’s Father was the skipper on the Agnes Martin and he knew there were tarpaulins on the boat. Despite the risk of an imminent Tsunami he returned to his boat to get tarpaulins for everyone to sleep under. When he returned the men put together make shift tents and everyone was allocated a place to sleep. There were five or six families under each tarpaulin and it was a miserable night, they were constantly rocked by after-shakes and terrified of the threat of tidal waves. It never really got dark though, the amber glow from the fire penetrated the inky night. They coughed and choked on the hill as the city of Napier burned beneath them. Ash fell like filthy snowflakes and by morning the grass on the hill was black with soot.
Doreen overheard her parents talking about how the fires started. The chemist shops kept gas jets burning to melt the wax used to seal prescriptions, when the earthquake struck they were knocked to the ground and started three major fires. The contents of the chemist shops made good fuel for the fires and they were well under way before anyone could do anything. He said that the central fire station in Napier was completely destroyed and the fire engines were trapped underneath it. The quake cracked the water pipes and once they broke underground the water quickly ran out so there was nothing to fight the fires with.
Doreen listened in horror as he went on to describe how the sailors from the HMS Veronica tried to rescue as many people as they could before the fires took hold. Apparently many people lay alive, trapped under the remains of broken buildings, waiting as the fire approached. Almost constant aftershocks and collapsing buildings all around them made it almost impossible to get anyone out alive. Some of the rescuers lost their own lives after becoming trapped by the fires or by falling debris. Soon they just couldn’t do anymore and the fires were left to burn themselves out, taking with them people, paperwork and in some cases the entire possessions of the city residents.
Doreen and her family were left with virtually nothing but the clothes they were wearing. However, there was no complaining, they were homeless, terrified and shocked to the core but they knew they were the lucky ones, both parents and nine children all alive, in a town where hundreds lay dead and dying. Looking down on the inferno below them from the safety of the hilltop, Doreen was just happy to be alive and to be with her family.
By the next morning the threat of a tidal wave had been dismissed. Men came up from the town and told them that the sea had gone out in Napier and apparently it was staying out. The families were instructed to go down to Nelson Park where the Red Cross had set up tents with food and emergency supplies. Doreen had never seen anything like it, there were hundreds of people, tents as far as the eye could see and official looking people in uniforms giving orders. The Jane family were shown to a tent where they spend the next two days. “See, it’s just like camping” her mother said. It was the fourth of February and that was the day that the city of Napier was officially evacuated. The water and sewage pipes were broken, it was mid-summer and the risk of disease was high. She didn’t want to leave but Doreen knew they had no choice.
Five thousand people left Napier over the next forty eight hours. Some went to stay with relatives but those with nowhere to go were billeted out to families in the surrounding region. The Jane family were too big and they were told and they were going to have to be split up. Doreen was terrified; a kind lady from the Salvation Army promised her she would try to find a place that she and Lorna could go together. She held true to her word and Doreen and Lorna were told that they would be going to stay with the Headmaster of Sampson School and his wife. First of all everyone was going together to Palmerston North and then on to different places after that.
About twenty families clambered aboard a huge bus. There were doors down both sides and the long seats ran across the entire width of the bus. They all got settled and soon they were off. As they drove through the devastated remains of Napier Doreen and her family got a bird’s eye view of the destruction. They drove past the Tavistock Hotel; she’d always wondered what the rooms were like in there, now she could see straight in. The entire wall on one side of the building was gone, leaving the rooms on show to the world. It looked like a magnified dolls house in one of the smart shops in town. The streets were still littered with rubble and the bus had to steer around various obstacles to get out of town.
They passed the entrance to the Westshore Embankment Road which had a huge crack down the middle, there were semi submerged motor cars jutting right out of it. The bus continued its slow weave through the wrecked city and soon they were out on the open road. They continued to pick up speed and everything was going fine until suddenly they turned a corner on the highway and saw that half of the road had dropped over the cliff. The driver swerved in as close as he could to the cliff face and Doreen heard the screech of metal scraping against rock as the handles on one side of the bus were ripped away. She gripped her mother’s hand as tight as she could, the driver desperately tried to steer the bus between the cliff face on one side and the sheer drop on the other. Doreen couldn’t look and she heard her father muttering some choice words under his breath. It was a white knuckle ride but somehow they made it, thankfully the rest of the road was intact and the remainder of journey was uneventful.
The Bus arrived at Palmerston North Racecourse early that evening. They all had to squeeze out one door as the doors down the entire right side of the bus were fused together and the handles were gone. The families stayed there for two more days before being billeted out to various volunteers in the area. Doreen had never been to a racecourse before and she was excited to explore it. There was a huge sleeping area and each family choose mattresses and picked a spot to sleep in. The best part was that there was one room entirely filled with clothes. Doreen had never seen so many in one place, and couldn’t believe that you could take whatever you wanted. After many hours of trying on, Doreen chose a coat with a fur collar. She was so thrilled with it that even though it was midsummer and the sweat was tricking down her back she flat refused to take it off, much to the amusement of her family.
To Doreen, staying at the racecourse was like a holiday. All her family were together, there was lots of space to play and huge pots of food were cooked up for them all every day. Doreen’s mother warned them that it wasn’t going to last. Sure enough the Red Cross people told them that they would be leaving the next day. Her mother, along with her four youngest siblings was sent to a farm near Palmerston North. Doreen and Lorna were sent to stay with the headmaster of Samson school and his wife. Her older brother Samuel went to a deaf lady who lived close by, Mrs Scottie. Once they were all settled at their various destinations, their father went back to Napier to help with the rescue effort and to try and salvage what he could from their ruined house. By the time he got there the remains had been picked clean, anything worth taking was long gone.
Doreen and Lorna arrived at the Headmasters house in Samson. They were to stay with Mr and Mrs Francis until their father found somewhere big enough for them all to live in. They were lovely people and very glad to have the two girls to stay. Their own children had grown up and gone and they missed the noise and chatter of young children about the house. Mrs Francis had a friendly face with blond hair scraped up into a bun at the back of her head. The girls were well fed and cared for, it was an ideal life for Doreen; with no younger siblings to look after and no housework to do she was free to be a child herself. The only thing required of her was that she went to school on weekdays and church on Sunday, apart from that her time was her own. Things weren’t quite so idyllic for her mother. She had been sent to a dairy farm and she was expected to work, milking cows and other tasks on top of taking care of four small children. Milking was all done by hand and it was arduous work. The highlight of the week was Sunday, when a lad from the farm arrived at the Francis house to collect Doreen and Lorna in his horse and cart so that they could visit their Mother and have dinner together, afterwards the girls walked back to Samson.
In the meantime it was left to Doreen’s father Samuel to sort the practicalities in the aftermath of the earthquake. There was no insurance policy to cover the house and contents so most people literally had to start again from scratch. With his family safe for the moment Samuel set about the task of finding somewhere to live. New Zealand was still recovering from the depression and money was very tight. There were some loans made available to business and individuals but they came with harsh repayment terms and were beyond the means of most ordinary people. It took three months to find a rental property big enough for a family of eleven but finally he managed it. The house was furnished with donated beds and blankets from the Red Cross. Finally three months after what became known as the biggest natural disaster in New Zealand history, the Jane family were reunited under one roof.
When they did eventually get back, it was to a very different Napier than the one they had left behind. The cause of the earthquake was the movement of a fault line that lay deeply buried under the region. As the fault moved, an area directly above it, roughly ninety kilometres long and fifteen kilometres wide, rose upward. The land and the sea floor of Ahuriri lagoon was raised by almost three metres. The same lagoon where Doreen and her family had spent the summer swimming and playing had completely disappeared. The sea water drained away and left Napier a present of almost two thousand hectares of brand new land. Napier town centre had been virtually destroyed so the city took the opportunity to completely redesign and rebuild from scratch. It took several years but Napier was redeveloped with many improvements. After almost being killed twice within as many days, Doreen Barbara Jane was back with her family in her own home town and she knew they were all very lucky to be alive.
© Sharron Martin