New Zealand Woman’s Weekly - - THIS WEEK IN... - Lyn­ley Ward

Napier’s deadly earth­quake

Teresa Dooney clearly re­mem­bers the part­ing words of the woman she af­fec­tion­ately knew as Aunt Molly, ut­tered just hours be­fore the deadly Napier earth­quake.

It might be nearly nine decades later, but Teresa (95) re­calls be­ing handed a bag of sweets for run­ning an er­rand, be­fore head­ing to St Joseph’s School for the first day of term. “Aunt Molly said, ‘Now be good girls and don’t eat them on the way to school or you’ll be sick.’

“We had just gone out to play – we got our lol­lies out of our bags and moved away from the build­ing – and the earth­quake struck,” says Teresa, re­count­ing the ter­ri­fy­ing mo­ment at 10.47am on Fe­bru­ary 3, 1931, when the 7.8-mag­ni­tude tremor rup­tured the earth, shak­ing Napier and Hast­ings so vi­o­lently scores of build­ings col­lapsed, in­clud­ing the school’s con­vent, killing a nun and trap­ping many.

“We were thrown to the ground. We tried to stand up but couldn’t. We were try­ing to crawl away from the build­ing be­cause of the ter­ri­ble noise.

“We even­tu­ally man­aged to crawl into a pad­dock away from the school. That’s where I lost my lol­lies. I still had the top of the packet, though.

“The school stood, but there was a new con­vent on the same

site where the nuns were hav­ing morn­ing tea and that came down like a packet of crack­ers with the roof on top of it. To this day, I can still see the men cut­ting the roof to get them out.”

Once the dev­as­tat­ing quake had stopped, wor­ried rel­a­tives started ar­riv­ing on foot and horse­back to take their chil­dren to safety.

“I didn’t go home that day,” tells Teresa, who was seven at the time. “My aunty came from Taradale and took me back to meet my granny, and we sat on the foot­path all day.

“That night, we slept in Taradale Park with a tar­pau­lin slung be­tween two trees. My aunty went in the house be­tween shakes and got bed­ding for us.”

Back on the fam­ily farm in Meea­nee, Teresa’s three-yearold sis­ter Joan had her own lucky es­cape af­ter she be­came trapped un­der col­lapsed cur­tains.

“We had a win­dow seat,” re­calls Joan, now 91. “I can still re­mem­ber sit­ting there. Mum had taken a drink out to the men har­vest­ing in the pad­dock so I was left there to watch her out the win­dow. The next thing, the earth­quake came and the cur­tains came down on top of me. I can re­mem­ber be­ing tied up in them, and Mum and Dad hav­ing to res­cue me. He had to break down the door to get me out.”

With fire rag­ing in the cen­tral busi­ness dis­trict, Teresa and Joan were among thou­sands of women and chil­dren who be­came quake refugees, dis­persed across the North Is­land un­til it was safe to re­turn to their dev­as­tated com­mu­ni­ties. Like many fam­i­lies, the Dooneys were apart for weeks, some liv­ing with rel­a­tives, oth­ers bil­leted by strangers.

“I didn’t see Mum for a month,” Teresa says. “She was evac­u­ated to Pahiatua, and I was with my granny and aunty in Palmer­ston North.” Their brother, Wil­liam, was sent to rel­a­tives in Bun­nythorpe.

“We didn’t even know the Pahiatua peo­ple,” Joan re­calls. “They just took us in.”

Teresa went to school in Palmer­ston North, but says she was quickly dubbed the “mad girl from Hawke’s Bay” af­ter dash­ing out of the class­room at the slight­est hint of a shake.

“I was on edge the whole time. As soon as I got to school and saw the brick build­ing, I went and hid my case in the hedge. The first lit­tle bit of noise, I was out the door. They even­tu­ally de­cided to sit me down the back of the class.”

Teresa re­calls re­turn­ing to Napier at Easter and be­ing driven around the ruins of what was once the town’s bustling cen­tre. “I re­mem­ber say­ing, ‘I want to go home, I want to go home.’ Just see­ing that it all was a real mess.”

They would later dis­cover their mum’s best friend, the honorary aunt who gave them the lol­lies on the day of the quake, had per­ished, along with the woman’s mother, their bod­ies even­tu­ally found buried in de­bris un­der a col­lapsed shop ve­ran­dah, arms slung pro­tec­tively around each other.

The earth­quake re­mains New Zealand’s worst civil dis­as­ter, hav­ing claimed 256 lives.

Teresa and Joan’s sis­ter-in­law, Nola (93), who lived in ru­ral Hawke’s Bay, near Puke­tapu, some 15km from Napier, says the tremor didn’t dis­rupt her life, but she suf­fered life­long heartache when her mother died un­ex­pect­edly a fort­night later.

“Whether that was from the earth­quake, I will never know.

“That was the sad­dest thing in my life. I never got over los­ing her.”

Then just five years old, she de­scribes see­ing a pall of black smoke in the dis­tance as a de­struc­tive fire raged out of con­trol over 11 blocks in the town cen­tre soon af­ter the quake struck.

“You could see over Napier

– it was all a bit dusty and then there was the fire.”

As the trio pre­pare to meet up with other quake sur­vivors at next month’s an­nual af­ter­noon tea at the Napier Boys’ High School, they say the tragedy took a last­ing toll.

“To this day, I still have the same ter­ri­ble feel­ing of be­ing shut in,” says Joan, who freezes in ter­ror dur­ing earthquakes. “My bed­room and lounge door are never shut tight.”

“I’m like that too,” con­fesses Teresa, now in care at a Taradale re­tire­ment vil­lage.

”I ring the bell if I hear the door be­ing closed. I tell them I don’t like the door be­ing shut be­cause of the 1931 earth­quake.

“You never for­get it and you never get over it.”

Joan still fears be­ing shut inplaces af­ter her ex­pe­ri­encedur­ing the Napier quake.

From left: Nola, Teresa and Joan all still have vivid mem­o­ries of the 1931 quake that splitnot only the earth apart, but fam­i­lies too.

From left: Mimi, Teresa, Wil­liam and Dan Dooney were apart for weeks af­ter the Napierquake in 1931.

The 7.8 mag­ni­tude earth­quake re­duced build­ings in both Hast­ings and Napier to rub­ble andclaimed 256 lives.

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