Hawkes Bay, New Zealand – 3 February 1931
On 3 February, 1931 I set out for my first day at Hastings High School with my sister Mary, who was in her second year. I was 13 years old. It was a typical Hawkes Bay summer day, very hot and overcast making everything seem very oppressive.
The high school consisted of two single level wings, a boy’s wing and a girl’s wing. There was also a two level administration wing with tall parapets at the side of the building to make it look taller.
Just before 11am I was in the science lab buying my books. Suddenly I heard a noise like an express train coming at full speed. Actually it was an earthquake. There was no warning, no rumblings just that sudden violence making a heavy roaring sound as it struck us. We were all thrown to the floor. Bottles of chemicals used in science experiments stored on open shelves were falling and breaking. There was a strong smell of chemicals. The noise was indescribable. People were screaming, and everyone was crawling towards the door.
The teacher had a very deep voice, and was calling “stand back boys, let the girls out first”. There was no way the boys were going to subscribe to this. Their instinct for survival was strong and we all finished up in a heap by the door, which had jammed. Two and a half minutes is an eternity when the earth is moving violently, and you are trapped in a room.
Suddenly the violence ceased, and we were able to open the science lab door and join all the pupils on the front lawn of the school.
The first aftershock came as we assembled on the lawn. It was almost as strong as the first earthquake. I watched the tall parapets separating from the main building and then clapping back against the main building before collapsing onto the roof.
One of the girls who was missing was discovered absolutely catatonic, still sitting at her desk in a state of shock, too afraid to move.
The pupils were sent home. Mary and I walked home to Avenue Road West along the main road, Heretaunga Street. It was only then that the enormity of the disaster registered. There were very few buildings still standing. There were no undamaged buildings. Bricks and rubble covered the street. Utter devastation.
Our father, Bill O’Neill, was a horse and cart carrier and wore a leather apron when working. Imagine the horror of walking past a shop which had totally collapsed and seeing a pair of legs and part of a leather apron protruding from the rubble. We grabbed hold of the feet, and were trying to pull “daddy” out. A man passing by told us there was nothing more we could do for the owner of the legs, and to go home.
When we got home the scene was chaotic. The brick chimney had collapsed onto the roof. The cupboard doors had all burst open, and the contents thrown onto the floor. There were broken jars which had contained jams and preserves, stores, crockery and china strewn all over the kitchen floor. All of the furniture had been knocked over, even the beds. The wallpaper was cracked by the strain on the building.
My mother had been cleaning the bath when the earthquake hit. She was hurled into the bath, luckily only sustaining bruises.
The brick chimneys on the houses had all collapsed, generally onto the roof, making it dangerous to stay in the house.
My younger sister, Kath had not arrived home, so mother had to go out and look for her. She had been too frightened to come home, and had gone to a friend’s house. Her friend’s grandmother, a very devout Irish catholic widow, really believed that the angel Gabriel had sounded the last trumpet, and that the earthquake was heralding the end of the world. She was pleading for someone to go with her to the cemetery, so that she would be there to greet her husband when the graves opened up.
We were relieved to discover that the legs did not belong to Daddy. He had been home, but as a volunteer fireman, he was out with the fire brigade. Fires had started soon after the earthquake hit. All the men were out on rescue work in the town. The women and children just sat on the grass strip in front of their houses. We were too frightened to go back into the house.
When the earthquake hit, Daddy was at the Pacific Hotel, loading barrels of beer in the cellar. When he emerged, there was Tom his draught horse, standing quietly in the street, swishing his tail to get rid of flies. The dray was full of bricks from a collapsed building, but Tom had not moved.
Eventually we had to go into the house to drag mattresses out onto the lawn. We slept on the ground, in the shelter of a hedge. The ground was quivering almost continually, and there were regular strong aftershocks.
The next night we were just settling down when there was another very strong earthquake. Everything that had not collapsed in Heretaunga Street then did. We could hear the falling bricks from our home. We could also see the fires.
A couple of days after the earthquake, each family was given an army bell tent. We and our neighbours shared our tents. One tent was used for dining, and the other two for sleeping. Meals were cooked over a fire in the back yard. We obtained emergency food supplies at food agencies in the town. One of our neighbour’s sons knew there were biscuits in a brown paper bag in their pantry He nagged and nagged his mother to let him go in and get them. She finally relented, and he came out triumphantly waving the brown paper bag. Imagine our disappointment to discover that he had grabbed a brown paper bag of sticky fly papers. He wasn’t allowed a second chance. He was not popular.
There was no power or gas. The sewerage system was inoperative. Luckily we had an artesian well in our back garden, so had access to a clean supply of water. Our toilet facilities were a spade, a roll of paper and a request for privacy.
The local newspaper office was not completely destroyed. It had one small printing press which was used to put out a daily news sheet, which was mainly a casualty list, and also details of when trains were running for those who were being evacuated.
After 2 weeks of living in tents, experiencing almost constant aftershocks, we were happy to be evacuated, and very relieved to find that the ground was not shaking in Palmerston North. We came home as soon as our house was declared safe. Kath did not want to enter the house. She was terrified of sleeping in the house. I was made to sleep with her, which I hated. She has told me I was horrible to her. I suppose she was telling the truth, but I can’t remember ever being horrible.
The schools opened fairly quickly. Army marquees were utilised as classrooms until the classrooms had been repaired and strengthened. Coke braziers kept us warm during the winter. The tents leaked, so we were sent home when it rained. Once it was realised that rubbing the canvas with rulers exacerbated the leaking, we became diligent with our rulers.
It was months before there was any semblance of normality.
(Cel recorded her story on 24 October 1993, with Kath providing a commentary in the background. Cel was telling her personal story, and not attempting to provide facts and statistics, as she said those details would be available elsewhere.)
Hastings High School’s “High School Booklet” 1932, contained photographs of the damage wrought by the earthquake. In particular, page 3 of the booklet shows photographs of the army marquees. It also includes a photograph of pupils sitting at their desks. That was most interesting, as it showed what uniform Cel and Mary would have been wearing. See LeedomC953_HastingsHighSchoolBooklet.pdf)
Cel was Dux (jointly) of Hastings High School in 1935 and her sister Mary was Dux in 1934
Hastings High School became a boys’ school in the mid 1950’s.
September 2022: On a recent visit to Hastings my cousin’s, KJ and GI (Mary’s daughters) took me to Hastings (Boys) High School to view our mother’s names on the Dux honour boards. The school office was very accommodating, and escorted us to the hall where the honour boards were displayed. After viewing the honour boards, we discovered that Cel and Mary had both been prefects as well as Dux.