'Run for your lives!'

by David Lomas / 18 September, 2010
The Inangahua earthquake of 1968 is New Zealand's most violent shake in the past 50 years. Canterbury's recent earthquake has awakened memories of that terrifying event, especially for people who lived through both disasters.

Christchurch couple Shirleigh and Terry Hogue know a lot about earthquakes. Terry witnessed the 1962 Westport quake that, among other damage, left 2500 West Coast homes without chimneys. In May 1968, he and Shirleigh were in Inangahua when it was at the centre of the most violent earthquake to hit New Zealand since the 1931 Napier quake. Then, at 4.35am on September 4 in Christchurch, they were there again.

"We heard it coming," says Shirleigh of the latest quake. "And I just thought, 'Oh Lord, this is not fair.' We knew exactly what it was. You never forget that sound."

However, for the Hogues their second shared experience in a major earthquake was not as terrifying, nor was the quake as violent.

The Inangahua quake, like Canterbury's, struck before dawn. A small earthquake hit seconds before the big one, waking the Hogues.

Terry, then a Ministry of Works (MoW) supervisor working on improving the Buller Gorge road, recalls a silence, then it was "from 0-100 in half a second". Their bed, on a wooden floor, started "sliding and bouncing around the room - crashing from wall to wall. It was so wild I couldn't get out of bed."

The noise was overwhelming. "It was like a loud clanging, ringing deep in the Earth. It was so loud I could not talk to my wife in the bed next to me. It was like the old Rank Movie man banging his gong right against your eardrum."

When the rocking eased Terry jumped from the bed - "my wife was old enough to die alone" - and ran to check on their two-year-old son, Michael, in his room. Their small wooden home was in disarray. The stove and fridge had been tossed across the kitchen and were on their side, a sofa in the lounge was overturned and cupboards were emptied onto the floor.

Inangahua farmers Ruth and Warren Inwood were asleep in their small wooden house when the quake struck at 5.42am.

''I thought it was the end of the world," Ruth recalls. ''It was like an explosion underneath us."

The shaking was so violent that lights hanging from the ceiling swung in such an arc they hit the ceiling and smashed. The Inwoods and other shocked residents gathered around a kerosene heater outside the Inangahua Hotel. In the blue glow of the flame and with the roar of landslides tumbling down nearby hills, they waited till dawn, fortified by whisky and brandy from the damaged hotel. "It was another shake - another swig," Ruth says.

With power and phone lines down, the only communication from the outside world was via a transistor radio. At 6.30am, they listened to Radio NZ's news but were stunned to hear the earthquake that had destroyed their homes being described only as "mild tremors" with no reported damage. A 7.00am bulletin on another radio station stated a "very mild" earthquake had been felt in Timaru.

At dawn, the Inwoods headed to the main family farmhouse where Warren's grandmother Holly, then in her seventies, lived. They found her sitting on the lawn in front of a fireplace she had built with bricks from her collapsed chimney and the grill from the original fireplace. She was making porridge. The Inwoods spent the day working on repairing the house.

Back in Inangahua, there was bad news. Farmer Fred Jackson, with a broken ankle and just one shoe, had struggled several kilometres across landslips to report his wife, Rona, and his mother-in-law, Fanny Blackmore, missing after his home was demolished by a huge slip. Rescuers found Blackmore alive, but she later died from injuries. Rona Jackson's body was recovered from under the rubble.

Meanwhile, Terry Hogue was trying to summon help on a radiotelephone. By chance he had parked his MoW vehicle outside his house the night before. It was usually kept in a storage shed that was demolished in the earthquake.

Even on good days, radiotelephone communication was unreliable. Terry could not raise the MoW Westport depot or anyone else on the West Coast, but "by sheer fluke", a truck driver in Gisborne heard his call for help. "By the language I used" the man was left in no doubt that it was a genuine emergency, Terry says.

In the early afternoon, almost eight hours after the quake, help started arriving. But by then another disaster loomed.

A huge landslip was blocking the Buller River upstream from Inangahua. Water was banked up for seven kilometres behind the slip and the river level at the slip was estimated to be 30m above normal. There was fear the slip would give way, allowing water to cascade down on Inangahua, putting all lives at risk.

The decision was made to evacuate. An Air Force Iroquois helicopter and a civilian chopper were sent to airlift out all residents.

Living closest to the landslip blocking the river was farmer by Peter van Vugt, his wife, Lisa, and their six children, aged 11 years and younger. The van Vugts were Dutch settlers who had migrated to New Zealand determined to get their piece of land. "They probably had to buy the cheapest bit," says daughter Betty Chapman, the oldest child, who is now a Christchurch resident and has just lived through another major earthquake.

The van Vugt farmhouse had been built after the 1929 Murchison quake and its wooden construction was designed to survive big shakes, "so it just bounced and bounced", says Chapman.

Massive landslides all around the van Vugt farm reinforced to the family that the earthquake was a major one, but with no phones and more than 50 landslips along the Buller Gorge road, they were totally isolated. But being cut off was not unusual, says Chapman, "and we did not have power anyway, so we did not know that was out". With their water supply coming from a stream, the van Vugts just got on with life.

It was not until almost 5.00pm that the van Vugts were drawn into the crisis when the Iroquois helicopter arrived.

Chapman says the crew ran across the paddock calling for them to run. "They said the river was blocked by a landslip and it might go at any moment and that we had to run to the helicopter. My mother paused for a minute and they yelled at her, 'Run for your life, woman!'"

Peter van Vugt refused to go, saying his animals were on the lower paddocks and he had to save them. The helicopter crew said they were low on fuel and could not wait, so they left her father behind.

Back in Inangahua, the evacuation had been disorganised. In 1968, the town was split into two main sections - the Junction and, on the other side of the river, the Camp, where most people lived.

Although Shirleigh Hogue and little Michael and another 200 residents were evacuated from the Camp, across in the other part of town residents repairing their damaged homes were unaware of the crisis of the blocked river.

The Inwoods were returning to their home around 5.00pm, after the last helicopter evacuation, when police told them they had to leave.

"We were just told, 'Get the hell out of there. The river is dammed and might burst,'" says Warren Inwood.

They started following the railway line towards Reefton, 34km away. A few hundred metres in front of them, the Inwoods saw a group of about 40 neighbours who were also walking.

"There were elderly people and a baby and we were climbing over slips and mud," says Warren. "And there were earthquakes all the time."

When darkness fell, the group had just three torches to light their way. "You'd negotiate a tricky part and pass the torch back to someone else so they could see where they were going. We could feel the aftershocks and we could hear the rumble of the hillsides slipping - pretty scary," Ruth Inwood says.

As they were climbing over one slip there was a violent aftershock. Warren says one of the older people yelled, "You young people get the hell out of here. Leave us, save yourselves!"

The group walked more than 10km before chancing on two power board trucks that were just leaving. They reached Reefton after 9.00pm.

The death toll as a direct result of the earthquake was three. A taxi driver died when his car hit a bridge, either during or shortly after the main quake. A helicopter pilot and two post office linemen died a week later while repairing lines. The chopper struck power lines and plunged 150m into the Buller River.

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