Story: Historic earthquakes

Escape from Īnangahua

Escape from Īnangahua

The Īnangahua earthquake in May 1968 blocked roads such as this one over the Reefton saddle, photographed the next day. Lyn Taylor, her husband Cliff and their two children were living at Westport, where road blocks caused major disruption.

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Contributed by Lyn Taylor.

Friday, 24 May 1968 was a day we will never forget. I awoke from a sound sleep with an eerie feeling of apprehension. The next thing we heard was a rumbling sound, getting closer and louder, like a train on a still night. Then, at 5.24 a.m., all hell broke loose. As the rumbling hit us, so did the Īnangahua earthquake. I was scared stiff, literally. I could not move. It was terrifying. The shaking seemed to go on for ages, but it did stop – for a few minutes.

The power had gone off and there was no warmth in our electric overblanket. Cliff calmed me down and got a couple of blankets to throw over us. Our two children, aged four-and-a-half and three years, slept through it, goodness knows how! Within the next half hour there had been four aftershocks, all measuring over five on the Richter scale. I was convinced the world was coming to an end. The children slept on.

Cliff worked maintaining the power lines, so with a mate John he quickly set off for Īnangahua. Blocked by a large slip in the Upper Buller Gorge, they set off to reach the village via Springs Junction and Reefton. But again despite at one point taking a detour across a farm paddock and along the railway line, they were again blocked by a slip two kilometres from Īnangahua. They had just turned back when the radio broadcast a Civil Defence message that Īnangahua had to be evacuated because there was a concern that a massive slip across the Buller might burst and inundate the village. So they turned back to help.

On again reaching the slip, John picked his way across it, walked into the village, commandeered the NZED Landrover based at the Substation, and ferried people, four or five at a time, to the Īnangahua side of the slip, and while they found their way across to Cliff, he went back for more. When there were enough to fill the bigger Safari Landrover – about 12 – Cliff took them to meet a bus which had been organised to take them to Reefton. The helicopter which had brought the NZED personnel in was also evacuating people from the village, and, of course, got all the accolades, while our linemen were left unmentioned by the media.

It was stipulated by Civil Defence that people should not take any luggage, the aim was to get the people out as quickly as possible. However, people being what they are, there were a few ‘triers’. One man carried a bag containing a big square object. When Cliff told him it would have to be tied to the spare wheel on the bonnet of the Landrover, he refused. He was told it could not go inside the vehicle because it would take the place of a passenger. He still refused to leave it, so stayed behind with his precious package – a TV set! He had to wait until there was room in the vehicle for him and his TV.

Another man arrived from the village with a large rucksack. The situation was explained to him, but he could see the reasoning behind people having priority, and agreed to his rucksack being tied to the spare wheel. He did, however, ask that it be handled carefully as it contained his medical supplies – he was a doctor who had walked from Reefton to Īnangahua that morning to treat any injuries caused by the earthquake! Feeling rather humbled, Cliff carefully secured the precious cargo for the trip to the bus.

As darkness crept in, the helicopter stopped flying, and Cliff and John were under the impression that everyone, except the police, who were staying, had been evacuated, so Cliff went across the slip to John, and they drove into the village. As they arrived they saw a big fire with people standing around it. They were horrified to see a number of women and children still there. Armed with torches, Cliff leading and John at the back, they got them all across the slip, into the Landrover and drove them to Reefton.

One thing that has stayed with Cliff through the intervening years is the bravery of the youngest member of that nighttime experience. She was about eight years old, and Cliff kept her up front with him, with her mother following. She walked where it was safe for her, and Cliff carried her over the more unstable areas. There were places, however, where the quake had left chasms which had to be jumped across – a terrifying experience in daylight, but this group had to do it by torchlight. Cliff would tell the little girl to stand very still and wait for his signal. He would then jump across, make sure he was on ‘firm’ ground, then hold out his hand for her. She would reach for his hand and jump to him. He said there was never a whimper out of her, although there were aftershocks while they were crossing the slip, and some of the adults were distressed. The child took it all in her stride.

On arriving in Reefton and seeing their charges safely to a relief centre, Cliff and John went to the Working Men’s Club where they quenched their thirst and were given a meal and a ‘bed’ on the floor for the night.

Using this item

GNS Science
Reference: 1606/7
Photograph by Lloyd Homer

Permission of GNS Science must be obtained before any use of this image.

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How to cite this page:

Eileen McSaveney, 'Historic earthquakes - Personal stories of earthquakes since 1942', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/community-contribution/4524/escape-from-inangahua (accessed 10 December 2019)

Story by Eileen McSaveney, published 12 Jun 2006, reviewed & revised 28 Mar 2011, updated 1 Nov 2017