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Murchison Earthquake

On 17 June 1929, at 10.17 a.m., a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck the northern South Island. It was felt in cities and towns all over New Zealand. Nelson, Westport and Greymouth reported damage, but it was half a day before authorities realised that the worst hit region was Murchison.

For days preceding the earthquake, booming noises had been heard in the hills around Murchison. The earthquake itself was exceptionally noisy: rumblings were heard in New Plymouth, over 250 kilometres away. It was caused by movement along the White Creek Fault west of Murchison. Land moved upward as much as 4.5 metres along the fault.

When the main shock struck, wooden homes warped, twisted and shifted from their piles, and chimneys and water tanks collapsed. People scrambled outdoors, but once there found they were unable to stand.

The shaking triggered dozens of huge slips on the steep mountain slopes, which were waterlogged from winter rain. Landslides blocked many rivers, including the Matiri, Maruia, Mokihinui and Buller. The landslide dam on the Mokihinui River later burst; the resulting flood seriously damaged Seddonville.

A massive landslide swept over the Busch and Morel homes, killing four people and damming the Mātakitaki River. In the Maruia valley a landslide pushed the Gibson home across a road and into a gorge, killing three people. Another swept the Holman home into the river, killing two. Of the 17 people who died in the earthquake, 14 were killed by landslides, and 2 in coal mine collapses.

With their homes uninhabitable and aftershocks continuing, residents camped in the open, or in sheds and tents. Communal kitchens were set up, but food supplies ran low. The landslide-dammed rivers posed a danger of flooding, so over several days most people left Murchison. They travelled part of the way in cars, then continued on foot, negotiating slips and streams. They eventually reached Glenhope, where they caught trains to Nelson.

Nelson, Greymouth and Westport had many damaged chimneys and brick buildings – the tower of Nelson Boys’ College collapsed, injuring two boys. In Karamea, damage was minor but numerous slips blocked the coastal road and food ran short. No outside help arrived until an aviator landed a Tiger Moth plane on the beach two weeks later. Vehicles could not reach the town for several months.

In an era when road work was carried out with pick and shovel, many roads buried by slips in the Buller region did not re-open for months. The Westport to Reefton road was closed for 18 months.

Bob White, a pupil at Whale’s Flat school during the 1929 Murchison earthquake recalled:

‘We managed to get out near the gate and were thrown to the ground, which was rocking and heaving like a boat on huge waves by this time. After I suppose a minute … I saw a huge slip hurtling towards us. I yelled and we got to our feet and endeavoured to run back toward the building but the slip overtook us and went straight through the school, leaving the roof perched on top. We were saved by some poplars and a chestnut tree.’