Hawkes Bay

My Dad, Tsunami, The Napier Soundshell, and Me

“You know, I once heard that your life is defined by what you do when presented with the need for a Plan-B.” As said to my blogging buddy, Dan, by his driver.

Napier Soundshell

Napier Soundshell

If my father was a ghost this is where he’d hang out. It’s the Napier Soundshell – one of many iconic Art Deco buildings in our city.  (All built after the 1931 earthquake.)

On New Year’s Eve hundreds gather here to watch fireworks at midnight. During Art Deco Weekend the large square in front of the sound shell is packed with vintage cars. Crowds gather on the grass in all their Art Deco finery for the Great Gatsby picnic. (John and I went with Dad and his companion one year. We ate crustless cucumber sandwiches. Dad loved it. Afterwards he promenaded up and down the path, his lady friend on his arm, admiring others and fancying they were admiring him. He did look the part!)

Often on summer weekends there is a craft market in front of the stage. Outdoor concerts are staged here. Dad attended many. And he played in them, too. Dad was a brass bandsman. The trombone was his thing.

Dad was also an earthquake survivor. (So was my Mum.) Around here being an earthquake survivor means only one thing – living through the big one back in 1931. And it was very big – around 7.8 on the Richter scale. Actually there were two: the first jolt and then another thirty seconds later. I’ve always thought that was a particularly cruel thing; those who’d survived the first jolt would have just been getting their breath. Mum, for the rest of her life, counted to sixty after any decent shake before deciding it was over.

Sadly, the 1931 quake holds the record for the most loss of life of any earthquake in New Zealand history. The buildings in the city centre that withstood the quake were burnt to the ground in the ensuing fire.

My dad was six. It was the first day of the school year, February 3rd. He and his brothers, along with the other children at the school were probably saved because the quakes struck when they happened to be playing outside. Dad was pretending to be an aeroplane. His hero was Charles Kingsford-Smith, an early Australian aviator.  Dad used to joke the earthquake caused the only aircraft crash he was ever involved with. He was thrown to the ground. In places around the Bay the land rose over two and a half metres. Near Hastings it fell by a metre. No wonder Dad couldn’t stay on his feet!

Maybe most shocking of all, Dad and his brothers  (Dad was six, they were eight) walked home after the earthquake – on their own!  The inner city only half a mile away was already burning. They must have been terrified. On the way they met one of their uncles, who Dad said was bleeding from his head, and then there was a panic that a Tsunami was coming. They all ran up Napier Hill, to safety. Fortunately there was no Tsunami. The sea did retreat but in this case it was because the quake had thrust the land out of the sea.

In later life Dad said he thought the earthquake was probably the reason he had few memories of his early years.

Apart from this he wore surviving the ’31 earthquake like a badge of honour. It was as if life could throw nothing at him to match that day.  He did have his share of tragedies and heartbreak but I never saw him afraid. Not once. I saw him down but never for long. My father always got back up.

As he grew older this became a little problematic for me. You see, although his body became frail, his spirit didn’t change. Until the very end he retained his confidence in his ability to get back up. Maybe he was a little over confident. That depends on your point of view.

Back in early 2010 Dad’s brass band was scheduled to perform at the Soundshell. There was a cruise ship in port – a big one. When that happens, the city puts on a good show, including  free concerts at the Soundshell. Dad’s army training (another story for another time, perhaps) and all his years as a bandsman meant it was ingrained to his core never to let your mates down.

On the day of the concert there was  a large earthquake, in Chile I think, and a Tsunami warning was sent  out across the Pacific.  It was after the tragedy in the Indian Ocean. People were jumpy. I guess we still are.  A warning is a big deal here. Twice a year the sirens are tested – just in case. Much of downtown Napier is actually below sea level. We’d be in trouble, big trouble, if there was a decent sized tsunami. People were advised to stay away from the beach. Some of the shops in town closed.

I telephoned my Dad. Yes, he said, he’d heard. But the show must go on, he said. And he had  the key to open up the forecourt so the others could bring their instruments on to the stage.

Dad, I said. Please don’t go. I was worried.  Dad, I said.  They’ve asked people to stay way from the beach.

He said, I won’t be on the beach.

Dad! I said.

Napier beach from the Sound Shell

Napier beach from the Soundshell

See that path in the photo? Only a few metres further along from here, and only the day before yesterday, the waves washed right over it.

I’ll be able to get away in time, he said. I’ll be able to see it coming from the stage, he said.

Dad, I said, if you see it, it’ll be too late.

He laughed, his laugh, the one I can still hear: one third guilty – he knew he was taking a risk;  one third flattered – he liked to know I cared; one third reassuring – I was his frightened little girl, he was the father and he still knew what was what.

Come to the concert, he said.

I drew the line there. I live on Napier Hill. Who in their right mind goes from a hill to the beach when there’s a tsunami warning?

We waited. We followed the Civil Defence warnings. Eventually, John, brave man that he is, braver than his wife, thought he should check on Dad. What he discovered was the band performing to a straggly crowd. In front of the stage was Dad’s fire-engine-red Peugeot. If you check out the top photo again, take a moment to imagine a smallish red car parked in front of the crowd, stage right. That’s almost the exact spot I took the beach photo.  Dad parked there, ready for a quick getaway.

Logic says there’s a lot wrong with this as a survival tactic. The first I’ve already stated: if you see a tsunami, you’re in big trouble. (I have another story about my mother checking out tsunamis which I’ll save for another day! Fearless both of them!! Or, as bad as each other,  depending, again, on your point of view!) Second, driving through crowds of panicked people will never, ever be quick. Third, my father played the trombone. Trombonists sit at the back of the stage. And lastly, by this time in his life, the cane my father carried and managed to make look dapper wasn’t for show.

Luckily for me, my husband, and my Dad, and all the rest of us, the tsunami, when it arrived, was small. A few boats were damaged due to the surge but overall the sea levels rose less than half a metre.

I have to give it to Dad. He had his plan B: that quick get away. And I think he had a plan C, too. Which was, if he was going to go, it’d be with his mates, doing what he loved. He most definitely wouldn’t be the one to let the side down, not then, not ever, no matter what his worried daughter might have thought about the matter.

Dad passed away a few months after this tsunami episode. He went out fighting, his spirit in tact to the end. And that was his Plan D: make sure to show your kids how to live life.

Job done. Job well done, Dad.

33 replies »

  1. What a beautiful and moving story Jill and a wonderful tribute to your dad! I think that generation were remarkably resilient. My dear uncle (now 86), who has lived in Christchurch since he emigrated from the Uk in 1952, set off to play golf the day after the severe Christchurch earthquake. No matter that all residents were being told to stay in their homes and that only emergency services were supposed to be on the roads. The round trip took him over 6 hours (usually 20 minutes down the road) and he was quite indignant that when he got to the golf club he couldn’t have his usual weekly round as the course was covered in liquefaction! Thanks for sharing the wonderful photos of your dad and special memories 🙂


    • Goodness me, Rosemary, your Uncle must be very keen on golf. Resilience is certainly the right word. My Dad would have been just the same – once he had set his heart on something he kept on going until he got it. Earthquake, tsunami, liquefaction pfft. I like to think … hope we’d be the same if tested.

      Liked by 1 person

      • He is very keen on golf Jill and very single minded – I don’t think he quite realised the seriousness of the problem at the time! He was quite shocked when he went into the city centre a few weeks later and saw the terrible damage there. He recently went off to Europe to see the family there – definitely sounds like your dad as once he’s set his heart on something nothing will stop him! Interesting point you raise about how we’d cope in similar circumstances – I guess you just don’t know until you’re tested. My parents lived through the 2nd World War and you just had to manage.


  2. wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. I love how this was interactive – like we first see the art deco building and you bring us down and give us the story -with a bit of dialogue to feel the tension – and then have us pop back up to imagine the red car – just great writing Jill. ❤
    and it tugged at my heart – and enjoyed so many parts 🙂


    • Thank-you Vasilis. I think he would have, too. In fact I’m certain he would have stood just that bit taller, grinned that bit wider and gone off and told every single one of his mates all about it.


  3. Jill, this is such a lovely tribute to your dad, and to a whole generation of Kiwi men and women who simply got on with life no matter what was thrown at them. I sometimes wonder if our children will have the same reslience in the face disaster and tragedy.


    • Ha! I was just composing a reply to your comment Su and we had a little jolt!! When I wrote this post I was thinking it was few weeks since I last felt one. I wonder if you felt it? Geonet says it was 5.1 – west of Murapara, quite deep though, 115 km.

      We don’t know how strong we are until we’re tested. But when that happens, as it always does one way or another, to most, I’m amazed at the strength people display – often the most unlikely of people. So, I think the next generation will do fine.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Jill. No, nothing here — although it’s so windy, and my house is shaking so much, I may just not have noticed.

        I think you are right; people are amazing, and do tend to step up when required. I think Christchurch showed that. I think my fear is the lack of practical skills. My son is a really cool kid, but not exactly handy with anything but electronic technology. I can’t help thinking that these days kids are more likely to try and document a disaster; #rubble LOL.


  4. Well done, indeed. I’m so glad, I caught this one, and from that opening quote on, what an amazing and beautiful story. I want to make that quote my masthead. It certainly summed up your dad’s spirit, didn’t it?

    It sounds like you had some solid back up or should I say solid leads to follow as you grew up. Really enjoyed this, Jill. No wonder you have such spirit too. Of course, I have to find out more. Going to have to do some looking through your archives. 🙂


    • Thank-you, Robyn. It’s a brilliant quote isn’t it! My parents both seemed to be able to shine a light on the things that really matter in life. They both knew the importance of a plan “B”. Mum had hers, too – I might write some more about her some time, soon.


  5. That is a great way to remember your Dad Jill. What a true blue Kiwi, never give up and always stick by your mates. I bet his war stories are full of grit too. I look forward to hearing you tell us them. I had a lump in my throat at the end. And dapper is certainly the best word to describe your Dad. From that last photo I can imagine him strolling through Napier, that beautiful art deco town.


  6. What a wonderful beautiful tribute to your dad Jill. I’m sure he would be very proud of this post and even prouder of his daughter for writing it. He sounds an amazing man and I love the fact that he always got back up without any fuss when life bought him down. That is certainly something I will now always remember after reading your dad’s story.
    Thank you for sharing his story with us Jill and I look forward to reading more about him again soon. You know, I would certainly have loved to have met him and shared a drink with him so he could tell me more about his life. He sounds like he mostly had a wonderful time and enjoyed life to the full.
    Take care,


  7. Beautiful. Sounds like a remarkable man. I’ve been to Napier, seen the soundshell and walked the path along the beach. Gives the tale more depth knowing where it all happened.


    • Hi San, welcome to my blog. I hope you enjoyed your visit to my beautiful home town. I’ve got more posts planned based on some of the architectural features and historical sites along the Marine Parade.


      • Hi and thank you! Yes, I enjoyed my stay in Napier! Have fond memories eating home made curry at the hostel at eleven pm. 🙂 I am definetly going back there one day. I love the Art Deco buildings and would love to do a proper city walk. Looking forward to your posts!


  8. Whst a remarkable tribute to a great man. Thank you so much for tying this to the prompt I left, I am honored to be associated with this story. Your father sounds like a perfect example of his generation. He survived the earthquake and fire but he didn’t expect anything from that other than the chance to live and do and serve. I was scared,as I read this that he was going to die in thev tsunami. I liked his Plan-B, a getaway car. I think my favorite part is trying to imagine him pretending to be a plane. Falling during an earthquake, getting up and walking home seems to illustrate his spirit do well. Thank you for sharing this touching story Jill.


    • All credit where credit is due, Dan 🙂 Your thoughtful response to the Chicago situation set me down a path of remembering life lessons. It’s fascinating how this worked – one idea, spinning off into another and then another. I’d read Damyanti’s post as well, and at that point I thought I might write about my last visit to either Paris or Bangkok. Instead I wound up writing about my father. The world wide web at work!

      You’re spot on about Dad’s spirit. We found this excerpt from a Robert Browning poem amongst his things. Sums up my Dad, that’s for sure.

      “But what if I fail of my purpose here?
      It is but to keep the nerves at strain,
      To dry one’s eyes and laugh at a fall,
      And, baffled, get up and begin again.”

      Liked by 1 person

Nau mai, Haere mai. Come on in and join the korero (conversation)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s