No One Saw It Coming
Though the Meckering Earthquake wasn’t the largest in Australia (that honour goes to Meeberrie in 1941) it was one of the most devastating earthquakes in Australia.
The 14th of October, 1968, was like any other day in the rural wheatbelt area of Western Australia, except for the one thing. Something was happening deep underground. Huge tectonic plates, which make up the Earth’s outer crust, were suddenly moving. At 10.58am the plates collided at the fault line, 9kms south west of Meckering, sending seismic waves rippling out across the land. People in the area were unaware that the earth was about to erupt and their world was about to change forever. The small warning tremors a week earlier had been pretty much ignored.
Nobody was prepared for what was about to happen. People in the town were going about their daily business, with many enjoying the day off, due to a public holiday. Even the farmer, who noticed his sheep suddenly gather into two large circles with their heads facing in, didn’t suspect a thing. But as the clock ticked over to 10.58, the earth began to shake violently followed by a loud noise. Cracks began appearing along the ground and in the next 40 seconds the town was virtually flattened, in a frightening display of nature’s fury.
Some of the locals, who were in the pub as the earthquake hit, later stood in the car park in disbelief. They were all staring at a heap of rubble where their local watering hole once stood.
Eyewitness reports from locals told of being flung through the air, seeing roads raising, railway lines buckling and the ground opening up before them.
One witness noticed rocks bouncing as much as 50cm off the ground, while another saw a bump rise in the road about 2.5 m high. Some even witnessed the ground wave moving across streets and fields.
When the dust had settled the quake had left a 32km long fault line. The earth on the east side of the fault had moved 7 feet horizontally westward, 5 feet southward and 5 feet upward. Of the 78 buildings (private and commercial) in the town only 18 remained standing.
Quake Sends Shivers Across The State
The Meckering earthquake was felt within a 700kms radius and included Geraldton, Kalgoorlie, Esperance, Albany and Perth.
Perth experienced a few incidents during the quake which was felt for about 24 seconds in the metropolitan area. Many of the tall buildings in the city swayed for up to 3 minutes.
A 90kg cross on St Mary’s Cathedral fell to the ground and so too did a few decorative ornaments from the cathedral’s spire. St George’s Cathedral also suffered damage including broken stained glass windows. Even a lane of the Kwinana Freeway had to be closed due to structural damage.
In York the Imperial Hotel’s balcony collapsed. I was living in Northam at the time of the quake but was too young to remember, but my mother has vivid memories of just grabbing me and running out into the middle of the street. She often talks about how her reaction could have so easily put us in danger of falling power lines.
For a few nights following the quake, people in Northam who lived in brick houses were told to sleep outside for fears of another large quake.
Amazingly no one died in the disaster, though some people were admitted to hospital to be treated for broken bones, cuts, abrasions and shock. Many were grateful the Meckering earthquake struck on a public holiday when schools and most businesses were closed.
More than 40 aftershocks were felt in the 24 hours following the earthquake. Many of the tremors registered up to 5 on the Richter Scale. Meckering’s services including road, rail, power, telephone and water supplies were all cut off.
About 6km west of the town two of the Goldfields pipes had burst. Over 120m of pipes had to be re-laid. A section of the damaged pipeline can be found in the Memorial Park. The twisted remains shows the amazing power of this 6.9 earthquake.
Within a few days all the town’s services were back in business. However with in 24 hrs the publican, from the flattened hotel, had sifted through the debris, retrieved the beer and equipment and had set up the “Quakes Arm Hotel” at the service station across the road (bless him).
Today there is only 1.5km remaining of the original 37km fault scarp and the best place to view this is along York Road. Many of the sites were filled in so farming could continue. A different and unique way to view the fault line is by light aircraft. The Northam Aero Club , which is located 30kms from Meckering, offers chartered flights by light aircraft of the area.