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Never-before-seen footage of Napier earthquake restored after nearly 90 years sitting in rusty cans

Never-before seen footage of the 1931 Napier earthquake has been restored after nearly 90 years sitting in rusty tin cans.

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It shows in surprising detail the destruction caused in the country’s worst natural disaster. Source: 1 NEWS

It shows in surprising detail the destruction caused in the country's worst natural disaster.

"It's very fresh, it's shot immediately in the aftermath of the earthquake. There's smoke still rising from the ruins of buildings," Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision’s film preservation spokesperson Richard Falkner told 1 NEWS.

It is the work of freelance cameraman Thomas Henry Whetton.

He shopped it around the world with vivid descriptions including "destruction resembling the ruins of Pompei" and "rough and ready coffins awaiting at the morgue” to get the attention of news bosses.

"Having the filmmakers notes in the context of these incredible images give a real depth and historical accuracy to the footage,” Mr Falkner said.

The footage is among 70 reels by Whetton that were sitting idle in an Upper Hutt garage, until family members contacted the audiovisial archive with a restoration challenge.                                                                                                                

"I walked into my colleague’s conservation studio and there's 70 rusty cans sitting there and he had to spend six months using the can opener,” Mr Falkner said.

"You put it on the scanner carefully and you wind into the film and you're presented with this incredible detail and this fantastic record of this awful event."

Now the film's part of an exhibition at the audiovisual archive in Wellington and it could be just one of many important finds in the Whetton treasure trove.

"There's an indication that he photographed a lot of Māori scenes, a lot of Māori life, so we are really interested in finding out and exploring those,” Kate Button, the project manager for the exhibition, told 1 NEWS.

In the complicated business of film preservation, though, there's one more challenge.

The film's base is nitrate and it's decomposing, which means archivists are racing against time to preserve this slice of New Zealand history.