February 22nd 2011 started out as an ordinary late summers day. It was a Tuesday, the sun was out but it wasn’t stinky hot. It would later on be overcast and rainy and as far as I can remember the aftershocks had subsided enough for them to not be at the forefront of most peoples minds.
I didn’t own a car at the time, but a friend was out of town and I was lucky enough to have the use of hers that week, which meant I didn’t have to get up quite as early to bus to work. Armed with the bonus sleep in I got up, went to work and had a relatively uneventful morning before settling down to lunch in the staffroom.
The earthquake struck at 12.51. I didn’t hear it coming, but there was no way I could have missed feeling it. I went from sitting still eating at the lunch table, to being rocked around in all directions. Up and down, side to side, there was no pattern, we were just jolted all over like rag dolls. To this day I don’t know how I managed to stay in my seat.
As it hit I froze and observed which seems to be my go to reaction to earthquakes. My workmate across from me remarked that it was the biggest one he’d felt in a while and over the rumbling noises I could hear a truck driver outside shouting “woohoo!” As if he was on a theme park ride. I looked over at him and could physically see this massive truck he was sitting in rocking about, almost jumping off the ground at times.
It stopped as dramatically as it started, he only sound in the immediate seconds after was the creaking of the racking in the warehouse as it swayed from side to side for a few moments before settling back into place. My boss and other workmates rushed through the staffroom to the warehouse to check that everyone inside was okay and I was given strict instructions to stay put.
It was quickly discovered that everyone and everything was fine. About two bottles of wine had fallen over but that was it. We speculated briefly about the size, I was adament that it was over a six, and sent texts to friends and family to make sure everyone was okay before getting back to work, everything was fine after all.
But it wasn’t fine. In the heart of the city and to the east, buildings were noisily crumbling down around the thousands of people who had minutes earlier been enjoying their lunch breaks. Dust was flying, people were injured and dying while others selflessly rushed to help them, putting their own lives in danger at the same time. Car and building alarms were sounding non stop and absolute panic was ensuing as aftershocks hit relentlessly.
We were merely twelve kilometers away and yet for the first half hour or so had no idea this was going on. It wasn’t long before we found out however. Work immediately ceased and we were sent home. I was just about to leave when my boss stopped me, handed me a bottle of wine and whiskey and commented, “you might need these.”
By this stage I’d heard back from my family, who were all okay and out of harms way. I called my sister in Melbourne and started with “I don’t know if you’ve heard…” Before she interrupted me to say it was all they were hearing about and was everyone okay. At the time I was amazed that she was in another country and yet knew more about what was going on than I did, while I was in Christchurch itself.
Incredibly thankful to have the use of my friends car I started the journey home. I lived on the edge of the city centre and what should have been the last five minutes of the drive took well over an hour to get through due to the congestion of everyone trying to get out at the same time. Every single radio station was playing the emergency broadcast and after a while I had to turn it off, it was just too upsetting to hear. I sat in the car, petrified of running out of petrol and enduring aftershock after aftershock while being completely stuck.
I was a block away from my house when I was met with the above. There was no way I could go down that street, so I pulled over to turn around only to get the car stuck in a wheel sized pothole I hadn’t noticed. After a couple of futile attempts to get it out, I gave up and walked home to be met by a driveway full of silt and my flatmate who had rescued her cats, packed a few things and was off to stay with a friend just out of the city.
As far as damage went, the apartment seemed fine. Most of the second floor items had shifted or fallen, there was no power or water, but it seemed safe enough for now. It was then that my best friend showed up as he knew I’d be alone and I will never forget the look on his face. The normally carefree jovial man was gone, replaced with a ghost. He had no colour in his skin and looked absolutely terrified. He could barely get out sentences and yet he had managed to walk two kilometers to my place. When he finally could speak all he could say was, “I tried to help but there are corpses in the street.”
We didn’t have a lot of time for hanging around. He still hadn’t been home and we needed to get the car unstuck. It looked like we were going to be fighting an uphill battle as far as that was concerned, but then two people on their way home got out of their own cars and helped push me out of the pothole that had since tripled in size. I barely had time to call out thank you before they were on their way again, but that’s what that day was all about. People stopping to quickly help others on their way to dealing with their own emergencies. That and a handful of looters who faced a massive public backlash over the following weeks.
My friend and I walked back to his place, stopping to help people on the way where we could. I had heard on the radio that every single emergency vehicle in the city was in use and I saw proof of this when a fire truck that looked like it should have belonged in the Ferrymead Heritage Museum drove passed loaded with people ready to take action.
We stayed at my friends house for a while, texting everyone to make sure they were okay and time stamping our texts as they were taking hours to go through. As he lived on the third floor we decided that we would feel safer staying at my house and had to make the trip back again. We almost got turned back halfway as there was a citywide curfew, but with most of the city in blackout no one really knew about it. We spent the night on the floor in my lounge, lightly dozing in and out of sleep, woken by every shake, shudder and noise we heard, most of the aftershocks being less than four minutes apart and unable to sleep anyway with the knowledge that people were still trapped inside buildings just down the road from us.
The following day was cleanup day. Everyone was exhausted, stressed, anxious and emotionals wrecks but we had to keep going. Our first job was to attack the silt in the driveway. We quickly got to work, everyone chipping in as much as possible. A bunch of guys with a wheelbarrow, shovels and a box of beer walked past and gave us a hand. They had been lucky enough to not have any silt to deal with themselves so thought it best to go round the neighborhood seeing who they could lend a hand to. It took ten of us four hours to clear the silt, all the while large aftershocks taunting us as we went.
Once we were clear, another friend took me to her place on the other side of town for a break. It took us a lot longer than it should have to get there as we kept being detoured due to roads being cracked, flooded and silt laden. It was while I was at her place that I realized that Christchurch had become two different worlds in the space of a minutes. Her side of town, the area where I worked, was mostly unaffected. The shakes could be felt, but that was about it. Life was going on as normal while rescue workers were pulling bodies from the rubble only 10 kilometers away.
The next couple of days, armed with my shovel I spent helping neighbours out with their silt issues. I couldn’t just sit around, I felt like I needed to do something, but I also felt very useless, a feeling that I would have to get used to for a while as a lot of us were powerless to do a lot in the aftermath of the quakes. I had no power or running water and little idea of what was actually happening in the city and suburbs around me but I was comforted by the community spirit I witnessed, strangers helping strangers, friends taking in friends. They say the earthquake brought out the best and worst in people that week but I was lucky enough to only have experienced the best.
Five years ago today, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake of a 5 kilometer depth hit just out of Lyttleton in Christchurch and changed our lives forever. Countless thousands of people were injured, many seriously in the aftermath of falling debris and buildings. 185 people lost their lives, 115 of whom were in the same building in the city center. Rescue teams came in from all over the world to help but unfortunately no one was found alive after the first day.
Some people lost friends and family, some their houses and some their jobs. Life never got back to normal, instead we had what we called the ‘new normal,’ a term used to describe battling with daily unknowns, large aftershocks months later, mental health issues where there had been none before and living in a city we no longer recognized. To this day I walk and drive past some locations and can’t for the life of me remember what used to be there, despite driving past it every day for years before the fact.
Five years on and the city still gives daily reminders of the tragedy, with roadworks covering half the city, many empty lots, some damaged buildings still standing and a lot of people still battling insurance companies over their damaged and ruined houses. Five years on and a lot of us are exhausted, proof of which when an out of the blue magnitude 5.7 earthquake hit our city on Valentines day this year and a lot of people were instantly taken back to February 22nd, panic stricken and anxious for days, despite this quake leaving minimal damage comparatively.
I leave you with this video that captures images a very small portion of the damage not long after the quake hit and their befores. I cried when I watched this video, they may only be buildings, but what they represent is so much more than that. They represent what we have been through and the strength and resilience of the Cantabrians who suffered and yet still keep going despite the daily reminders and constant uncertainty that is our new normal.