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…and it was the day that everything began.
Forgive me, I haven’t written much recently, but today marks 12 years since my city was flattened by a series of deadly earthquakes and 12 years since my life, personally, was altered forever. It was the beginning of my journey to become a jeweller so it feels appropriate to mark the date.
Below is a copy of a status post that I wrote about the day of the earthquake – my own personal experience of that first day. With everything that has happened in NZ recently (kia kaha, everyone affected by the flooding and cyclone up north) this seems relevant. To everyone who have had their lives totally changed by mama nature this past month – many of us know exactly how you feel, what you are going through. We also know that, while you will never be the same, you will come out the other side somehow – somehow…
Kia kaha, kia maia, kia manawanui
The below is a long read. Not offended if you don’t bother. But if you do, I hope you feel something
A New Kind of Normal – The Christchurch Earthquake Day 1
I am writing this account for me…not for you. It is just my way of making sense of it all. I am not sure any of it will make sense to anyone else but me anyway.
Day 1: I am alive. My family is alive. Miracles within total disaster. I am so exhausted tonight. I can barely grasp what the day started as and what it has become. I sit here in bed with my beautiful precious son asleep beside me (finally). Its so dark outside. We usually have light – light from town, from the street, from our neighbours. But not tonight – there is nothing. The absence of light is frightening.
I still hear the noise when we have each aftershock. some big ones since that one today. Im not making much sense really. I just wanted to capture my thoughts and my experience of what happened today before they get blown away – lost in my attempt to make some sense of normality.
Courtney and I were there in our wonderful new office, sitting down and so excited that HubNZ was finally ready to go. We were about to hit ‘SEND’ on email invitations to join up. I mean literally about to hit the button. And then it hit. No warning – no rumble that it was coming. No strange pause like the last one. This time mother nature just…well, in September I likened it to mother nature rolling over. This time its like she sneezed. So violent. I remember my whole world just got shunted sideways with enormous force but the floor seemed to be going in the opposite direction. Then a roar of noise – was that the building? I remember the sound of grauching metal and concrete – maybe the noise of the earth itself. I don’t know. It was so loud and it was everywhere. It got right inside your head and it seemed to vibrate right through every single cell in your body. The movement and the noise were not separate things – they were the same expression of the one thing a and it was terrifying and violent.
I tried to stand. I got shunted, shoved into the desk – pain in my right hip. I got thrown unceremoniously to the floor and i tried to hide under the desk. I couldnt stay under the desk because it was moving so much. I tried to crawl on my knees but i kept getting knocked over. I got hit in the back of my head by the cabinet under the desk, my body slammed against the desk. I knew my shoulder got hurt but i didn’t feel any pain. I looked up, watching the building somehow ripple. How does concrete ripple? Time was lost – I have absoutely no sense of the time. How long was this going on for? Everything seemed to happen at once, but yet in slow motion.
I remember the thought – it is stuck in my head like a thorn that is imbedded in your foot, causing pain at every step – “I am going to die in here”. Shit. I feel cold. So cold remembering that. As i read back over this it all seems so dramatic and there is a temptation to make light of it…but that thought will not budge…it is so deeply imbedded in me now…
The noise, the roar and the clatter…Gods, the noise. I really thought that the building would collapse and that fleeting thought (it must have been fleeting but it seemed like an eternity) of your own impending mortality. And then just like that the violence was over. The intense shocks ended but the building didn’t stop moving. I crept out from under the desk – the room was in total chaos. I remember Courtney asking if I was OK and we dazedly looked around. The floor was still moving, swaying to its own rhythm. We knew that we had to get out of there. My knees were shaking and walking at the same time. A woman in another office was in shock. Everywhere seemed totally trashed. Somehow i remembered to check the other offices as we walked out – I went back to get the woman in shock, taking her by the arm and directing her to the stairs. The stairs – hell, they felt like they were somehow detached from the building. Miraculously the front glass doors were intact.
Out on the street were hundreds of people. Initially people were quiet – shocked. And then the second assault of noise began. Tears, screams, alarms blaring, cars, talking and shouting – maybe that was all going on before, but i didn’t notice. Looking back at the building I was stunned to see the cracks shaking their way from ground to roof – and I knew that they hadn’t been there before. I sent a text home. ‘Im ok, r u’? Text back ‘Yes’. I tell people outside who are trying to make phone calls to send text messages – they have a better chance of getting through. I tell people in shock to keep breathing, concentrate on their breath and stay calm. I am quaking – adrenaline. Courtney says he is OK and tells me to go get my son. I don’t need to be told twice.
As i make my way up the street in the direction of my car i become aware of all the glass and the debris. I offer up a silent prayer (not the first or the last of the day) giving thanks that I hadn’t parked the car under the building. ‘Don’t be soft’ i remember telling myself as the rain came down that morning ‘ the walk will do you good’, and I ended up parking the car about 1km from the office. I send another text to my mother ‘Can u get Toby’? There is no reply. I have to move. I pause to comfort a distraught young woman crouched in the gutter, crying uncontrollably. I offer some words of support to a Canadian couple on holiday – just having lunch when the quake hit and still with their drinks in hand, shivering. I watched a woman and her son in a truck in gridlock on the road – she was screaming in a hysterical panic.
I ran for my car. Then i saw the church, the Knox church demolished. Like someone had exploded a bomb inside it and everything had blown outwards. No-one in there – it had been off limits from the last quake for months. I shivered as i ran past, horrified and how such devistation could have happened in such a short time.
I crossed the road and saw the Carlton Pub. My Gods…the walk into work just a couple of hours earlier had taken me right past it. I remember looking up at the damaged facade from last time, held back with strapping, thinking even then that it was not safe. Had the quake happened just a short time earlier (or later as i was due to leave work in 20 mins anyway), i would have been under all those bricks….As i pause to look i realise that i am standing right underneath another old veranda made of bricks. I run again, watching a fire engine scream past me into town. I all i was aware of was getting to my son, getting home.
I run through the back streets. I come across a group of people. An elderly woman lying on the ground with a broken hip. We wrap her up in a blanket from the back seat of a taxi that had stopped. We try to dial 111 but we can’t get through – and we watch an ambulance, sirens blazing, pass us by. The woman whispers to me ‘do you have children’? “Yes” i reply – my son is at school in New Brighton, over the other side of town. “Go fetch him” she said “I am safe here”. The taxi driver touched my arm – he had overheard us talking and he said for me to go. I did…there was nothing more i could do.
I kept running and the first big aftershock hit. I got thrown sideways again, but managed to stay on my feet. I jumped into the middle of the road, scared of the overhead power lines, the trees and the brick fences. A woman, two of her daughters and their little black poodle spill out onto the street too. The woman hugs me – random, but it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to do – she too was off to collect children from school. I get to my car – aware that my asthma is flaring up and I don’t have my inhaler. As I unlock my car, thankful that nothing has fallen on it, a postie rides past still delivering the mail – in shock.
A text message come in ‘on way to get toby’. I breath a sigh of relief. I text back ‘on way hm now’. These streets are deceptively quiet. I drive quickly but feel hyper aware of everything – especially the huge trees in this part of town. Mental note to self – avoid schools, traffic lights and the river as much as possible. How the hell will i get home. The roads now have water everywhere. My initial thoughts about wishing i was on my scooter are washed away – the silt is now halfway up the wheels on the car infront of me and we are all over the road. Everywhere is flooded, silt pouring into the streets, peoples homes. Power lines are down and enormous pot holes are just appearing and growing in the roads. The water makes me think of tsunami – Shit, what if there is a tsunami – what about Toby? then i realise that if a tsunami were coming, it would have already hit the coast and I can’t do anything. I gulp and keep driving east – towards the ocean. Cars all around me are getting stuck now. I see a little scooter, yellow and just like mine, trapped to the top of its wheels in silt – the driver screaming. The water gets worse and worse. The traffic stops…please keep moving. I know that if we stop for too long I will get swamped and bogged in the silt. I watch as a manhole cover in the middle of the street in front of me begins to move. Water, brown and fetid, bubbles up around its edges and then with force the water and silt lift it completely off – i cant believe that it could simply float away. The traffic begins to move – i didn’t realise i had been holding my breath.
My strategy to avoid traffic lights and schools paid off. I reach marshlands road and there is no traffic at all. I race down the road – overtaken by a police car, which i then promptly speed up to follow. Past the only school couldn’t avoid, i watch the parents joyfully collecting their children. Please let Toby be home when i get there…please. But there has been no message from mum to say she has gotten to him…
The flooding and liquefaction begin again before i get home. For the first time I allow myself to wonder about the house…what the hell will I find when I get there. I pull into the drive – at least 1.5hrs after leaving town (a journey that normally takes 15 minutes) and mums car is not there – the garage is empty. The neighbour’s want to talk, I hug Margo and she cries and cries. Then she asks how the house is…I haven’t even looked at it, but the front seems to be still standing. I have to go and get toby. I text mum and say i will meet her at school – hell, its only another 5kms away, how hard can it be to get there?
I roar the car down the drive and out into the street – madness. The traffic is horrific….people everywhere, water everywhere, silt everywhere. I turn down a side street and am stunned. Ahead of me is a lake of water where a road used to be and cars, trucks (and in one instance a bus) at crazy angles, trapped in huge craters left by the liquefaction…there is silt up past the bottom of the car doors in places.
I make a phone call to mum – shit, I get through. I am talking to her while trying to drive up this street/lake/quicksand swerving round potholes and cars alike – its hell. Mum says she had to dump her car and she is walking to school. We arrange to meet along Keyes Road – eventually…the phone cuts out and I become aware of people waving at me and yelling. They stand in front and make me pull over. ‘the road is gone up there’ they say…you can’t drive any further. Oh shit, I can’t turn around, I am beginning to get stuck. One couple tell me to drive into their front yard. ‘your car will be safe here’. I thank them and run….
But what am I running into…I can’t see anything…the water is grey and brown – I don’t think too hard about the brown stuff but the smell is a dead giveaway. I am up to my knees in water and shit. On what used to be a corner I come across a young woman, maybe 16yrs old terrified and unable to go further. She is in school uniform. I ask her how far she has to go – and I take her by the arm and lead her across the water – its cold and its really scary – no one knows where the holes are. Her mother sees her and runs to collect her. I keep going – gods that’s a truck in a hole – its whole front end encased in silt. I come across a woman in her 50’s – standing shivering in her driveway waiting for her son to collect her. She has a long wait. I ask if she wants a hug and she bursts into tears. We hug for several minutes – poor thing. I have to keep going tho.
I hit a pot hole – up to mid thigh…that was scary because the silt is really sticky – its hard to get my feet out.
I check on a friends house as I jog past – not home. I hope they are ok. Another friend, her husband and their 4 beautiful children drive past. They say Toby is ok – he’s not hurt. Thank the gods…I keep going….the damage is terrifying here but I cant concentrate on it…across the final intersection and I see my boy coming up the road with Mum. He sees me and he runs. I have my beautiful boy safe and sound….joy…but we still have to get home…we find mums car and I drive – it takes another hour to get the final 5kms home…miraculously the house is OK – well, its not in pieces, although much of the contents are – but that’s just stuff. I don’t care. I have my family safe at last.
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