Friday, April 22, 2011

Earthquake: Two Months On...

It's two months today since the world as I know it changed forever, and I think it is time I shared my own experiences of that day.

On February 22nd, 2011 at 12.51pm, the ground beneath the feet of Canterbury shook. It shook so violently that it tumbled buildings, crushed cars, rolled boulders down hills and shattered lives. It also shattered the security and peace of the life I viewed as pretty much perfect, prior to that minute. I had finally, after six years of study, begun my first, real job; I owned a home with my partner of six years, the love of my life; I had an amazing group of friends who I am grateful for every single day. Life really was good. The earthquake took that away from me, and hundreds of thousands of others. It took from my city fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, friends and partners. It took from us the happy, peaceful life that once was. I can't even tell you the final death toll, as I stopped following the media a few days after the event. Why would I need to watch it on the news? I was living it.

Everyone has an earthquake story, and here is mine:

I got up that morning, like every other morning, still buzzing from a fantastic weekend with my friends. We had been out for an incredible dinner to celebrate mine and one of my friends' new jobs. Many laughs were had, like every night out with my friends and plans were made for the following weekend. I went off to work in Ashburton, an hours drive from Christchurch city. The morning went by as usual. I had a client booked for 1pm, who arrived early. I hadn't met this client or her mother before, so we sat down to have a chat. Not long after, an earthquake started. Now, this is nothing unusual for me, as earthquakes happen in Christchurch all the time. They don't normally bother me and after waiting for a second to evaluate the severity of it, I am usually back to what I was doing before it is even over. This one was evaluated differently. The mother of my client grabbed her and we moved into a doorway. The quake was long, much longer than they normally are, and very swaying. It was like being on a boat on slightly rough sea. It startled me a wee bit, but I never thought about the fact that I was 85kms away from my home, and the effect it may have had there. We went back to the session, feeling a few aftershocks here and there. The session finished up, about 45 minutes later, and I farewelled my client and her mother. Checking my cell phone, I had several texts: one from Paddy, asking it I felt that, and one each from my parents, seeing if I was okay. That was fairly standard, as texts are often exchanged after large ish aftershocks, just to see how every one is doing. I tried to ring Paddy but the lines were down, and a small part of me started to worry. I tried again and again, getting more panicked every time, until I finally go through to him. We had a very short conversation checking each other was okay. He told me everyone was fine but the school was being evacuated and he was going to head home. I said I would finish my last appointment, and see him around 5pm. We said our love yous and goodbyes and I hung up. Keep in mind neither of us was anywhere near any source of media, and at this point, had no idea what had happened in the city. I packed up my things and made a phone call to my colleagues in the Ashburton office, to check they were okay. Everything was fine there but the lady I spoke to said she thought I should go home. I was planning on finishing out my day, but after that, I began to feel uneasy. I rung to cancel my appointment and tried to get back through to Paddy to tell him I was coming home. The phone line was out again. I got in my car and needing petrol, drove to the petrol station. In the few short minutes I was in my car, listening to National radio, I began to get an idea of what had actually happened up in my home town. This was not just another aftershock. The cue at the petrol station was huge and I began to get panicky. Shakily I filled up my car and cued to pay. People were not really talking, they all, like me, were on a mission to get home. I tried to call my mum at the petrol station, I got through to her and started to cry, telling her I was scared and had she spoken to my brothers, one who has special needs and one who works in a restaurant in a large hotel in town. She had heard from one, and said dad had heard from the other. I felt a little bit more at ease, and she reassured me everything was okay and to drive home safely and keep in touch. I got on the road, for what was to be the longest drive of my life.

A trip that usually takes me an hour, took almost three. The traffic was bumper to bumper in both directions from Ashburton to Christchurch, and gridlocked once I hit the outskirts of town. I was glued to the radio the whole time, trying to take in what I was hearing. The CBD was destroyed, buildings had collapsed, buses were crushed, and the worst of all, people had died this time. The miracle of September 4th was just that; a miracle. This was reality. It all got a bit much for me about 45 minutes into my drive. I began to have a panic attack, on a long stretch of bridge. I managed to breath through it until I got over the bridge and then I pulled over and broke down into hysterics. I tried to ring Paddy and my parents and I couldn't get through. I was beside myself, on the side of the highway and I didn't know what to do. Eventually I had no choice but to pull myself together and keep driving. The longer I spent on the side of the road crying, the longer it would be until I was home. Tears blurred my vision, but I kept driving. The radio was telling me the city was destroyed, especially the CBD. I live very close to the CBD, only a few kilometres away, and I was convinced I would have no home left to go to. I knew Paddy was okay over an hour ago, when I had spoken to him, but aftershocks were coming thick and fast and all I could do was hope and pray he was still safe. Eventually I made it into the suburbs. The devastation was unreal. The roads were torn up, there was flooding and liquefaction everywhere, lights were out and there were people everywhere, walking, grim-faced, trying to get home to their own families. I spent a lot of time looking at faces as I sat in my car, stuck in traffic, and I still remember them now. Many were fighting back tears, all looked very somber. No one was really talking. We all knew this was bad.

Waiting in traffic only a few hundred metres from my house for over half an hour was torture. I thought about abandoning my car many times but, I didn't know what I was going home to- the weather was packing in and if my house was gone, my car may be all I had left. I waited and waited, texting Paddy regularly, not knowing if they were getting to him, and not receiving anything back from him. Finally I pulled up the driveway; I was home. Feeling Paddy's arms around me was the biggest relief of my life. He was safe; we were together. I started shaking and couldn't walk properly. He told me the house was pretty much okay, and he would walk me through it, showing me the damage. A friend of ours, who lived in Diamond Harbour but had been at Uni had walked to our house, as he had  no where else to go. He would not be able to get back to his house for at least a few days due to the Lyttelton tunnel being closed and rock falls. I started to cry when I saw Simon, saying to him I was so glad to be home and that he was okay.

Finally being with Paddy in my not-too-damaged home was not the end of this awful day. Now began the mammoth task of contacting all of my friends. As phone lines were down, I sent texts to my closest friends, in particular those who worked in the CBD. Most were fine, some I didn't hear from for ages. Then, I got the terrible news that my friend, whose new job we celebrated only a few days prior, was in the CTV building, which had collapsed. At the time I remember feeling sick to my stomach, but then being able to comfort my friend on the phone, who had rung to tell me the news (calls got through sporadically) that it was going to be fine, they would get him out. We just needed to be patient and send him all of our strength, because he was going to need it to help him get through this. As we still had no power or water, we ended up at my parents for tea and I sat, glued to the News, with the laptop beside me and my cellphone in my hand, hoping and praying for the news that they had rescued him and he was coming home. We went home later as both Paddy and I wanted to sleep in our own bed. The power came back on and we stayed glued to the rolling news coverage, again checking Facebook every few minutes for updates. Still, nothing. I went to bed that day at around 2am, barely slept a wink thanks to the ongoing aftershocks and a racing mind, and was up again at 5am. Instantly, I went to Facebook, knowing that if he had been rescued it would be on there. In my heart of hearts I truly felt they would have pulled him out that night. I expected to spend that next day at the hospital, around his bed, joking but relieved of the happy outcome. But still, nothing. If it was possible, I think the day after the 22nd was even worse. I sat on the couch and did not move for the entire day, watching rolling news coverage of the devastation of my beautiful city. Watching and hoping for the news that didn't come. It was, quite possibly, the worst day of my life.

It was three long weeks until they finally recovered my friend's body. Three torturous weeks of waiting and hoping, because, if you don’t have hope, you have nothing. And so we hoped, we prayed, we spoke to him, wherever he was, telling him he would be okay and we couldn't wait for him to tell his story. When the news finally came that they had found his body, it was the most intense sense of disbelief, sadness and relief, all at the same time. Disbelief that this had actually happened. A building collapsed and killed my friend. Doesn’t this kind of thing only happen in movies? Is this really my reality? Apparently so.

The last few months have been surreal, to say the least. I said before that the world as I knew it is no longer, and walking around Christchurch, it is quite obvious that this is still true. For weeks after the earthquake, the sound of helicopters flying overhead was normal. Army men were on every street corner. No water. No sewerage. Sporadic power cuts. An ongoing feeling of anxiety and an overwhelming feeling of sadness. I haven't ventured near town yet, I don't want to. The photos floating around on Facebook and in the news are enough to bring me to tears, even now. The thought of seeing the devastation with my own eyes is too much.

Life goes on in Christchurch. Aftershocks hit almost daily, they say we will have 'increased earthquake activity for the next 50 years'. I get up in the morning and go to work, and Paddy does the same; but little things are different. Everyone is exhausted. The kind of exhaustion that a few early nights can't even touch. We have a comprehensive emergency kit in our garage, torches beside our beds, a plan for what to do and where to go if it happens again. And, most importantly, every goodbye counts. Because, as we now know, it may be the last one.


  1. Oh Amy. I don't know what to say. <3

  2. Wow Amy. Such a dramatic and heartfelt account of what must have been a day of sheer terror and sadness. Thank you so much for sharing and I am happy to see that this hasn't stopped you from blogging. Love your blog and will add it to my list as you mentioned we do have a lot in common. I am so sorry to hear about your friend, no words can touch that feeling of emptiness and grief that you must be experiencing. Keep sharing your story, and doing what you are doing to make the world a better place :) Nice to "meet" you!!

    April 24, 2011 10:54 AM

  3. I am stuck for words. To hear of an actual true life account, from someone I have been in contact with over the past year is sobering to say the least. My heart goes out to you and your family. Kia kaha, arohanui xxxx