I am 28 years old. I have been involved in several vehicle collisions, fallen off a cliff, been lost in the bush and faced a few bushfires … but on 22 February was the first time in my life I felt dread and feared for my life.
I moved from Canberra Australia to Christchurch New Zealand in January, just six weeks before 22 February. The 7.1 quake of 4 September did not deter us from moving here. I’d never been to New Zealand but my partner had three times, and the photos of the snow-covered mountains and beautiful beech forests were enough for me to know I would love it here.
In those six weeks after moving here I got a good taste of the aftershocks in our third storey office on the corner of Lichfield and Madras as well as one I experienced on the 16th storey of the Hotel Grand Chancellor where I stayed the first three nights.
It was a novel experience having the building rattle several times a day. My heart would skip a beat for the larger aftershocks but I didn’t feel I was in danger. It was even fun.
How naive was I.
I was on my lunch break on 22 February. I had just left Hanafins Pharmacy and was walking down the tram tracks on Cashel Mall to buy lunch at The Crossing food court when it hit.
The noise was like rocks being rattled around in a metal wheelbarrow but a hundred times louder as brick facades started swaying out and then slapped back against their frames. The ground bucked and heaved, rippling and breaking under the immense force of the quake. The entire front of a shop near me collapsed and a tangle of metal and bricks crashed to the ground. Bricks were being hurled through the air from both sides of the Mall and I just stayed there on the tram tracks, knees bent, looking up and around just trying to stay on my feet and avoid the bricks. There was screaming, people trying to stagger to the relative safety of the middle of the Mall.
I turned around and looked east and saw the Westpac building swaying dangerously in an arc. Buildings aren’t meant to do that! They’re meant to be solid! It was a nightmare. It didn’t make sense. I feared for my life, expecting to die as the city was shaken to pieces around me. I was just a small and fragile pawn caught up in a maelstrom of a scale beyond anything I could influence. There was nothing I could do.
It was all over in 15 seconds, or at least the main quake. Felt like longer, but then again time did seem to slow down as cortisol flooded my system. I saw a cloud of dust billowing out from the east end of Cashel Street and I immediately thought of footage of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.
I stood there stunned for a few moments, taking in the destruction around me, people crying and hugging each other, some clutching at bleeding head wounds. I grabbed my phone and tried to call my partner but the lines were already jammed. I managed to get a text to her and found out she was alive and unharmed in our apartment in Merivale. My next thought was for my colleagues at work, so I ran … partly to get there as soon as I could in case they needed help, but also to spend the least amount of time in the shadow of the tall buildings. Those 15 seconds had changed my perception of buildings – they just didn’t seem as sturdy or safe any more.
Cashel Street had cracked down the middle and water was gushing out all over the road. I leapt over the river and through the thinning cloud of dust that I later found out was from the CTV building. My team were all standing out on the street, one of them had been hit in the head by a cable tray that fell from the ceiling but was otherwise ok.
After checking in with my team my next priority was to get home to be with my girl. I tried taking the shortest route diagonally across the CBD to Merivale but after trying to make a few inroads down Cashel Street and Hereford Street I gave up on that and headed north along Madras, walking down the middle of the road and avoiding tall buildings as people and cars slowly streamed out of the city.
I had nothing on me but my wallet, phone and the medication I had just purchased from the pharmacy on High Street. I wanted to toss it away – it felt so stupid to be carrying around something so useless and insignificant with such devastation around me, but I didn’t.
After crossing Armagh Street I was safe from the tall buildings and gas leaks but by then the liquefaction had really kicked in and was mixing with sewerage from ruptured pipes. The roads and footpaths were all cracked and jutting up, walls and garages on a lean. I tried again to start heading west but was confounded by the brown smelly rivers of sewerage and rising grey flood of silt. A few people were getting offered lifts in cars but I wanted to stay on my own two feet … especially having seen half a dozen men standing on top of a compacted car just moments before, trying to pry the doors open.
I ran as much as I could but I eventually succumbed to the concrete dust that coated my throat and lungs and had to slow to a walk. My roundabout route back to Merivale from work took about 4 kilometres and I arrived back home exhausted but on an adrenaline high. Our apartment on Carlton Mill Road seemed ok apart from a few chunks of concrete missing and a collapsed free-standing wall in the front court but how can you tell if a building is safe? I had just seen several buildings destroyed by the quake, dozens of people killed … how could you know?
We sat at the bus stop across the road and held each other. We eventually had to make a decision to go back into the apartment to get some supplies including food and water before evacuating to Little Hagley Park away from all buildings. I ran in and grabbed the supplies as well as a bottle of whisky and we went and sat in the park. I despaired as the 5.9 quake hit. It felt like the ground was being torn apart. I wanted to be on the other side of the planet, far away from this madness.
We made our way down to where a crowd was gathering in Hagley Park but they had no clue. We waited. Eventually some guy came and told us about an evacuation centre down near the gardens. We went down there for a couple of hours and sat on a plywood board but nothing was happening and we decided we’d be better off doing our own thing so we walked back home.
And that was my experience of 22 February. We stayed the night in our apartment and slept in our clothes sitting on the couch but the following day someone suggested it wasn’t safe. They were right. A week later our apartment was red carded. We stayed with friends out in Kainga for the next two weeks till we found a new place to live.
We were fortunate. As renters we didn’t have to worry about insurance claims. We hardly lost any property. We were still alive and unharmed. I think people remember those who died and forget those who still live but are scarred for life. Dozens of amputees, the victims of horrible crush injuries. People who still suffer with the emotional trauma of such a terrible event, who jump every time a truck rolls by. Even I get twitchy when I hear a wheelie bin rumbling down someone’s driveway.
I’m grateful that I was in Christchurch on 22 February. It was one of those events that makes you take stock of your life and re-think what you’re doing. Am I making the most of the time I have? Am I doing what truly makes me happy? Could I be doing something more? At the very least, I went and did a first aid course so I could be of more use if such a thing happened again and I am making more of an effort to appreciate the time I have. I go out hiking more often and try not to let minor frustrations bring me down. Just remembering the day of the quake helps put such things in perspective.
I survived 22 February. I know hundreds of other people in the CBD did too – but many didn’t.
I am fortunate.