Three weeks before the February 2011 earthquake, my husband and I had landed in Christchurch after 18 years living in a variety of locations up and down the eastern seaboard of the US. We’d heard and read about the September earthquake, knew that Christchurch was still shaking, but since I’d grown up in Napier earthquakes didn’t really scare me and besides, we’d chosen Christchurch over Wellington because of Burnside High School – our school of choice for our two daughters (our youngest of four children) who were aged 13 and 16.
We’d quickly enrolled them at Burnside, found the most ideal townhouse on Memorial Avenue right across the road from the high school and moved in the week before. Both Peter and I had found jobs. The day of the earthquake was Peter’s first day at his work and I was expecting a phone call so that I could begin training at my new job. Our landlord had informed us that EQC were coming on February 23rd (our daughter’s 16th birthday).
February 22nd, 12:51pm I was standing in the Fendalton Post Office when I was almost thrown off my feet. I clung to the feeble, cardboard stand that was jumping up and down losing all the postcards off it and the gentleman who’d been waiting in line behind me was suddenly down on one knee and clinging to me as if he was proposing! To this day I’m not quite sure if he was trying to keep himself upright (he’d clearly experienced the September quake because he knew enough to at least drop onto one knee for stability; Napier had never prepared me quite that well) or he was trying to keep me upright. I vaguely thought at the time that this might be the male version of multi-tasking in an emergency and attempting to keep us both upright. I thought it gallant, anyway. I would thank him if I knew who he was. The sound of everything rattling was quite remarkable. That building really moved! The lights went out, some people were screaming, and the experienced among us knew to head for the door while. I can’t honestly say if I would have immediately joined them because I couldn’t really go anywhere anyway since I was being held up. Again, my thanks to The Gentleman.
Outside, people were ashen. Someone said, “Not again…” Another, “I wonder how the city is….” And another, in utter disgust, grumbled, “Well, that’s it for the day, then.” Fendalton Shopping Centre was still standing I observed, but I guessed things really did need to close down at least until the power came back on. I also noted that everyone was rushing to their cars and leaving just as quickly as possible. I didn’t have the September quake experience to go on so this behaviour seemed a little bit dramatic to me but everything was shutting down so I really have a choice but to start walking back home along Memorial towards Burnside.
The second earthquake struck before I’d walked halfway to the lights at Ilam Rd. The Gentleman had been a wonderful teacher and I knew this time to get down. It was suddenly an instinct. By this time the traffic on Memorial Avenue was bottlenecked and chaotic and I don’t know how there wasn’t a disastrous accident: I certainly observed some very close calls. By the state of people’s driving people were clearly in a panic.
I decided to head straight for Burnside and find my girls. I was impressed with the organisation and calm on the school field however as I asked around for my children I was informed that my oldest was very upset. It took a while to locate her and I knew intinctively why this event would have upset her so much, especially since I’d found my youngest daughter and she was totally calm and enjoying hanging out with her new friends. You see, we were in American for 9/11. If you drew a triangle from the twin towers to the Pentagon over to where the plane went fown in Pennsylvania and back to NY city we lived right in the middle of that triangle when the planes hit. My oldest daughter was just six at the time and in her first year in school. She remembers panicked teachers and horrific scenes, but moreso the sense of great disaster having happened and I knew the memory of 9/11 would have triggered a trauma response. To her credit, I found her holding up very well: upset and shaking, but functioning. I was proud.
And I’m still proud. Proud to be Kiwi and see and experience the incredible rallying and support and understanding. It’s been a big thing these earthquakes. But human hearts are pretty darn big too.