– Cashel Street, Christchurch Central, Canterbury, New Zealand

On Tuesday the 22nd of February I was at work at our Coffee Smiths Cashel Street store. It was lunch time, which meant my boss, TP, had headed over to our other store at Durham Street to switch stock and run missions with his girlfriend (our other boss) Jane. I was at the back of the store packaging brownie, with a few customers in the store, drinking their coffee, working on stuff, generally all was chill.

Then the whole building (the whole city!) started to shake. We’re well versed in earthquakes since our last one in September 2010, and generally we don’t feel anything in our stores (which are in the bottom of 5-6 storey buildings) unless it’s big- over 5 on the Richter scale. We knew it was big, and with much swearing and yelling, everyone in the store rushed to the doorway. It’s not a comfortable feeling being in the bottom of a big building in an earthquake. While we dashed for the door, all the stock in the front fridge started flying off the shelves, the drinks smashing all over the floor, our pastry dish flying off the counter and clattering on the floor. We were slipping in the mess, swearing our heads off.

To my customers’ credit, when we got to the doorway we all just stayed there, looking on in horror. I remember a conversation with my co-worker Stacey after the last quake about being in the city during an earthquake – that if you were, you were damned if you do and damned if you don’t – if you stay in the building and it collapses you’re screwed, if you run out onto the street and other buildings collapse, you are screwed as you’ll be hit by debris. The doorway is the safest place to be because you can make a split-second judgement as to which way the building/debris will fall and go one way or another. I am sad to say that many people died in the CBD because they ran out into the street, only to be crushed by falling facades.

So, we stood in the doorway, clutching each other and the doorframe, watching the street with mounting horror. There were bricks, glass and mortar falling from the building next door, the building across the street (which had been red-stickered from the last quake) had all its windows blowing out and chunks falling off it. We could hear the almighty rumble as other buildings collapsed, and dust was everywhere. It was like I imagine the Blitz was like. People were screaming, and I can assure you that myself and all my customers were swearing profusely in shock and horror.

As the shaking subsided, one of my customers (the most fabulous Emma) was bewailing the fact she tried to grab her lidless large trim takeaway cappuccino as she fled to the doorframe. Apparently she got it over the other customers, although I seemed unscathed from it! I apologised for my bad language (not very professional!) to which the customers’ response was “we don’t give a f*ck!”

We got out of the building, onto the street, and looked around, appalled. People were spilling into the street and sirens and alarms were going off all around us. I realised that we would be evacuated for sure, so I made a VERY quick dash back into the store to grab the work phone, my bag and locked the back sliding door. I made sure to make it very snappy, I knew to expect aftershocks!

Outside once again, I desperately tried to contact my workmates at the other store. I knew they’d be freaking about me, being the only Coffee Smith at Cashel St, but I was also very worried about them, and we needed to establish contact. The phone lines were down, Cashel Street’s landline was useless. I then got my cellphone and called my husband, Aean. I miraculously got through, and quickly let him know I was ok. I then tried to call Durham Street on my cell, no avail. I then tried TP’s cellphone, Jane’s cellphone, Stacey’s cellphone. Nothing.

While all this was happening, someone on the street yelled “Holy shit, look at the Hotel Grand Chancellor!” a nearby 26 storey hotel. With my phone in my hand, I immediately snapped a photo- it was quite obviously (to quote the mayor) “munted”. The top dozen or so storeys had obviously internally collapsed, and its top floors sagged on one side. However, all praise due to the emergency services (do they hide down alleyways waiting for natural disasters? I’ll never know!) because they were there SO FAST, evacuating Cashel and High Streets around the Grand Chancellor. At this point I rolled a cigarette with shaking hands, totally unprofessional once more, but I was so overwrought I NEEDED a smoke! While I stood dumbfounded outside the store, many of our customers (who almost exclusively work in the area) approached me to check I was ok, giving me hugs and sending their love to the rest of the Coffee Smiths. I also snapped a few photos of my surrounds, totally stunned at what had happened to our city.

I hadn’t even finished my cigarette when we were evacuated. I locked the store, which I am glad for because when my boss arrived it told him I was ok, and there were looters in the aftermath of the quake, so at least (hopefully) that deterred them from Cashel St! However, in retrospect, I do wish I’d taken as much bottled water and coffee beans as I was able to carry- they were in short supply following the earthquake!

We made our way down Cashel Street to the evacuation point- Latimer Square in town (right where I got married to Aean), a big square/park thing largely away from tall buildings. En route, I ran into a customer Sophie, who worked at the IRD down the road. We stumbled along, stunned. 100 metres down the street we came across the carnage of a building, which had completely collapsed. Only one wall remained standing, the rest was a mangled mess of debris. Uncomprehending, I asked Sophie “what was even there? I can’t remember, oh my God!” and she told me it had been the CTV building. I snapped another photo, dazed, unable to believe what I saw.

While we were walking past, another aftershock rumbled through. Above us towered the IRD building, a very new one made of glass and steel. Still, not a pleasant place to experience an aftershock. As we rounded the corner of Cashel and Madras, we saw some teenagers posing for photos outside the CTV wreckage, making hand signs and going “yeah! Earthquake!” Me and Sophie screamed at them, calling them all sorts of horrible names, which I feel totally justified in doing so. After all, it was blatantly obvious people had died, crushed, inside that building. Other people were running at the wreckage, screaming, trying to get those they knew and loved out. It was utterly horrific.

On Madras Street there was more chaos. The Samoan church had collapsed at the back, despite efforts to save it from last year’s quake. St John’s nearby, the church where Aean and I got married, was braced on the back wall in an attempt to save it, but everywhere else had crumbled. People were everywhere. Crying, screaming, covered in blood. It was chaos.

At Latimer Square, there were thousands of people. Across the square a house had completely collapsed, and while I was there a fire broke out in a nearby building, and people were yelling “fire, fire!” in vain. Everytime there was an aftershock, people would scream, throw themselves on the ground. People were sitting in circles with their workmates, crying, others were wandering the crowd, dazed. Every time I saw one of my customers, I checked them off a mental checklist. We had no idea how bad the toll would be.

Latimer Square was hard for me. It was there that I realised that I was alone, that all my workmates were across the other side of town. I was like that uncool kid at a party who just shows up, and nobody really wants to talk to. I stood on the edge of a few circles of people, super uncomfortable. I began uploading the photos I took to Twitter, with the tag we used last time- #eqnz.

It was at that point that Nick, a customer, neighbour of my boss and owner of a podiatry clinic down the street came up to me. He asked where TP was, then if I was OK. He then asked if I had anyone to hang with. When I responded no, he hustled me off to his group of colleagues, telling me I could hang out with them and he’d see me home safe. He was bleeding himself, wildly concerned about his wife and children. I am so, so, SO grateful to Nick for taking me under his wing.

My phone then started going off the hook. Emails came pouring in- Twitter notifications of new followers. My Twitter alerts starting going non-stop, as people re-tweeted my hastily uploaded photographs. Within minutes, I had hundreds of new alerts. However, my phone was still working, it seems my network is the most sturdy! (Go 2degrees!). I used it to call and text, I got hold of my dad who was in Australia (unbeknownst to me) and filled him in on what was happening. Nick borrowed my phone to try and call his wife Rachel, and other Injury Solutions staff tried to get in touch with their loved ones too.

It seemed a bit pointless to stay in Latimer Square. We started making arrangements to leave for home, buddying up with those going the same way. I finally managed to get in touch with my co-worker Stacey, who lives near me as well. We arranged to rendezvous out of town, as she had her car with her, and I was on foot.

We set off, walking towards the east side of town where me and a couple of Injury Solutions girls live. On the way we passed carnage- houses collapsed, walls and fences fallen over. While we were walking CNN called, they wanted a phone interview. I gave a retrospectively embarrassing interview full of Kiwisms about what I’d seen. I kept trying to meet Stacey, but traffic was bedlam and gridlocked all through town. I got as far as Stanmore Road without even realising I’d walked that far- I was halfway home. Stanmore shops collapsed, shops on Barbadoes Street too. I kept snapping pictures, uploading them to Twitter. Stanmore road was rent down near the river- cars were trying to cross a gap of nearly a foot, which water was enthusiastically gushing out of. A guy was trying to dig his car out of liquefaction- silt that bubbles up through the earth’s crust and floods everywhere. The car was buried up to the chassis in goopy mud.

The Stanmore road bridge popped up with the force of the quake, large cracks had separated the blocks of the bridge from the road. I kept trying to make contact with Stacey, sometimes I got through, sometimes I didn’t. Texts were useless, they came through five hours later. I tried to assure her I could walk home, but she wouldn’t hear of it, she said she’d never forgive herself if a powerline fell on me and I died! Finally we did meet up, further down Stanmore road. We both chainsmoked all the way home, driving down Linwood Ave we saw collapsed churches, shops, Eastgate Mall had lost walls and part of its roof. Stacey told me about TP’s epic run- he’d been at South City mall when the quake struck. Realising I was alone at Cashel Street he ran across the crumbling CBD just after the quake to reach me, only to find me gone and the shop locked. He then ran BACK across town to get to his Durham Street staff. What a legend! We headed down the back of Bromley, where we both live, and were stymied by liquefaction. We decided to split up, I got out of the car and continued on foot to my house, passing gobsmacked residents sitting on the kerb, sharing news from town.

Finally I reached my house, which was a mess. Everything in our kitchen cupboards had smashed on the ground, and our liquor cabinet drenched the entire laundry. The TV and its unit had fallen to the ground, in our bedroom everything had migrated to the floor. Our office was carnage, with computers, books and papers everywhere. Still, the house was standing, despite a buggered roof where the two flats in the duplex had been shunted together and popped off the roof tiles.

The first family member I saw was my sister-in-law Stella, who had walked from Shirley to get to our place- which was the family meeting place last quake as well. She’d been waiting for two hours for us to get home, and was near hysterical. We hugged mightily and waited for the rest of the family to get in touch. No one had heard from my mother-in-law, although she did get in touch finally with Stella. Aean had been forced to abandon our car in town when it nearly ran out of gas (he was coming to find me) and was on foot making his way out to Bromley. I finally got through to my mother and organised a meet up with her and my brother- the only three Penneys in town. Slowly, things came together, we could confirm both mine and Aean’s families were safe, and through Facebook and Twitter we could get a patchy idea of who was ok and who wasn’t.

And then we began dealing with the aftermath.

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