– Ilam, Canterbury, New Zealand

I was on the university campus when it happened, eating lunch with some friends. The earthquake hit, someone said “holy cow”, and we all dived under tables or doorways. This is strange, because this was actually the first time I’ve ever got under anything in the progression of big earthquakes since September 2010. It is also the first time I’ve felt in any danger, in the buildings I have happened to be in. As I sat under the doorway I could see cracks appearing in the hallways before my eyes and the whole building rumbled and creaked, five floors of concrete above us on the second storey.

We got out as soon as it stopped – leaving all our things behind in our offices – and assembled in one of the carparks nearby. Just a few minutes later another big one hit, and this was strange, because normally the quakes are very difficult to feel outside. This one was quite different; I felt like I was standing on water, and had to brace myself against a car, which was rocking back and forth quite violently itself. If you looked up you could see all the buildings swaying and all the people around us were, for a moment, definitely NOT your average garden-variety do-not-betray-emotion-or-fear Kiwis.

The scary part now was waiting to find out what was going to happen. It was impossible to have got through the last five months without learning what this kind of quake means for the buildings in the city. It was also easy to imagine the possibilities to the people of the city, especially in the middle of a busy working day. However, I had no clue it was as bad as it was. The first rumour I heard was that someone couldn’t see the spire of the cathedral from their office, as usual, and I was sceptical – remember, it’s a misty day, I said. Then I heard about buses crushed by falling buildings and that was when I started to feel that this was very very serious. The cellphone networks were very clogged, as were the roads, and I was getting text message after text message from family and friends, who obviously were not receiving my replies, so I walked home to use our landline.

It was so good to see my flatmates. Three of them were at home, very shaken up but okay, and the other one got home soon after me. She had almost delayed leaving town just before the earthquake, and if she had stayed she would have got on the bus that was hit by a falling building in town. No power but we had a handy transistor radio. My stereo fell off its shelf plus a bunch of books etc, but no broken glasses this time. I rang all my family in different cities, couldn’t get through to my sister in Christchurch but other relatives had been in contact. She had been unable to get in touch with her husband and her kids, who were in their daycare, and so she walked from the hospital in the CBD all the way to the hospital on the outskirts of the city where her husband works – at 23 weeks pregnant. My grandmother was fine, stoic as always – she is a trooper. My dad is out of town at the moment.

Soon after I got home, I was talking to my sister in Dunedin on the phone, and another big aftershock hit. Lucky her, she got to listen to me getting under the table and then suddenly realising that water was pouring through our roof. Turned out our chimney had just fallen down, breaking something on its way, and our bathroom and laundry was rapidly flooding. I feel quite proud of the fact that I rushed outside with my toolbox, found the mains, and turned off the water. Girl power! This did mean, however, that now we had neither water nor power.

We sat listening to the radio – a form of masochism on that day – and just felt so ridiculously miserable and bleak. We would have liked to pray together (we’re Christians), but what do you say in words other than a simple “help us all”? So we got out guitars and sang some songs together and we didn’t feel much less miserable but it did feel cathartic. We all knew that eventually we would hear about friends or family of friends who were missing.

Eventually we decided to decamp to my father’s house, which is in a part of town that had water and power. We felt guilty being able to turn the lights on and run the taps and boil water easily. But like everywhere else it was impossible to sleep through the night with the earthquakes rolling in like waves, and we were all up early to sit glued to the television yet again.

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