It’s a day like any other day. We have been out, collected my daughter from kindergarten, bought some lunch and headed home to a friend’s house. It’s not a warm day so we are happy to be inside, huddled today around the dining room table putting stitches of love into a gift for a friend whose baby is due any day now. We talk, we laugh, we work steadily. My daughter sits in the middle of the lounge beside us playing with some Little People.
The first warning sign is the noise, the rumble of an approaching earthquake, but this is nothing unusual. We look up, ears straining to hear if it’s going to be a ‘decent’ one this time. Like meercats we always pop to alert when the rumble starts, but nothing today suggests this will be any different to any of the other aftershocks we’ve felt. The shaking starts and for a second I think it’s okay, it’ll just stop like all the others have. Then I look over at my daughter and see lego sculptures falling off the bookcase and smashing around her and the TV rocking backwards and forwards behind her. Instinct kicks in and I run towards her. By now the shaking is so intense we can hardly stand. My friend reaches my daughter first and we head towards the doorway. We struggle to open the wooden sliding door which leads to the porch and freedom from the now-oppressive house. For one horrifying moment it feels like we are airborne then we all smash through the door, taking it off its hinges and landing in a jumble of bodies. My daughter’s fragile body is on the bottom of the pile and there is enough time for my heart to clench with desperate fear, and the fervent hope that she’s okay before she makes a sound. We grab her and crawl through the doorway to the safety outside.
I can’t tell if it’s over and the shaking I now feel is from an aftershock or if it’s still going. Twenty five seconds doesn’t seem long enough, yet they say it only lasts that long. I stare at the small cracks that have appeared in the lawn as we sit huddled together, struggling against the tears that are threatening. I don’t want to cry, don’t want my daughter to worry any more than she already is. She is pale and uncharacteristically quiet and I don’t want to burden her any more. ‘It’s okay’ I say over and over again, smoothing her hair back, hoping that if I say it often enough it’ll become the truth. She nods, but her gaze is fixed on the ground which is still tossing restlessly underneath us. She doesn’t believe me. Who can blame her? I don’t believe me either.
When it’s over we decide to go and pick up our other children from school. My friend’s driveway is torn up, the end of it barely passable, but the area around it is an oasis of calm. Once away from my friend’s house it looks like nothing has happened. ‘Was that right under my house?’ she wonders as we drive out into unaffected streets. We start to feel a little silly, rushing off to check on our kids when it obviously wasn’t very bad. Then we turn a corner and are confronted with chaos – there is a large crack running right across the road and water has started to pour out into the street. Still thinking it may have been close by we go another street over hoping it will be less affected. It’s worse. We drive it anyway, now desperate to get our other children.
By the time we get to the school we are in ankle deep water and have had to weave around several sink holes, some of which have cars in them – fallen in there and abandoned. I find a park outside the school. The children are all on the field and my clearest impression is of a fountain of water gushing out of a great gash in the grass. My kids are somewhere on the other side of that gash, indistinguishable from the other children from this distance. My friend goes to get the others while I stay in the car with my daughter. She’s gone only a second when the car jolts alarmingly and the eerie sound of children screaming drifts across the field to me. The sound is piercing and I know already that I’ll never forget it, never forget the terror in those voices. Eventually my friend returns with our children. They are usually strong, happy boys but today they look small, fragile and worried. One is in tears and explains how his classroom had cracked around them as they tried to get out.
I drive off, trying to avoid the deepest parts of the water in the street, but as we approach the corner we are warned there is a large hole around there and no way to get past it. I try to turn. The car’s wheels spin and mud flies up. I open the door to look out – there is water right up to the base of the car. It’s immediately obvious that I can neither get out of the car that way nor drive the car – we have fallen into another, smaller hole. Smaller, but no less effective. I climb out the passenger side and we hand the kids out into the middle of the road. For some reason I have taken my shoes off. They are my favourite pair and I don’t want to get them wet or dirty. In retrospect it seems foolish but right in that moment I feel I have to be barefoot. It becomes clear that the water in the road isn’t water – it’s liquefied silt and it’s starting to solidify.
We plod home, avoiding the silt as much as we can though there are places where it’s unavoidable and we have to make a human chain passing the children from one to the other of us just to get them through the deepest of the sludge. The walk normally takes around fifteen minutes, but today it’s closer to forty minutes. We meet people on the walk home: stressed people, helpful people, scared people. We talk, we share radios, we hear of deaths. We live through a surreal moment when the people on the radio discuss an earthquake and it reaches us several seconds later. Through it all we worry. I had heard from my husband shortly after the quake but all contact was lost soon after. My friend hasn’t heard from hers at all. Until both are safe and sound back home neither of us can relax. They arrive, one after the other, several hours later. The relief is instantaneous – the fear clutched around my heart lessens a little.
We have no power, no water, no sewerage so we sit with battery powered radios and cellphones trying to come to grips with the enormity of what is happening. Eventually my mother comes – she wants us to stay with her and my father. They have power. They have water. They have sewerage. It’s an easy choice even though part of me feels like I’m abandoning my area, my friends, my community. I have a need to know what happened, to see it so we watch the news on TV and I almost wish I was back home. Nothing I imagined from what I heard on the radio prepared me for the reality of what I see on the TV.
It is over a week before I spend more than a few minutes at home – more than a week before we get water and power back on. More than a week before we return home and I have my own things around me again. More than a week before we stop merely existing and start trying to live.