I’ve lived in in Christchurch for most of my adult life and only twice in that time have I run to my children’s bedside during the night, in an earthquake. A few years ago now, those tiny ripples were pathetic compared to what I was yet to experience. A light sleeper, I was out of bed like a shot on that morning of Sept 4th, but I didn’t make it past my bedroom doorway, the shaking was so violent. I stood in the doorway and wondered why the roof-tiles were breaking.
It turns out you can think of a lot in forty seconds. Standing in that doorway I had enough time to remember there were chimneys up there and realised they were in the process of crashing down into the roof. I had enough time to calculate my chances of making it across the hallway to my children’s bedroom without being smeared across the floor under a chimney verses staying where I was, under a rimu doorframe, 1.5 metres from a falling chimney.
With my husband in Melbourne for a few days, I decided to stay where I was – I wouldn’t be much use to my kids laying under the other chimney outside their bedroom door. I had enough time to think this must be the Alpine fault rupturing, and it must be terrible indeed in Greymouth. I had enough time to think that at this moment everyone in Christchurch must be doing exactly the same thing as me – cowering, terrified in the dark. It occurred to me that there was a small, but significant chance the house would fall down, killing me, and I would never see my kids again.
Standing there in the dark as the house continued to shake furiously, I clung to the doorframe and looked down at the floor I couldn’t see and felt despair. I had enough time to realise I’d never felt despair before. I had enough time to hate myself for despairing – for just standing there doing nothing and accepting possible death. I had enough time to realise one literally does hang one’s head with despair. A body going limp as hope drains away.
When the shaking miraculously stopped, it occurred to me that the shaking hadn’t gone on very long considering the Alpine fault ran for hundreds of kilometres along the length of the South Island. A small seed of doubt crept in then, my assurance it was the Alpine fault and the relief I felt that it had finally ruptured was already being eroded. It took a microsecond to think these final thoughts before I shot across the hall to my children’s bedroom. A couple of days later I noticed a small finger sized bruise on my youngest child’s upper arm. It was from my firm grip around her arm as I dragged her out of her bed and across a fallen bookcase to the relative safety of the doorway.
Later I realised I didn’t just stand in the doorway doing nothing, and I didn’t need to hate myself. I did all a reasonable person could do – I held on to a rimu doorframe for dear life and wished I could be with my kids. That is all a reasonable person can do in the terrifying darkness of a 7.1 magnitude earthquake.