– Christchurch Central

I wrote this a couple of nights after 22 February, when I felt like I needed to get something out.

Sitting across the desk from a colleague. Discussing something trivial. A little shake. Another aftershock, nothing to worry about. A big shake. The big bookcase behind me hits the desk beside me. The building bucks. Scrambling under the desk, hands on head. The sound of the person I’m with doing the same. Nothing. Someone tells me they could hear the fire stairs coming down one flight at a time, thump, thump, thump, thump. Next memory is of the office manager. Shouting for everyone to get out, over the screaming of the other staff.

Standing up, everything has fallen over, and there is no clear path to get anywhere. Rather than going straight out, I go to my office, over files and bookcases, to collect my wallet, cell phone, and coat. I remember thinking ID might be important, as well as a way to contact my partner and the kids. Looking out the window, dust, and the roof of the PGC building, on the ground. Running to the stairs. Others coming back, yelling that the stairs have gone. I have to see for myself. Concrete dust and a black hole through the fire escape door. Later I saw people climbing down that void, floor to floor using fire hoses. We choose not to do the same, in case there is more concrete above ready to come down.

Back to the office. Trapped now. Everyone on our floor is gathered in the boardroom, until someone realises that that part of the building is cantilevered over the street. We move back towards the lifts. We need to find a radio. There is one under a desk in the tenancy next door. Two of us go to retrieve it. The batteries work. We hear that the power to the CBD will be turned off. A relief, since that might reduce the chance of a fire. And that the station will shortly go off air, for lack of power. Another aftershock. Screaming and panic. Wandering through next door and not wanting to look out the window. Sure that Clarendon Tower, where I have friends working, will be gone. It’s not, but looking down to the street I see a blanket just outside piles of bricks that have collapsed into the street. There are bare feet sticking out the end, covered up the next time I look. Another body to add to those that must be in PGC. It is awful.

We must be low down the lost of priorities to get out, given what we can see. We’ll be here for a while. How long are the ladders the fire service has? We’re only on the sixth floor, but can they reach this high, when they come?

Back in the office. Four or five of us talking. Me and another colleague alone. I’m afraid of fire, and the building coming down on top of us. He is too.

No safe way out; we are probably best to stay for now. No reason to do anything stupid. Have talked to my partner. She and the kids are fine. Tried not to sound too scared, but probably failed. I don’t want to go this way, here, crushed or burned. Want to see her and the kids. More than anything.

We need a way out in case we have to get out quickly. I remember seeing a program about quake survival. Cords and internet cables can make a rope. We start collecting them together. We need to break a window too. Down to the carpark is only three floors. From there, it seems like we could go on to the roof of the next building which slopes down to one floor off the ground. Being at level three, rather than six, seems better anyway.

How to break a window? Seems easy, but these are tough. Find a screwdriver, or a knife. Hit it with something. Some are pressing, just find a way out, find a way out. The screwdriver is in the kitchen. Its pitch black, and full of broken glass. About the worst place I’ve ever been. Find the toolkit in the end cupboard, and run. I find a metal table leg. Phillips head screws. It might work. Start working on the screws. Another aftershock. Dive under the desk I’m unscrewing. Noise and swaying. It feels like being at sea. I heard later the building was going like a pendulum. It’s not a surprise.

Next door’s survival kit has ropes, gloves and a sledgehammer. Back to the boardroom. The plan is to break a window, and find a safe way out. Not sure how many are listening.

Back through the building. John hits the window with the sledgehammer. It breaks and fresh air is good. No idea of time, but with no aircon we’ve probably been breathing the same air for an hour or so. A colleague leans through and talks to firemen in the carpark, or on the street. He has shards of glass hanging above him. We pull him back by the belt, and the shards are knocked off. The firemen say a ladder is coming in ten minutes. We wait five, and then push on. No ladder ever comes, although a crane arrives a few hours later.

John knows how to use the ropes to get us out. He ties the knots. We will lower people down one at a time, with two ropes tied to each person. John hands me the other rope; he is going to hold one. I haven’t done this before. One of the others has military training, and he is younger and stronger than me. He takes the rope. I sit beside him, as a backup in case he slips. One of the other guys does the same behind John. One colleague holds the ropes together at the window; another leans out and calls distance from the ground. There are two men holding each rope.

It works; time to start lowering the women down. John holds one rope for everyone who goes. My colleague and I rotate holding the other rope. It hurts when the weight comes on. As one of the others is being lowered down, a big aftershock hits. Someone yells “Hold on”. They do.

Down to five now. The firemen say help is coming. We use the twenty minutes we wait to lower down servers and computers. No help arrives, so two more of us are lowered down. I wonder if I should have stood up and asked to go. I have kids.

Three of us left. We’ve been using four or five people to lower each person down. Choices are limited, but a crane arrives before we have to decide. We wait, and the crane platform arrives at the window. Two minutes later, we’re safely on the ground.

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