Lyttelton, New Zealand, became our home in 1995. We fell in love with the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape, the historic places and its friendly, tight knit community. Having come from England, I had no experience of earthquakes. My husband’s family lived in the Wellington region, we had spent two holidays with them and toured around the South Island which we recognised as a place where we would like to live. Ironically, back in 1993 I had said that I didn’t want to live in Wellington, because it was situated on a major fault line.
On Friday 3rd September 2010 I had spent the best part of the evening baking and preparing for my daughter’s 12th birthday party, at midnight I put the final finishing touches to Lucy’s birthday cake, placed it in a glass-domed cake stand and on top of a large basin of water to protect it from the Lyttelton ‘ant attack’.
Just over four hours later we were jolted from sleep by violent shaking, crashes and creaking noises identical to those of the Te Papa ‘earthquake simulation house’ except this was in pitch darkness. We scrambled to find the children- I knew we had to get them away from the large central chimney that ran through our 150 year old two-storey cottage. Lucy and I tumbled downstairs to shelter in the living room doorway, while Colin, my husband, called “Where are you?” to our son, who was not in bed, out of the quake noise came Hamish’s answer: “I’m under my desk, of course!”
The next 10 minutes in the dark seemed to go on for an eternity while the house was rocked and jolted as if by a giant shaking a baby’s rattle. Our teeth chattered and in a lull I grabbed nearby coats to keep us warm and also our solar torch radio. This light plus the calm voice of a National Radio presenter telling us what was happening and relaying text messages received from around the South Island were reassuring. Hamish flashed the torch around and Lucy said “Oh, no! Look at your clock.” My Westminster chimes clock that had been one of the few possessions that had travelled in my suitcase with me across the world had bounced off the mantelpiece and lay smashed on the ground amongst other debris, “That really doesn’t matter” I replied. As the quakes calmed down and dawn broke we climbed back upstairs; cold and exhausted, all four of us snuggled into our bed- just like the early mornings when the children were little.
Morning light revealed the destruction of fallen and smashed items, but there in the kitchen the glass-domed birthday cake stood majestic and unscathed, even more miraculous was the news on the radio that no one had been killed.
I teach the 6 and 7 year olds at Lyttelton Main School. At lunchtime on 22nd February 2011 our Principal released me from playground duty enabling me to take my students for swimming lessons at Lyttelton pool. I had just crossed the junior playground to reach the door of my classroom ready to blow my whistle for ‘line-up-time’ when the ground was jolted beneath my feet; three children (who had been hovering around- eager to go swimming) dived into the classroom and under their desks while everything seemed to explode around us, others were trying to ‘turtle’ down on the ground, which was behaving more like a wild trampoline than asphalt, we were tossed about like Ping-Pong balls. I ‘flew’ in after the three children who had panicked and gone inside; next thing I was in the centre of the playground with two of the children attached to each arm and one clinging around my neck ‘monkey style’.
How I got there I don’t remember, but the next day I found my arms, legs, ribs and back were covered with bruises from this.
The children were amazingly calm until another huge quake caused a partial collapse of the neighbouring building, the photographers (formerly the Lyttelton Borough Council Chambers); this caused a huge dust cloud to engulf us and set off screaming and cries of ‘fire’ from the children. I wished my arms could stretch telescopically to cuddle them all, we huddled together and all I could do was reassure them it was brick dust, not smoke. Later on, people who had been on London Street told me they would never forget the sound of those children’s screams.
A head count told me that five of my students were still up at the playing field where they would have been having activities with our ‘Kelly Sports’ tutor. Parents from in port started arriving, one had been in the tunnel when the quake struck and said it had felt like being in a roller-coaster ride.
I headed up to the ‘grassy’ playing field to see if my other five students were alright and found them all safe along with the wet and bedraggled new entrant children who had been in the swimming pool when the quake had struck. Luckily just a small number had been in the water as our new entrant class is small at the start of the year and our strict student/ adult ratio near water meant there had been plenty of adults to lift them out very quickly. Between the junior school teachers, teacher-aides and parent helpers we safely brought these children back to where the rest of the school were assembled and then Mark Buckley, Lyttelton’s fire chief organised everyone to move to the Lyttelton Recreation Centre car park. Walking there down the centre of Winchester Street seemed surreal; I was focussing on the children and the road ahead when I heard the cry “Oh! Look at St. Joseph’s!” and then I saw that the south facing entrance to the church had completely collapsed.
Luckily for Lyttelton both the Army and the Navy had been in port and on the hills so they arrived to help as if by a miracle. Lyttel- Piko and the local Supermarket sent food and supplies up to those evacuated to the Rec. centre. Deirdre Holmes, a local homeopath was offering rescue remedies. After a long wait frantic parents started arriving from over the Bridle path. I will always remember the fear on their faces as they arrived in search of their children, many had left the destruction of the central city behind and were imagining the worst as they came over the hill because they had heard “the quake’s centred in Lyttelton and it’s been flattened”. Happily, I received a text from Lucy to say she was safe and going home with a friend who lived close by to her school, an hour later I got a similar message from Hamish. At 5pm, Colin appeared. He had been at work on the fourth floor of Central library when the quake hit. They had evacuated the library to see the Provincial Council Chambers collapse; all Colin’s belongings, including his mobile phone, were in the library. He had walked through the destruction of the central city and over the Bridle Path, only to have to go back over the Bridle path again to reach Hamish and Lucy. A friend had left her car in the Gondola car park so she gave Colin the car keys so he could hopefully drive to our children and return over Dyers pass which we heard was now open.
By 6pm I still had a handful of children with me who had not been collected. I had started thinking that if they were not picked up by 7pm I would need to take them home with me. It was ten to seven at night before the last child in my care was reunited with their parents.
Then I went home, along with one family from school who could not return to their house. At our house, on Coleridge Terrace, the large internal central chimney had collapsed filling Hamish and Lucy’s rooms so high with bricks that you could not open their bedroom doors; the night store heaters had been ripped off the walls and fallen to the floor. The power cable had torn out from our house and was lying across the road and the historic stone walls, pillars and archway that surrounded our house had all collapsed to piles of rubble and there was no running water. Our living room is the one-storey part of the house and only part unaffected by the chimney collapse; this seemed the safest place to be.
By the time Colin, Hamish and Lucy got home at 9pm our numbers had swollen to three families- nine people altogether including 2 strangers! It was starting to get dark, so we got out sleeping bags, blankets and duvets and all nine of us settled down for a night on our living room floor- like sardines in a tin. We dozed, every 10 minutes we were jolted awake by countless aftershocks, images of the day went through my mind, I was thankful that two years previously we had spent our savings on major conservation work on the house including new piles and new wooden sash windows, without this work the house would not have survived. The thick metal plates that attached the house to the new piles had been forced under huge pressure to buckle like liquorice; they were still firmly attached but would need to be replaced.
The fortnight that followed was memorable. The sun shone, Lyttelton tunnel was initially closed off, no power or piped water was the daily reality. There was jubilation when the first water tanker arrived on Winchester Street.
I walked around our shattered streets, looking at the damage our historic town had suffered. Between 2004 and 2005 I had photographed all these buildings as part of my research for Lyttelton to be registered as an Historic Area, I remembered the many conversations I had had with the senior citizens I had interviewed as part of the Lyttelton Community Oral History Project and how many of the destroyed buildings had been part of their lives – the ballroom above Norton’s, the Harbour Light Cinema, Holy Trinity Anglican Church, St Joseph’s Catholic Church, St. John’s Presbyterian Church, the Museum, the Time-ball, all the businesses on the main streets in the town centre. I photographed them all again to help me come to terms with this loss.
Amongst all the destruction came a stronger community, there was a pooling of resources, neighbours shared barbecues, those who had power and water invited those without to use showers, washing machines, internet and even spa pools! The volunteer fire brigade worked tirelessly, day in day out. Community volunteers rallied around those who needed help. At school the block that included my classroom was red stickered so we had to spend the rest of 2011 teaching in the school hall along with another teacher and her students.
The children became remarkably adaptable and were adept at diving under desks or into ‘turtle’ position for the unrelenting aftershocks and then learned to carry on afterwards as if nothing had happened. A supply of cuddly toys which Lucy had outgrown and donated were invaluable, as my arms were not long enough to extend to hug all 25 children after big shakes.
As part of “Greening the Gaps” the children in my class enthusiastically dug, planted and watered sunflowers and varieties of seeds into the neighbouring demolition site that had been the photographers. I wonder what they will remember of this when they are adults, I am sure they will become strong and helpful citizens. It is wonderful to watch ‘their earthquake garden’ grow and become our symbol of hope- seeds in a wasteland growing to create a beautiful place.