– Cranmer Square, Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand

An honest account of my earthquake experience.

I was in a hotel room in Paris when I first learnt of the Sept 4th earthquake. My initial response was an ignorant ‘So what?’ – I had experienced earthquakes before and they were no big deal. It wasn’t until my boyfriend told me that it was actually a significant earthquake and that there was lots of damage and power outages, that I realized what had happened. The news was all over Facebook. I contacted my family, everyone was okay. As time passed we knew all would be fine, as no one was hurt or killed – that it was simply a close shave.

After our holiday was over and we returned home, things were a bit strange – suddenly everyone we knew had become overnight seismic professionals – talking in a strange lingo and using scales to predict each (and EVERY) tremor. They all had GeoNet at their fingertips, and were arguing over which rating scale was the most reliable.

I couldn’t help feeling like I missed out on an important piece of Christchurch’s history. Little did I know what the earth had in store for us.

Tuesday, 22 February was meant to be my second day back at Uni for the year, but I never went to class that day, nor consecutive days after that. My flat was situated in Cranmer Square, right in the heart of the CBD. I had just walked home from a doctors appointment, and was standing in my 2nd story bedroom when the earthquake hit. I thought it was big – but I didn’t really have much to compare it with. I didn’t feel frightened, rather – a bit excited to tell the truth. Up until then I quite liked earthquakes – I likened them to thrilling roller-coaster rides. After sitting it out on my bed, I decided to go outside just to see what it was like. I could hardly get down the stairs, the whole house was shaking side to side for a second earthquake.

Outside there was a huge dust cloud surrounding the old Girls High building (Cranmer Center), which I initially thought was smoke from a fire. Water, seemingly from nowhere, was cascading across the road. Sirens and screams could be heard, but all other sounds of life had stopped. The grassy square across from me was fast filling with people. I thought maybe it would be a good idea to gather a few things – cause it was likely the CBD would be closed off later. After grabbing some clothes and my laptop and putting them in my car, I went to see if there were any neighbours about. My flat was also beside the Cathedral Grammer school – where I saw the teachers, so brave, organizing and calming the children then walking them all over to the middle of the park. I just wanted to hug all the frightened kids!

Down my street somewhat there was a woman, probably in her 30’s, well dressed but shaking and crying, and staring up at the four story office building she had been in. There was deep everywhere and water gushing towards the building. Windows were shattered and parts of the building broken. I asked the lady if she was okay. She shook her head. I gave her a hug and reassured her everything would be okay. She managed to tell me that her elderly parents were still in the building, in their apartment on the top floor. I told her that we had to get them out. She was afraid to. I told her I’d be with her. She eventually agreed and went inside together. Water was gushing into the building and straight down the stairs to the basement and down the elevator shaft. It reminded me of a scene from Titanic. I noticed the woman hesitate at having to step in the water and getting wet feet. It is interesting how different people react in different situations. I just shrugged and walked straight in – my shoes and socks flooding instantly. We carefully walked up the tile-covered stairs – as it was slippery with wet shoes. I noticed the cracks through all the tiles and in the walls of the stair well – that was the first time I felt a little scared, like I wasn’t safe. But I had to be strong – there were people to rescue – so I keep going. At the top the wooden door to the apartment was jammed closed. We had to push it with all our might to get it open. Finally it came free. I could tell the apartment used to be beautiful. But now a heavy book case had fallen over, books and magazines were strewn all over the floor, and several large plants in pots had toppled over and broken. It was a mess. The couple were both still in their pajamas and completely in shock. I told them ‘You need to get dressed quickly in something warm, and leave right now. We have to get out, the building is not safe and there will be more aftershocks.’ But the elderly woman was frightened and had to go to the bathroom, and the elderly man seemed oddly calm and kept looking at broken things – commenting on them. No one was doing anything. Yet I still felt like I was in a stranger’s house and shouldn’t pry or be too pushy. They all disappeared into respective rooms while I stood in the foyer urging them to hurry and get out. In retrospect I should’ve just been forceful and made them leave straight away with only their pajamas on. Up at the top of that claustrophobic building there was another significant earthquake. That is when I thought that I could die. No one was budging and I would die having failed. Finally the lady turned up and said she was okay now, and that she could manage them by herself. I was relieved to hear that I’d at least helped her regain her confidence. I told her where to find me if she needed more help and left the building. I was so glad to leave too.

That building is no longer there now, it was demolished several months after that day. Thank god it was strong enough to hold up for as long as we needed it to.

The park was full of people now. It seemed many nearby building were being evacuated to the safety of the green. It was great having such area so close by. I tried to contact my boyfriend and family, but had no credit on my phone (of all the days…) It was then, with nothing else to do, I decided I should try to document the some of the quake. I grabbed my camera and began (somewhat foolishly) to walk into the town centre.

On the way I saw many people helping in any way they could. One man stopped to direct the panicked traffic all by himself. I decided I’d try to find my friend Kylie who worked at a law firm on The Strip; and also my flatmate at the time, who worked at the council – as I knew she was very frightened by the quakes. I ran into another friend of mine – Ben, who informed me the Cathedral spire had fallen down. Now, this is where hyperreality set in… I did not think of people being hurt or killed, or the safety of myself, it didn’t even cross my mind. All I thought was: ‘This is awesome! Finally something exciting has happened in Christchurch!’ Looking back on it now, with the knowledge I now have, there is no way I would be that stupid given that situation again. But, like I said, people react in bizarre ways. I liken it to watching a film. It didn’t seem real. The more damage I saw the more excited I got and the more I had to see… I ventured further in…
I couldn’t find anyone I knew on The Strip, but I reassured another lady, who’s sister was trapped in a building in front of us. Workers were holding signs against the windows with ‘S.O.S/HELP’ written on them. I just assumed authorities would come help them out soon, and that they’d be okay. I wished her luck and continued. There were more photos to get.

At this point I was gutted to see my camera battery had died. So I switched to cellphone photography. At this point I noticed I wasn’t the only one taking photos. Others were bravely documenting the terror too. There were police in the square – and I had decided that if they told me to leave I would say that I was looking for a friend. But no one said anything. I got there early enough. The Cathedral was damaged badly – an image that would haunt Christchurch for the rest of the year. I picked up two small stones from the rubble, one orange, the other gray – to remind me of the Cathedral that once was.

I wish now that I’d gone down to High Street to help out, but for some reason I walked North then back past the library. I comforted yet another woman who couldn’t find her partner, and walked her back to Cranmer Square. The eery sounds of alarms were still ringing, traffic lights off or flashing. Everyone was walking down the middle of the split roads, trying to stay well away from buildings and windows. It felt then like the end of the world, an apocalypse. It was so surreal.

Part two still to come.

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