– Latimer Square, Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand

It has been an horrific experience – a most terrifying event that is hard to describe. At the moment we are still in shock as to what has happened.

It was 12.50pm on 22 February. I was at work about to have my lunch at my desk at the AMI building (4th floor) in the CBD at Latimer Square when the 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck. It was 5km deep and 10 km from Christchurch with the epicentre in Lyttelton. The shaking started gently but I soon realised this wasn’t just another aftershock. I went under my desk and could hardly hold on to its legs as it shook so fiercely, bouncing up and down as well as shaking violently. There were things falling over everywhere, computer screens being tossed around, shelving collapsing – it was terrifying. The sound was awful, a loud noise like a huge aeroplane landing. There was glass shattering as windows imploded and furniture fell.

When the shaking subsided I poked my head up and everyone had left my floor. Normally there are 30 odd people on my floor. I felt totally abandoned – a horribly lonely feeling – I felt really scared. I think at the time of the shaking I was so busy just trying to hold on and deal with the event that being scared didn’t really come into it. Then I heard someone howling and ran to a female colleague who had been in the tea room where the windows had smashed and shelves had fallen over – she was in a total state of panic, hysteria and was hyperventilating. We fell to the ground and I just held her as the shaking continued. She was struggling to breathe. Although it seemed like a long time, it was very soon after that a Manager came to us and told us we had to leave the building. I managed to grab my handbag and phone and I assisted my colleague down the four flights of stairs to get outside. Thank goodness I got my bag out. Little did I know that we would not have access to the building for a very long time. I don’t remember getting out very well, just that I had my head down and was helping my colleague with every step. It seemed to take forever. I was told later that the stair well had cracks all down it and the foundations of the building were all cracked. I hadn’t seen any of it thankfully.

As I came out of the building, I looked up and the first thing that struck me was the airy silence pierced with sirens – loads of sirens going off everywhere. I could hear crying and people talking and I could see people lying on the ground under blankets. People hugging and comforting each other. The other thing that really hit me was the white/grey haze that enveloped the city. I commented on it to someone nearby. It was a weird sight. I now know it was the dust from collapsed buildings across the city combined with smoke from the nearby collapsed CTV building.

Everyone from my building was congregated at Latimer Square, standing out in the open on the grass. It was a grey overcast day and everyone looked bewildered. We stood around not knowing what to do next, all in total shock. As I looked around I could see that the Christchurch Club, an old but beautiful villa, was totally collapsed. The next thing we had a huge aftershock which sent people screaming into the middle of the park.

Then my sister came running over from her building which was on the corner of the square. She had nearly been trapped in her office from falling filing cabinets. I was so happy to see her. Then I got a text from my mother so knew she was ok. My daughters had managed to get texts to me as they were desperately worried about their parents being in the CBD. Parents were coming to school and telling everyone that buildings were down in the city. It was incredibly frightening for them not knowing whether we were alive or dead. I wasn’t able to let them know I was alright because my texts weren’t being sent as the phone lines were overloaded. I had no contact from my husband who was in the Clarendon Tower building. Somehow I assured myself that he was ok because it was a modern building.

After some time at Latimer Square and the bosses checking on all staff and telling us the building had suffered significant damage, we were told to go home to family. My car keys were in the building so I was unable to get my car parked just down the street (and as it happens locked in the red zone for six weeks thereafter) – as it happened that didn’t matter as the streets were grid locked with traffic. Two colleagues and I ran through the city, down the middle of the road weaving through cars. It was like Armegeddon. There was glass everywhere and with the significant aftershocks more rubble was coming down from buildings, and the powerlines looked dodgy, swaying and some were half out of the ground from the force of the liquefaction. There was silt spewing across the road. Fortunately I had boots on so they got covered, but my colleague ended up taking her heels off and just walked through it in bare feet. It was like a scene out of a war movie.

Over an hour later I managed to get to St Margarets College and my daughters were extremely relieved to see me. They were very shaken up as their school is old and the buildings damaged from the last quake in September 2010. The girls and teachers had apparently run from the buildings, many crying and upset, so it would have been extremely traumatic for them. But by the time I got there it was a calm orderly scene with the staff, teachers and principal coping magnificently. Everyone was hugging each other and quietly sobbing. It was incredibly emotional. One of my daughters sobbed as she said that all she could think about was that she hadn’t said good bye to me that morning.

The girls and I then walked to Paparoa St School to get my son. As we walked through the suburbs there were damaged houses everywhere. The Merivale shops were badly damaged with facades down and Papanui road had been cordoned off. There was the risk of a gas leak. There was liquefaction everywhere and we had to walk through deep silt and water. The roads and pavements are cracked and buckled. Then there was a significant aftershock which made the girls and me grab each other and get into the open away from power lines. People were in the streets wandering around looking dazed. As we walked down Papanui Road, a convoy of about 5 huge cranes went slowly past us, heading to the city. It was a very emotional scene knowing they were going to rescue people.

We finally got to Paparoa Street School nearly two hours after the big quake. He had been well looked after at school but was one of the last children to be collected. Luckily he had been outside for lunchtime at the time of the shake but he said he saw the soccer goal posts shake and all the glass in the windows shaking nosily – he didn’t know what was going on. He said there were a lot of children crying and he felt quite upset. He didn’t understand why it had taken so long for me to get to him.

We were then taken to a friend’s place to wait for news from my husband as I still had had no contact from him. I felt quite helpless as I didn’t have a car to go and find him.

The girls assured me he must have been evacuated and had just left his phone on his desk. At 3.30pm (2 and a half hours after the quake) I eventually got a text which had been sent at 1.20pm saying he was trapped in his building. It subsequently transpired that the stairwell in the building had collapsed on one side and on the other, the stairs had come away from the wall. There were building alterations on the 8th floor, so there were issues with wiring, electrocution possibilities, water pipes burst. There were 50 of them trapped on level 9 but many more on levels above. They were stuck for two and half hours and eventually got rescued by the fire service by each of them going down the damaged stair well one at a time. It took ages he said.

He also said that at the time of the earthquake he was holding on to an internal pillar and saw the Cathedral spire collapse, at that point he was in tears. All I could think of was how terrifying it must have been to be in a high rise building enduring the large aftershocks.

A friend from Clarkeville came and collected us from Papanui. Thankfully when we got home to our house in Ohoka, it was fine. We are so grateful we came out of the CBD alive and so devastated for those who lost their lives. It could have been any one of us.

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