– Harley Chambers, 137 Cambridge Terrace

My story about February 22 2011.

I work for an Oral Surgeon in Harley Chambers, Cambridge Tce and the day of the earthquake started like any other day.

We had our visiting Oral Medicine Specialist across from Melbourne who had yet to experience a sizeable quake. His first patient of the day assured him we were in for another “big one” setting the scene just nicely.

The morning ticked along and we finished seeing our patients by 12.45pm, earlier than usual. The other nurse, Claire, went off to Les Mills gym in her lunch break and I took myself to our staff room along the corridor and proceeded to make my sandwich. The next thing I know the shaking started and increased in intensity and violence. My first instinct was to run outside but the shaking was so hard it was impossible to move without being tossed to the floor. I managed to make it to the doorframe and held on until the initial shake stopped. I don’t remember any noise but watched the walls of the old concrete building sway and ripple. When the first shake ceased I began to move down the corridor but only made it to the next doorframe a couple of feet away before it started up again. I could see the huge chandelier lights in the foyer swaying and have recollections of something falling but am unsure what. When that shake stopped I really wanted to go outside but ran into our reception area to find Ajith who was holding onto the doorframe between the consultation room and the operating theatre. He had a look on his face that I recognised well – shock. I called out to him to come outside and we ran out of the building grabbing another nurse who was running from the opposite corridor quite hysterical. Once outside we headed over the road to the riverbank.

I remember looking across and seeing the Provincial Chambers reduced to a pile of rubble, cars came to a stop in the road and one man jumped out to ask if we were okay. People were spilling out of buildings and police appeared out of nowhere and began to take control of the traffic. The next aftershock came with as much force and we held onto the lamp post and watched the river start to rise and change colour to a dirty dusty light grey. I said to Ajith that that had to be nearly a magnitude 8 and people had to have died.

I looked up Durham Street and noticed my sister running down the road toward Harley Chambers and spotting me she ran over the road. We hugged each other, happy to see each other alive and then she carried on intending to walk to Hoon Hay School to her children.

I sent a txt to our daughter who was at swimming sports at QEll and she replied asking me to phone her. I managed to get through and she had been dropped at Eastgate and was walking to her friend’s house off Ferry Road. I had mistakenly assumed she was with her friend and would be safe at their house.

I then sent a txt to my husband unsure of where he was, being mobile in his job and often up ladders in buildings. He replied with a four letter word so I knew he was okay but none the wiser as to where he was.

People were frantically trying to call or txt loved ones to check on them and I heard someone say it was 5km deep but at that time I still didn’t know that the epicenter was so close to our house.

I was concerned about Claire and kept looking out for her and we moved over to the Worcester Street bridge. What greeted us was the unforgettable sight of the Cathedral rubble lying across the square. It seemed to tower over everything else in the square and stripped the Cathedral of its grandeur.

I wanted my handbag so decided to go back into the building and Ajith asked that I retrieve his jacket from the staff room. I raced in and out as fast as I could and we stood a bit longer on the riverbank. It seemed hard to think about what to do and where to go. I had driven our son’s car to work that day and parked in my boss’s car park in Amuri Court on the second floor. Having seen the rubble in that direction, I was not going to attempt to go there and retrieve the car.

I then made the decision to head home but needed to change out of my theatre shoes and get my cardigan. I was at that point wearing Ajith’s jacket as I was shivering uncontrollably. The building owner’s PA and I went back in as she wouldn’t allow anyone in unattended and we raced to the staff room to get what I needed. It was difficult to get the door open, as many files had come down blocking the doorway.

Once outside again I checked on Ajith and said my goodbyes.

Lastly I received a txt back from our son, as he was to have caught a bus into town. He asked that I phone and I managed to get hold of him as well. He was still at home and describing the mess to me and what he had done. I told him I was walking home and would see him soon.

I crossed over the Worcester Street bridge to see a sea of people moving out of the square having been evacuated by the police. I continued along Oxford Tce and saw the Hereford Street bridge, which had pushed up on itself. Further along I noticed the gas burners still working outside a cafe on the Strip and then a man yelled to the policeman in front of me that the gas needed to be turned off. The policeman then quickly asked that everyone move away from the area. I began running behind him crossing over Cashel Street and not seeing the devastation there. When I got to Lichfield Street, I asked the police on duty there if I could cross through the city to get to Heathcote. He said no as there were people dead in there and told me to get a taxi or walk around the cordon. I saw the gridlock of cars and said I needed to keep moving, so carried on. A man asked another lad on his bike if he could have his bike to be able to go and check on his children. The young lad said no and moved off. I remember turning left up St Asaph Street but don’t recall crossing Tuam Street.

I walked in an adrenaline filled daze along the road keeping away from the footpaths and building facades. I saw one of our son’s friends in a car with his father and stopped to check on them. I remember an ambulance coming along St Asaph the wrong way and thought how odd that was. I kept taking my shoes off to move quicker as they were slippery wet, but had to keep putting them back on to avoid the glass. I crossed over Colombo Street and was amazed at the amount of rubble and collapse across the road but didn’t notice the No.3 bus. I saw the same at Manchester Street and remember noticing the scaffolding down across the road outside Beverley Studios along with the building. I continued up past CPIT and noticed some of the Catholic Cathedral damage which didn’t look as bad as it really was from Ferry Road. The liquefaction was quite bad along Ferry Road and I took my shoes off to wade through it bare foot. As I passed the Shell petrol station, I could smell petrol leakage and moved quickly, fearful of an explosion. I got to the Wilsons, Ferry, Moorhouse intersection and heard the distressed wailing from the Alpha Centre on the corner. I stood there watching the staff trying to move the clients outside and considered going over to help, but I couldn’t move. The desire to go home to my family was too strong. Once I crossed over Wilsons Road I noticed my cousin sitting on the grass outside her workplace eating lunch. I stopped to hug and talk and she was concerned about the whereabouts of her sister who works at McKenzie and Willis. I assured her I saw the building still standing and said I would look out for her mother further up the road at Dowsons. She offered to drive me to pick up Lana and then take us home but wanted to wait with her workmate who was waiting for her boyfriend to pick her up but he was stuck in traffic. I didn’t want to sit still so said I would keep walking. I turned up Dampier Street to pick up Lana and found her standing on the side of the road by herself. Her friend hadn’t been home and she was very upset but pleased to see me. We kept walking back up Ferry Road towards home. She was soaked up her legs from wading through liquefaction and was in bare feet. Once we crossed over Hargood Street I tried hitching a lift but no-one would stop. We came across two cars outside ANZ in Woolston and stopped to ask them if they knew about the Ferry Road bridge. They said it was closed to traffic but people were walking over it. Not wanting to take the chance that that was no longer possible, I asked if they would give us a lift to the motorway roundabout. They were happy to do that but cautioned us that their car was pink stickered. I assured them I didn’t care at that point and didn’t think the police would either. Once we were dropped off at the roundabout we crossed over the motorway bridge and dropped down to the tow path walkway. We moved quickly along and noticed the fissures along the path.

Then another big aftershock hit and we had our legs spread apart and held onto each other in order to stay up. When we neared the trees and pylons we ran until we cleared them, crossed over the Maori Village and over the soccer car park through our back gate. It felt good to be home but what greeted us inside was a huge mess. All our kitchen cupboards had opened and spilled their contents, as had the fridge. Any food in there was now spread far and wide along the floor and up the opposing cupboard doors. It was impossible to walk through the kitchen without wading through food and broken glass and crockery. The laundry shelves had spilled their preserves and sent them crashing to the floor creating a sea of pickled onions, gherkins, apricots and relish. We kept the dogs outside but they kept wanting to run away with the aftershocks, so we put them in the car. Shortly after, my husband came home. He had been in his van on the way to the Bush Inn shopping centre when the earthquake hit. He said that all traffic came to halt. Once the shaking stopped he continued on to find his workmate at the Bush Inn. There was debris on the floor where they were working, but they finished their job and then headed home. He had no idea of the scale of devastation until he began hearing radio reports.

We spent an hour or more clearing up the mess as best we could but seemed to make little headway. With no power, water or sewerage, we settled in for the night. The following day we continued cleaning for some hours carrying out so much mess. We had what started off as a small geyser in the driveway, which then became a large mound of liquefaction by the next morning. Our son tried taking some away in the wheelbarrow, but as it liquefied again it made for hard work so he built a small bridge to cross over it.

On the Saturday we had a visit from GNS to advise that there was a large rock above our house that could come down at any moment and we needed to go to the end of our section while they took it down. About half an hour later they informed us we were about to be evacuated by the police. We had 10 minutes to gather what we needed and find somewhere to stay.

The next four weeks were spent with friends not knowing if we could go home or not. Geovert spent three of those four weeks working on the rocks on Bridle Path Road and gave us the impression we could return home when they had finished, but nothing was heard. The communication with Civil Defence was scarce and it was difficult to find someone who could actually tell us what was going on.

Our friends were fantastic but had suffered a family loss of Owen Wright, killed trying to get home to Lyttelton over the Major Hornbrook track. He had been taken out by a large rockfall loosened with the last major aftershock. It was nice to be able to be there for them and help out where needed.

It is now 03 April and we are renting for up to three months until more major rock work is undertaken on Bridle Path Road before we will be allowed to return home.

Harley Chambers is a no go for us, having suffered considerable damage of the lift shaft and further cracking of walls in our rooms. Finally on 25 and 26 March we were able to evacuate out most of our gear and relocate to Normans Road, sharing another Specialist’s practice. Much of our gear was strewn around the floors with our operating theatre having suffered the most. Our theatre bed is on it’s side on the floor demonstrating to us the force of the shake as it is a very heavy bed. We began our first week of work a few days later on 29 March and are still finding our feet.

The whole event has tipped our lives upside down in more ways than one, but it’s nice to feel a sense of purpose now with work to go to and the comfort of sharing experiences with others. It serves to remind me of how lucky we have been despite our losses.

The aftershocks continue although not felt as hard at Spencerville where we are currently renting, and we begin the long wait to go home.

Sue Freeman

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