– Gilmour Terrace, Lyttelton, Canterbury, New Zealand

This is a transcript of an interview with Bertha Tobias conducted six weeks after the 4 September 2010 earthquake.

My name is Bertha Tobias, and I am 69, going on 70, and I was on Gilmour Terrace at the night of the earth quake. Well, we were in bed and I woke immediately and I knew it was an earthquake. I grabbed hold of my husband and forced him down the stairs and the stairs were swaying, it was almost bending back and forth – it was frightening. Of course it was pitch dark. And then when we got down and we had heard all things falling… there was glass all over the floor and the television set had crashed down and and my computer had crashed down and the kitchen was full of glass… And we were not hurt in any way. We were very lucky.

Then about an hour later our neighbour came over and checked on us, which was really nice of him. He sat and chatted with us for a while. The there was the Farmers market and we were on duty at the market and we thought “Oh no, nobody is going to come’, but when we arrived down there there were vendor already with their goods. And that was great. Everybody was chatting away and sharing experiences and then of course we had a lunch in the school grounds.

I am not sure what we did on the Sunday. I know there were lots of phone calls checking on friends and finding out what had happened. In fact we got really exhausted with all the phone calls and emails to reply to. I think that was the same for everybody, everyone was quite stressed out, all that rush of adrenalin.

On Monday and Tuesday we came down to the Info centre to see whether we could help. Can’t remember whether we were there on Wednesday as well. It’s…so much happened. I mean we didn’t do great things, there were other people doing wonderful clearing up jobs. I ended up making tea most of the day, tea and coffee for people who popped in and arranged for a friend to take someone shopping and then we also helped a few people who had chimneys down and …

The kind of things we did, we visited families with children, and where the chimney had come down everything was full of soot, so all their toys and books were covered in soot and we’d take that home and wash all the toys and wipe all the books and then take it back so the children had something to play with. And then Jules organised to get someone to clean up the house. So it was just little ways that we could help, and everybody was doing this, everyone was helping.

We mainly chatted to people who were really stressed out. People didn’t come in at first and I found if I went into the front office you could see people walking by and looking, not knowing where to go, so I would just go and say “Come in and have a cup of tea”, so they would come in and sit down and that was how we met a family that had moved over from St. Albans. And I had brought down a lot of felt pens and paper and the children were drawing, the parents just sat and relaxed and talked. That was mainly what people needed.

Then I got hold of a friend in Halswell who had offered to help on that side but was told that she had to be checked out, her background and everything before she could help, so she came here with her son and her son ended up spending a whole morning with an elderly woman in Lyttelton, just talking to her, looking at her family photos, little things like that that were important.

Oh well, I get into a state [with the aftershocks]. I am still shaking after the shake has gone and I am not sure whether there’s a tremor or whether its just me, and that is quite hard. Not having any family around, I found that quite difficult. I couldn’t just phone my sons, there is a time difference between London and here. My daughter was wonderful, she phoned every day from Sydney, and chatted with us. I did speak to my sisters in South Africa, but they couldn’t really relate to it, they didn’t know what it was like and of course after the first shock they thought ‘That is it, it’s all over.’ They are not really aware it’s still going on. I mean the Earthquake in Haiti was in January and they are still having quite strong aftershocks.

We went to a lecture the other night, and Mark Quigley said ‘You just have to remember that the earth doesn’t know what time is, it doesn’t go according to a clock and you can’t expect it not to shake at night or only shake during the day and it will just move when it needs to move’, so there is nothing you can do.

I remember [from the first week of the quake] little things people have said. Like friends of ours who said first thing they tried to do was dive under their bed and they realised they were too fat to do that … and I thought ‘yep!’, but it’s not only that, the beds are all much lower now… those little stories were really funny and another friend said that her fish tank had not broken but had sloshed backwards and forewards and the fish had fallen out and her labrador had charged for them and ate them all… so there were these kind of really funny things that happened, weird things.

Now I think I have pushed it all to the back of my mind and I am amazed at times looking around thinking “Gee, everything looks so normal, why does it look normal when we know what has happened?’ and then I relax and think ‘Ah well, that’s over,’ and then we have another jolt and all that adrenalin rushes again.

Yeah, I thought about it the other day, would I want to move, and a part of me has this feeling of flight, you know, lets get out of here and live somewhere else, but then you leave too much behind. We live in a lovely community and I really wouldn’t want to leave all that. I think the only reason to move… all of my family live overseas, if they were here that would be different.

One thing it does is, it brings home to you that we are quite insignificant, in the scheme of things, and that there is nothing you can do if there is an big event like an earthquake or tsunami, you are just like a little ant.

I think one thing that has changed – and this may wear off – but I walk down the street now and I think ‘Oh, there’s a crack there, I wonder whether that was there before?’ (laughter), and it probably has been there for years and I only just have noticed it, but now I see cracks everywhere. And I look at the house too and I think ‘Ooohh, was that crack as bad as that before?’ and when the wind blows you think, oh, maybe there was damage and now the wind will blow over the rest, but I think those things will fade.

Well, I think I feel quite angry about the new housing estates that were built on that sandy soil, because I think that was known. We could see the swampy land and yet they went ahead and I think that was quite immoral doing that. It’s one thing I feel quite strongly about. The other thing is that I am in admiration of the way that people rallied together and helped each other. I think that is just wonderful, and I think here in Lyttelton in particular. It’s fantastic the way people tried to help each other to get through it all.

This transcript is from one of a series of interviews carried out by Bettina Evans of Project Lyttelton. We are very grateful to Bettina and the interviewees for allowing their interview transcripts to be posted on QuakeStories.

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