On February 22nd 2011 I got up as usual, dropped my daughter at preschool in the building next to my work in the suburb of Woolston on Christchurch’s eastern side, taught 2 classes and then packed up at 12.30 ready for our secondary teachers’ union meeting in the Christchurch Town Hall. I headed off to the meeting with my new boss in my car, and with another colleague, following behind in his van. He parked in Kilmore Street, just down from where Piko Wholefoods is/was. I parked in an old carpark building next to the Rep Theatre in Kilmore St, a building badly damaged by the September 4th quake.
The three of us walked along Kilmore towards the Town Hall. We had just crossed Colombo Street, when I remember something catching my attention, maybe a sound. I turned to my boss and started to say, “Is that…” when I was flung to the ground. To my right was a large truck parked in a loading zone. To my left was a patch of grass that stretched out a few metres before it edged up against the tall concrete wall of the Town Hall.
I remember bouncing on the ground as if I was on a trampoline. Curling up in a ball was all I could do to protect myself. I remember seeing my boss doing the same. As I looked left I saw the wall of the Town Hall bending towards the ground like rubber, seemingly only centimetres away. To my right my other colleague was holding onto the thick metal post of the loading zone sign. It was flexing like a big rubber band, waving from side to side, nearly bending to touch the ground. I remember thinking, “wow, he can stand, I wish I could!” He was shouting to us, “get away from the wall, get up against the truck!” I wanted to move away from the wall but I couldn’t. I couldn’t even crawl. Then somehow the shaking stopped.
I still cannot remember a single sound between about 12.51 that day and about 1.05 when the first large aftershock hit. I do not remember how I stood up or how I crossed the street. The sound during and after the quake must’ve been deafening, as when I crossed to the other corner of Kilmore and Colombo, closer to the river, I realized, looking up and down Colombo Street, that buildings were down in every direction.
There are a few things I remember between 12.51 and 2.00, when I arrived back to my daughter’s preschool. I remember hugging random strangers on the corner of Kilmore and Colombo. I remember no sounds, but I remember their faces so clearly that if I saw them in the street today I would stop and talk to them. I remember telling a few people who were by themselves to get the hell out of town. I remember my colleague yelling to me that we had to get out of the CBD. I remember looking up Kilmore Street, seeing huge piles of rubble around where my car was and thinking, “I’m not getting my car”. I remember texting my family “I’m OK”. I remember nearly tugging my boss’ arm out of its socket, nearly dragging her in my desperation to get out, away from the tall buildings. I remember stubbing my toes multiple times because I was wearing strappy sandals and the footpath was suddenly tearing up beneath me as the liquefaction took hold underfoot.
But by far the worst thing I remember as we walked along Cambridge Tce (alongside the Avon River) in order to avoid the high rises, trudging through ankle deep sewage and liquefaction, was the PGC building. When I saw that collapsed I just lost it. If my colleagues hadn’t yelled at me to stop looking I don’t think I could’ve moved.
I remember walking (quickly) around and past the cracked and leaning band rotunda, slipping all over the show in silt and water from the liquefaction. I remember crossing Manchester Street, where drivers were still sitting stationary and dazed in their cars. We crossed the Kilmore Street bridge by the fire station, where cars were stuck because the ground leading up to the bridge had sunk. I remember seeing people standing outside Centennial Pools in their togs, wrapped in survival blankets, wondering what to do and where to go. I remember seeing the Central Fire Station springing into action, and seeing several fire trucks whizzing past into the chaos.
I remember when we were next to Pico Wholefoods as this was when the first big aftershock hit. My colleague yanked me out onto the road as a shower of rubble from the Herb Dispensary hit the footpath where I had been walking. From here on we walked in the middle of the road.
Then there was the 45 minute drive to Woolston from Kilmore Street, a drive that would normally take 5-10 minutes. We only made it that fast because my colleague drove on the median strip, up on footpaths, along Avonside Drive, Stanmore Road and then to Ferry Road. I think we were expecting things to get better as we headed out of the CBD. But they didn’t. Every house older than about 40 years was a twisted mess. The road had unzipped, crumpled, opened up into craters. People had abandoned their cars and were walking.
We arrived at school at 2.00. Already the entire carpark and grounds was a wet, smelly liquefaction pit. I remember jumping out of the van while it was still moving and running to my daughter. I don’t think I let go of her for a long time. And then started the long wait to assemble with family who worked in the CBD, to start the long drive to our homes in Sumner together…