– Cathedral Square, Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand

In this story Peter Symms describes being rescued from the Regent Theatre on 22 February 2011. This story, and another telling of his rescuer Mike Ryan’s experience , were originally posted in response to a photograph submitted to the CHCH EQ Photos Facebook page

Memories of 22 February 2011
Many years ago we went to a lecture on New Zealand flora and fauna and were so impressed with what we heard and saw that we agreed that one day we would visit New Zealand and have a look for ourselves. After we retired we sold our boat and used the money to fund our first trip to New Zealand. We loved the country and its people, and took to spending part of every Scottish winter in Christchurch, staying in a rented house, enjoying the New Zealand summer and meeting up with local friends. We belonged to a walking group which is based on the YMCA on the edge of Hagley Park, and it was after meeting our friends at the YMCA on 22 February 2011 that we became a little too closely involved with an earthquake.

Our walking group had been due to take a bus trip, but it was decided to postpone the trip because it was raining. We were walking back into the centre of town to catch the bus back to our house when we passed the Regent Cinema on the edge of Cathedral Square and decided to call in and watch a film. There were only a few people in the cinema, and we were able to move our seats to get a clearer view of the screen. This turned out to be a bad idea, because the seats that we moved to were right under the part of the roof that collapsed onto us. There was a massive noise accompanied by violent shaking, all the lights went off and the sprinkler and alarm systems began to operate. We found ourselves lying half covered by debris and rubble from the collapsed roof, looking up at the sky above. My wife had managed to get to her feet but was bleeding heavily from deep gashes to a leg, and I had one leg trapped under collapsed seating. A large coping stone had landed about six inches from my seat, and debris had hit my head and caused fractures down my left side.

One of the other people who were seated at the front of the cinema ran out and shouted to the cinema manager that there were people trapped at the back. The manager quickly found three men who very bravely came in and started try to get us out of the building. One of them was the chief accountant for the company that owned the building, and he and the others managed, despite some heavy aftershocks to get us out of the building and into the scenes of ruin in Cathedral Square. There they and various passers-by did their best to stop our bleeding.

At this stage I started to black-out, having lost a lot of blood, and my wife was also bleeding heavily from a deep puncture wound and a very deep gash in one leg. She remembers a man coming up to us who announced himself as a St John first-aider who came from Glasgow. He commandeered a vehicle to take us to the hospital, which by then was dealing with around two hundred casualties. I cannot remember much more, except for hearing a nurse telling me that she was about to staple up a head wound. She later came to see me in the ward and expressed herself as very pleased with the way her stapling had worked ! My wife had her wounds cleaned and dressed, and then sat with me in intensive care. Later that night she thought that she should try and get home – there were no buses or taxis running. A total stranger came up to her and offered to drive her home. After a night in the house with no electricity, water or sewage facilities she was rescued by two of the best friends that anyone could have, who looked after her until we were fit enough to fly back to Scotland. One year on we are both well – excellent hospital treatment both in Christchurch and home in the Scottish Borders has pretty well sorted out my injuries and my wife has only some fading scars to remind her of the terrible events of 22 February.

What have we learned ? Well, we both survived when others did not. We are probably now more aware of human mortality than we were before, and we are even appreciating the uncertain weather of a Borders winter! We now know what it is to be so close to death, and both of us will never forget the experience of an awful natural disaster which took so many lives and affected so many people. BUT, most important of all is the way in which the earthquake and all its ramifications has shown us the very best side of human nature. George Orwell called it ‘the crystal spirit’, and it this spirit that we saw and experienced in Christchurch both on and after the 22nd February. We saw the bravery and indifference to danger of the men who rescued us, the unstinting help given by total strangers, the solidarity and pioneer spirit of Kiwis of all walks of life, and the amazing cheerfulness and lack of self-pity in everyone that we saw. Hospital staff were coming in to work from homes that were destroyed, and from situations where their worlds had fallen apart, to work cheerfully and with typical Kiwi humour as if nothing had happened. We love New Zealand – it has been like a second home to us, and we love the New Zealanders. We salute them, and wish them to know that we think that they are fine people !

Peter and Dorcas Symms
15 February 2012

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