It was lunchtime. My husband Skry works in the same CBD office as me, so he joined me and we walked out into the grey day. We went to Subway on High Street and chose our takeaway lunches, then I made Skry wait another minute while I popped in to Hanafin’s Pharmacy next door to buy some lip balm. Finally I was ready and we walked back down Hereford Street towards our office building, chatting and swinging our lunches in their plastic bags as we went. We had just passed Shand’s Emporium and I was pointing out an interesting vintage dress in their display when the world changed.
Without warning, the street began to bounce. Every building was being shaken up and down and the shaking quickly became violent. Bricks and glass started to crash down around us from all directions. Skry screamed at me, “Jen, get away from the buildings!” and he grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into the road despite my protestations that we would be hit by a car. We grabbed on to each other for support but were unable to stand straight or travel in any particular direction – we were being flung around as if we were trying to walk on a trampoline while somebody else bounced on it. The noise of smashing bricks and glass was incredibly loud. Other people around us were screaming and crying, and I fell to my knees despite Skry’s grip on my arm. Adrenaline flooded my system as Skry pulled me to my feet and we clung to each other in shock and disbelief. We staggered into the road between the stopped cars and hung on to two other people who were also trying to keep their balance. The sense of helplessness was overwhelming. For all man’s delusions of grandeur, the fine buildings in this city were at the mercy of the ground beneath them and there was nothing that any human being could do to make it behave differently. We just had to ride this out and hope for the best.
The shaking seemed to go on for ages and when it stopped we were all in shock. Skry and I stood in a circle with complete strangers, hugging and reassuring each other. One girl in our circle would not stop screaming. The dust in the air was choking and our eyes and throats were full of grit. When we had recovered our senses enough to look around we realised that the brick-built Mythai restaurant building beside Shand’s (which had been damaged in September and was still under repair) had partially collapsed and we had narrowly missed being hit by it. Skry noticed that the glass façade of a café near us had smashed and fallen out, and he left me standing in the street by myself to dash in and see if anybody needed help. The staff inside shouted at him to get out, as they were all fine, and he ran out again within seconds. There was a huge aftershock and more glass came down around us, but not near enough to cause us any harm. I suddenly remembered that I had my camera with me, so I pulled it out of my bag and took a few quick photos of what was around us. I wasn’t thinking clearly about what might really be worth photographing, but took photos of anything that caught my eye. I was fascinated by the damage to the pavement and kerbstones. They had only been laid a few months earlier and were made of concrete, but they had buckled and broken as if they were made of cardboard.
We knew that our colleagues would want to account for everybody who had been in our office building that day, so we walked in a daze towards the evacuation point for staff, but when we got to the Hereford Street bridge across the river it was buckled across the middle and there was an obvious ridge where the two ends of the bridge had been pushed closer together than they were designed for. I hesitated but Skry persuaded me to jump over the ridge and get to the other side before the bridge was closed off for safety reasons, so I hopped across. I turned back to find him standing on top of the ridge taking photos, and shouted at him to get off it. What if we had another big shake and the gap opened up and closed again? It would crush him as he fell through.
When we got to the corner of Cambridge Terrace and Hereford Street, we quickly realised that we couldn’t get to the designated meeting point beside the police car park from where we stood. Bricks from the old library building on the corner had collapsed into the street, and it was obviously dangerous. The police were streaming out of their headquarters building across the road and had already closed Hereford Street to the public. As we stood assessing the situation we spoke to two young German tourists who were among the crowds of people wandering around looking lost. The girl was just standing there while the boy took photographs. They looked fine until I asked if they were okay and the girl burst into tears. They said that they are leaving the city as soon as possible, and I don’t blame them. What a horrible thing to happen on holiday in a foreign country.
We were directed along Worcester Boulevard by the police, which led us past the front entrance of the CCC building. It seemed empty and deserted, and we could clearly see that all the decorative glass above the front foyer had smashed and fallen out. Another huge aftershock sent us running in to the street again, away from the buildings, but it didn’t seem like anything else was going to collapse so we kept walking when the shaking stopped. We kept well away from the St Elmo Court building, which had been damaged in September but was now visibly cracked on every side and seemed a likely candidate to collapse at some stage. Hereford Street had been closed off by the police at that corner too and the street was flooded with water.
We carried on up Montreal Street and found some people from work milling around beside the post office car park, so we checked in with them. I felt happy and relieved to see everybody safe and sound, and was quite bubbly as I greeted everyone I recognised. We managed to get a couple of quick phone calls through and could establish that Skry’s brother Phil and his wife Lou on the other side of the city were both safe, and I called my sister in Wellington to pass on the news that the four of us were unhurt. Another work acquaintance passed by and offered me and Skry a lift home in her car, which we gratefully accepted. We walked to where she had parked a couple of streets away. As we passed by one multi-storey apartment building on Montreal Street there was a woman screaming and crying on the pavement. I tried to reassure her that everything was alright, but she was pointing up to her balcony.
“That’s my kitchen! It’s fallen down!”
I looked up and could see that her kitchen ceiling was now swinging at waist height. If she had been in there when that happened it must have been terrifying. I kept trying to reassure her that the worst was over now and it was only a kitchen, but another man beside me intervened.
“Leave her. Her kids are still at school and she doesn’t know what has happened to them.”
He was right. There was nothing I could say or do to help her feel better. We walked on.
Crossing the bridge over the River Avon felt a bit risky, but there was no alternative route if we wanted to get to the far side. The river was almost bursting its banks and was a murky grey-brown colour, with an unpleasant smell. Cars drove slowly over the visible cracks in the tarmac surface, no doubt each one full of people who were praying that there would not be another big shake before they reached slightly more solid ground. Traffic was already bumper-to-bumper and would only get worse as people tried to make their way across the city and found routes blocked or bridges broken. Every traffic light was out and drivers had to navigate each junction cautiously. Nobody could rely on the other frightened panicked people to remember the rules of the road or to give way when they were supposed to.
When we finally reached the car I realised that I really needed to use a toilet because I was so nervous that it had affected my bladder, but of course there was no toilet nearby that I could get to. I crouched down out of sight of the others behind a building, but was torn between not being visible and wanting to keep my distance from a large air conditioning unit which was fastened to the wall above me. It seemed to be fastened securely so I crouched down and did my business. It never occurred to me at the time that the wall itself might fall on me, but looking back I can’t believe I thought that situation was at all safe.
We got into the car and set off, but the traffic was going nowhere. We flicked on the radio. Every channel was broadcasting the same show, which was live information about what was happening in Christchurch, but it was frightening and depressing to listen to as we still lived through it. After a while Skry and I couldn’t take any more, so we just got out and joined the crowds of people making their escape on foot. There were other familiar faces from work on the same path so we chatted among ourselves, but conversation gradually faded as our steps through areas that had been far more badly hit than anything we had seen thus far.
The walk through the CBD was horrific. So many buildings had partially or completely fallen down. We saw a whole row of shop fronts on Colombo Street collapsed into the road, and a bus crushed under rubble. Cars were crushed under the rubble too. This had happened at lunchtime and I walk down that part of the street at lunchtime at least twice a week. It was way too easy for me to imagine how busy the street would have been and how terrifying it must have been. I could feel my mind trying to slide away from me so that I didn’t have to think about anything that had just happened.
Liquefaction had hit the whole area hard and the roads were covered in thick black silt and puddles of water. Pedestrians wandered between the cars like robots, not wanting to get too close to any of the buildings in case they collapsed. Occasionally somebody would forget to be careful, and somebody else would shout at them to get back into the road. It felt so unnatural to be using the road rather than the footpath and habit often put us back in the danger zone under the shadow of a building.
We reached Manchester Street and it was another scene of devastation. It looked like the street front where Smiths Books stood had collapsed, and a lot more around Manchester Street too judging by the cloud of dust visible in the distance. We had planned to walk up Tuam Street but it was already closed off, so we carried on up St Asaph instead until we could reach Tuam Street from Fitzgerald Avenue. We could see huge chunks missing from the McKenzie and Willis building and could see that the broken-in-September buildings on Madras Street had become far worse and partially collapsed. Every couple of minutes we saw another roof at a crazy angle, or a wall fallen to the ground, or a parked car crushed under masonry.
We met a lady who let us have some water to wash the dust from our throats, and spoke to a lot of strangers. Everyone reaches out to each other at a time like this. Fitzgerald Avenue was a mess. We picked our way through inches of sludgy silt until we reached our junction and the lady carried on by herself while we turned off onto Tuam Street. We passed by a place called AJ’s, which turned out to be some sort of day care for mentally disabled adults. The staff had already gathered everybody up and they seemed to be having a nice relaxing time on the street as they waited for transport elsewhere. We stopped to chat for a moment. A little man with Down’s Syndrome pointed at the sky and told me that “the earthquake came from up there.” He obviously knew that something bad had happened but was hazy on the cause. I told him how brave he was to be so calm after something very scary, and we walked on. Further up the street Skry saw a boy that he recognised and we stopped to make sure he was alright. The boy said that he’d heard the steeple had fallen off the Cathedral.
At some point on the long walk home, I looked down to see that I was still clinging on to my Subway lunch. So was Skry! Neither of us had consciously decided to keep them, but we had carried them through the earthquake itself, through meeting up with our workmates, and through the walk from the shattered city centre. I had obviously fallen on mine – it was more like a panini than a sub by this stage – but it seemed like a good idea to take it home. I put it into my handbag, along with Skry’s, and we continued up Tuam Street.
We stopped by Phil and Lou’s rental house to see if it was okay. Skry peered through the windows and could see that there was very little damage. He phoned Phil to let him know. At the same time Phil had just reached our house, coming on foot from the opposite direction, so he was able to let himself in and report back to us too. It was wonderful to hear that the house and garage were both still standing, although a lot of things had fallen down indoors. Phil agreed to wait for us at our house rather than go to his place, so that we could all stay together. Lou had been at work in a different part of the city and was still trying to make her way across to the east in her company car, but we all knew that the traffic would be a problem and she might not return for several hours. Our house had more space for the four of us, and more provisions for an emergency, so it made sense for us all to go there together.
The rest of the walk from Phil and Lou’s house to home was a blur of fallen garden walls lying across the pavement, damaged houses, thick sludge caused by liquefaction, and cracks across the roads. Aldwins Road was a mess of cracks and silt, and cars were carefully navigating holes that had appeared in the roadway. The culvert in Linwood Park was full to the brim with stinking, muddy-looking water and was flooding onto the grass in places. The retaining walls of the culvert were pushed towards the centre, as the land itself had expanded and slumped. The rugby pitches were flooded and the footpath was buckled and cracked.
Phil was waiting for us when we reached our house. I nervously opened the door and peered into the living room. All the bookcases had fallen over again, spilling their contents, but once again the television was still fine. Everything had fallen out of the kitchen cupboards and the kitchen was a mess of broken glass and crockery, spilled food, coffee granules, and half-melted food that had fallen out of the freezer. The microwave had fallen off its stand and hung swinging from the plug, broken.
Our landline phone was still working, so I used it to call my parents in Ireland. They hadn’t heard much news as it was the middle of the night there, but they were very relieved that we were all safe. As I was on the phone, a large aftershock struck and the whole house bounced and juddered. After living through so many aftershocks since September, and so many over the last few hours, I was rather blasé about it and kept talking to my mother, who could hear the noise through the phone line. Skry screamed at me from the doorway to get out of the house, and reluctantly I put down the phone and joined him in the garden. He seemed far more upset by the aftershocks than I was. I wondered if it was because this was his first experience of anything like this, while I had had some practice in September (while he was overseas) and had to deal with it all by myself. He was right to be cautious, of course, but I felt like I had already used up all my fear six months earlier. I didn’t want to think or acknowledge that I might not be safe in my own home, even if that might turn out to be the case.