– Riccarton, Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand

I first wrote this story a week after the September 2010 quake, and have only made some minor changes since then.

I was sleeping peacefully, very early on a Saturday morning, when I was roused by a shaking. Although not yet violent, it was probably about the strongest earthquake I’d ever felt, but in my tired state I saw no sense of urgency. Within seconds, however, the shaking became much stronger, and instinct took hold.

According to all I’d been taught, the safest place in my room to be was under the door frame at the foot of my bed, and so my wordless thoughts dragged me there very quickly. The house shook in the grips of a jerking sway. The ground rumbled and our timber structure creaked. It was that unmistakable earthquake sound: the occasional crash, smash and bang atop the quake’s unceasing rhythm. This was it: the big quake I’d always longed to feel; and here it was, unexpected and thrilling.

I shouted out to my flatmate to see if he was awake: a silly question really. It turns out he was contending with falling furniture and miscellanies. He replied to check that I’d taken cover, and probably mumbled something about his own predicament. At one point I tried opening his door to check on him, before changing my mind; but I spent most of the quake hugging my doorframe.

Then it stopped.

My flatmate emerged from his room and we exchanged a few words in the power-deprived darkness. I was just about to go downstairs when the first aftershock came, bold and unnerving. And then peace settled. Not that the screech of a hundred security alarms, and the feel of a shaken city coming to life, can quite be described as peace.

A smashed lightbulb littered our entrance, but only because it had been lying on a pile of computers at the top of our stairs. One level of a shelf had collapsed in the lounge, and my flatmate’s top-heavy bench press had toppled into the garage door, forcing it open and damaging the locking mechanism. That, however, was the limit of damage in our house.

Our first priority was to check on our neighbours, so I donned slippers and a jacket. Our first neighbour – an elderly gentleman, whose wife is wheelchair-bound – was quite alright, but profoundly grateful that we came knocking on his door so soon to check on him. Next we thought we might be needed at the neighbouring rest home. There confusion reigned supreme. An old man sat outside; we spoke briefly with him, then my flatmate knocked on the door. An old lady came out. We didn’t get much sense out of them, but were informed that there were people crying inside. It didn’t seem that we could be of any assistance, so we left them to it; there were no doubt caregivers inside.

It must have been about now that I thought to send some texts. First to some nearby church friends, who had some overseas visitors staying with them: “We fine. You all right?” Then, four minutes later, I contacted my parents: “Had a big earthquake. Several aftershocks. We’re fine.” There, hopefully my mum wouldn’t be worried sick. The texts would continue over the coming hours, as we checked on all our church friends.

The first friends we texted didn’t reply instantly, so we decided to pay them a visit. I quickly pulled some clothes on and we got in the car. Then it occured to me: I didn’t have my keys! So I went back inside (using my flatmate’s keys to open the front door), and ran upstairs to get my keys, wallet, and spare phone battery. These grabbed, I tried to shut my bedroom door, but my bedclothes got caught (as they always do with my current furniture configuration). I pushed them out of the way and slammed the door, but again they caught. I tried this several times, thinking it would be better if the door didn’t swing in the aftershocks. Having eventually managed, I ran back downstairs, only to realise I’d left my flatmate’s keys somewhere. Thankfully I quickly found the keys on my bed, but then I had to contend with the door again. The combination of adrenaline, darkness and panic was quite lethal: it had rendered me completely uncalm and erratic.

I hurried back into the car, and away we went, snatches of news starting to reach our ears through the car’s radio. Upon reaching our friends and visitors, we quickly decided on an impromptu trip to check on other church friends and inspect the earthquake’s aftermath, and so everyone jumped into the 4WD, the girls still in their pyjamas.

We drove into the CBD, and thus were among the first “rubberneckers”. Power was out almost everywhere; very few traffic lights were operational. Nevertheless the roads were surprisingly quiet, and so we wended the intersections with no difficulty.

The scale of damage was a shock to us. The heart of the city had been hit hard. Many brick buildings were heavily damaged, and countless old façades had collapsed. The top storey of one building had cascaded onto the road below. I thought I could see beds upstairs, so I suggested that we stop in case someone needed prayer. I was pretty confident that someone in that building must have died, or at least been seriously injured, but equally confident that, as children of the Living God, our prayers would be effectual. However, unable to park just there, we rounded a corner and carried on, swept up in a torrent of astonishment at everything we saw. Thankfully I was wrong; nobody had died in that quake, and serious injuries were miraculously scarce.

First we visited some Australian friends. Another Aussie friend, rightly petrified that his old apartment building might collapse, had stubbed his toe as he vaulted the stairs out of the building, and made his way (in bare feet and pyjamas) to these other friends of ours. He had a bad flu, and desperately needed to get inside and warm up. The driveway on which he was parked had buckled in the quake; our feet put holes through the cracking tar seal beneath us.

We continued checking on everyone in our church who lived nearby. Everybody was shaken and awake, but everybody was fine; the only other injury was a grazed shin from a falling TV. Everyone was grateful for our effort to check on them, but some were shocked that we’d braved the roads, having heard reports of nearby suburbs that had been heavily damaged.

I was messing with mine and my flatmate’s phones pretty early, but it wasn’t until almost two hours after the earthquake that I managed to post my first Facebook update: “BIG quake this morning. Everyone in fellowship fine. Jenny, Karen, Ben and Chantal fine. Lots of damage in city centre.” My excuse was letting the friends and families of our visitors know they were fine, but everyone knows I’m a Facebook addict; the quake-related updates would continue for many days to come.

It was an exciting day. I didn’t bother trying to get back to sleep. Although usually I’d still be sound asleep, survival instincts had completely awoken me, and I felt it would be useless trying to get back to sleep. A number of aftershocks sent me scuttling for the doorframe. I soon resolved to inspect the damage nearby, and see if the supermarket was open to get some meat for a barbecue (thin though that hope might have been).

The earthquake’s impacts were very close to home. There were ruined shops only metres away. As their owners arrived to survey the damage and tidy up, I hovered to see if there was anything I could do, but there wasn’t. For now all they needed was space.

Outside the supermarket a crowd had assembled. Whether they were volunteers or employees I do not know, but the man giving them a pep talk was optimistic that they might have Pak ‘n Save operational within a couple of hours. It took them quite a bit longer, and some supermarkets beat them, but the speed at which society rushed to get back on its feet was impressive.

We improvised quite a delicious barbecue, with fish fingers, sweetcorn fritters, baked beans and spaghetti. Later we found the Farmer’s Market still running, and so bought some bread that could be used for lunch. The lady who sold the bread had been baking when the quake hit. Some bread was lost, but her electricity wasn’t cut off and so she was able to continue baking.

We found a burst water pipe which made for quite a fountain. This was one of many photo opportunities for our visitors.

We ended up spending the rest of the day on a friend’s mini-farm. By this stage power had been restored to our house, but there was something exciting about going back to the basics, even if we were closer to the quake’s epicentre, and even if “the basics” simply meant the power used to watch a DVD on the big screen came from a generator instead of the grid.

The Canterbury Earthquake, at 7.1 on the Richter Scale, was the most damaging earthquake in New Zealand since the Napier Earthquake of 1931, yet there was no loss of life. The media called this miraculous; a better description would be hard to come by, for it gives credit where credit is due. Although sound engineering can account for a low death toll, only a miracle could have avoided one altogether. Had the earthquake been a few hours earlier or later, there would certainly have been deaths, and far more casualties.

The aftershocks have continued for quite some time, much to the horror of some, but much to my excitement. The gravity of what’s happened still blows me away when I think about it. I’m amazed at what actually happened, and that I was a part of it. The Canterbury Earthquake is an experience I shall treasure, and I shall always delight in telling its story, even if an account as long as this still misses most of the details.

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