The September 4th earthquake, for me, was the worst. To wake in the dark from a deep sleep to feel the house pitching and tossing was bad enough, but the noise was, at least initially , the most overwhelming thing. I live in the West of Christchurch on land that was once part of the course of the Waimakariri River. Underneath my house must be an enormous depth of stones, boulders and shingle. It sounded as though every single piece of it was grating and tumbling on every other piece – absolutely deafening and very frightening. A 737 jet coming through would not have made more noise.
I stood under the door frame, although in retrospect I would have been better staying under the blankets with a pillow over my head in case anything fell. Anyway, to add to my fears, I had a great view (illuminated by a street light at that point) of all the doors in the hallway continually opening and closing. It seemed to go on for ever. I became convinced that with this twisting the framework must give way, but it didn’t. In fact, once the movement had stopped and I took a torch to look through the house, very little had happened. There were a few things on the floor, but the carpet had reduced breakages to almost nil. It seemed like a miracle.
The only thing to do was to return to bed and wait for daylight. The saving grace was being able to listen to Newstalk ZB. This semblance of normality helped me to calm down. I was so grateful to that announcer who left the wreckage of his own house to reassure others. Many people have said that this connection to a world that was still out there, despite everything, was a mind saver.
For many months after this my thickest jacket was hung on the bedroom door handle every night with my cellphone, radio, torch and keys in the pockets. On a stool, a neatly-folded pile of clothes and a pair of shoes ready to pick up. In my garage I still keep a large container of water, plenty of tins and packets of food (including supplies for my cats), meat in the freezer, gas bottles and camp cooker. I remain prepared.
My experience of the February quake was quite different and much less terrifying, perhaps because it happened in the daylight and was not an absolutely new phenomenon. I was eating my lunch at my work-desk on the first floor of a building in Strowan when it hit. I clung onto the door-frame, finding it difficult to keep my feet, looking at my boss hiding under his desk and watched a tall filing cabinet go over. As soon as the movement stopped I grabbed my keys and got out. Outside the air was vibrating with the screams of hysterical teenagers, the asphalt was cracked in many places and a thick clay-coloured liquid was pouring through. Shocked people just stood and looked, or comforted others. Out on the street, water was gushing out from every driveway. This reminded me that the original quake had disconnected pipes from water cylinders at neighbouring houses and I began to worry that water might be pouring through my house.
With absolutely no idea, at that point, of the scale of the catastrophe, I decided I had just sufficient time to get home and back to work before the end of the lunch hour, so I set off. All along the street were small groups of people with their arms around one another. The road was cracking as I drove along, and more sludge emerging. Suddenly I was no longer driving along the left-hand side – a large after-shock had thrown the car across the road (although I hadn’t felt a thing) and I had to swerve back to the left to avoid the oncoming traffic. Although the lights at the intersections were no longer operating, the traffic moved as though they were. By then the first deluge of vehicles leaving the city had arrived. I haven’t experienced, before or since, such courtesy by drivers. The traffic would flow on one street and then someone would stop to allow those in the other street to move. I needn’t have worried about the upcoming right-hand turn, as the oncoming motorist immediately stopped and beckoned me on. I had never had such a straight-forward drive home.
That something really horrendous had happened became increasingly obvious, as reports came through my car radio. I realised that I wasn’t going to get back to work that day and was wondering what I was going to find when I got home. It was almost surreal, in that after about 10 minutes of driving westward there were no longer people standing in gateways or other signs of disaster and damage. Everything seemed normal except that no cats were there to greet me on my return. I didn’t see them again for quite some time. The only indication of what had happened was some hours later when a young woman limped past my gate. She had been working at Westfield, her car was trapped in the car park and she had had to walk many kilometres home in shoes that had not been bought with that in mind. I still carry my car key round my neck while I am at work.