My Earthquake Experience, by Tim Kerr – as recalled 20 May 2015
The February 2011 6.3 ‘quake that did so much damage and resulted in so many deaths was of no great moment for me. At the time I was employed as a temp driver for Steelbro, manufacturers of swing-lift container trailers. We had had a bit of a shake earlier in the day and all left the buildings and congregated in an orderly fashion at the CD area outside. Not a lot was happening, so we were dismissed. I was thirsty and had not eaten lunch. I climbed into my truck, an aged V8 Scania and with my copy of ‘The Press’ settled in for some lunch. Then my cell phone rang. Jim Takas, a friend of mine from Dunedin was on the phone. Was I OK? Well, of course I was! Then he told me a huge earthquake had caused chaos in the city. Shortly afterwards the stores’ manager Adrian Reid who was checking on damage and making sure no one was hurt or missing saw me. Surprised, he told me to go home as everybody else had gone. Finishing Jim’s call and following Adrian’s comments about going home I noticed there were a lot of cars on Treffers Rd, which was unusual for that time of day. So finishing my lunch I headed home. There was a lot of traffic and getting home was going to take a long time. This gave me an opportunity to fiddle with the radio in my van and tune into a radio station from which I learned this latest ‘quake was a bit of a shocker.
While on the Curletts motorway overpass I noticed dust and fine gravel had been scraped out of the expansion joints and I thought, ‘Hmm, the Council road engineers have been pretty quick to check joints,’ Which seemed oddly efficient. A small aftershock then explained the clean expansion joints! The joints moved back and forward a couple of centimetres against each other, throwing out more sand and grit. I felt a lot better knowing I was on top of the bridge, rather than under it, like a lot of other congested traffic! My van had four wheel drive, I considered cutting across some curbs and grassed areas so I could get home more quickly, but felt that I would upset other drivers who were forced to stay on the road. So, like the rest of the traffic, I just waited. But, I knew, at least I had an option.
At some stage when I was caught in the traffic I received a phone call from ‘Lucille’ or someone with a similar name. On the phone was my partner, Lois. She had had a hospital appointment, her car was locked away in a hospital car-parking building and she had to walk home. She told me she was on Colombo St, but of course, I could not pick her up as I was stuck in traffic. While I was unaffected by the ‘quake, poor Lois had had a hell of a time. She caught the lift to the correct floor for her appointment and arrived ten minutes early, 12.50 pm. The earthquake struck at 12.51 pm, sealing the lift shaft that Lois had just evacuated. The ward became a total blackout. The Hospital staff, Lois explained, were, with one exception, very calm in the total darkness and after a short period the emergency lighting kicked in. Setting off homeward, with no access to her car, Lois had trouble orientating herself due to dust, damaged buildings, water and sand from liquefaction and the large number of pedestrians. A stranger, ‘Lucille’ loaned Lois her cell phone so she was able to call me. In her call Lois stated she was in Colombo St, in fact, she was probably in Antigua St. And of course, as she was using someone else’s phone I could not call her back. Lois got home OK, as did I, and we were able to pick her car up early the next morning.
The damage, and the deaths, I think, helped Lois overcome her own experience and the level-headedness of the hospital staff was also reassuring to her.
I cannot remember there being much damage to our home. I guess the fridge door flung itself open casting the contents across the floor, same too, to the bookshelves with their books. With all the quakes I had personally not felt very threatened. Lois meanwhile, had taken to looking up Canterbury Quakes on the internet. While she focused on individual ‘shocks’ I would burble on about how the nature of large ‘quakes is there will be a series of aftershocks that would show, on average, a downward trend in size and frequency. And, of course, Lois had the graphics on the website – and she just scoffed at my drivel.
So, that, briefly, was my experience of the February 22 earthquake.
The First Shock
The first earthquake in September 2010 was, to us, an exciting event. Like most of Christchurch we were in bed when the ‘quake woke us up. I yelled out to Lois “Grab a pillow and get down beside the bed!” I grabbed a pillow and lay down. To my surprise, Lois joined me. Instead of doing what I instructed, she strode to her wardrobe and grabbed a dressing gown and then came over to my side of the bed. I guess she thought, if she was going to die, she would die in my arms, more or less modestly dressed! Frankly, I didn’t give a bugger about my own nakedness!
The earthquake pretty well ruined our chances of getting back to sleep for a while, so working carefully through the debris (there was some broken glass) I went outside and picked up our copy of the morning Press, and went to the toilet to have a crap. That was deliberate, for nothing is more uncomfortable when rescuing people from the wreckage of earthquakes than full bowels! My advice, do it immediately and at least it is flushed – even if the sewage lines are damaged.
At some stage I had popped outside for a pee – probably when fetching the morning paper. While doing so I heard an almighty rumble like a massive mountainside falling, so I assumed it was part of the predicted, massive Alpine Fault. “Well,” I thought, “This is a big ‘quake.” It was frosty outside, but we were tucked up warmly in bed with coffee, ‘The Press’, and our emergency radio. Sure, our bookshelves were chaotic, the house moved about a bit, but there seemed nothing particularly serious. We had food, heating (portable gas heater), a gas camping stove and gas hob on the kitchen oven, candles and even a few home-made candle sticks we made purely for civil emergencies. We also had a few days’ supply of fresh water. I used to joke that we would hang on to this or that in case of civil emergency. Our planning was not perfect though. Firstly, my bedside torch – which I kept in case of power cuts – had ‘new’ unused batteries in it. It was useless, detumescent to a tiny glow within minutes. Secondly, I had no bedside footwear. With a fair bit of broken glass around, footwear is very important. Finally, my advice to Lois to grab a pillow. Looking back after a few days I mildly wondered… I did nothing to save Lois – except yell out advice. I was clutching a pillow. What was the pillow really for? Protection from falling debris, or a trauma ‘cuddle’ toy – a substitute for a teddy bear? And why did I not stay on my feet to ‘supervise’ Lois, to make sure she was well protected from falling debris? It seems I was a bit of a coward – not heroic material at all!
With the streetlights still glowing, the two of us wrapped up and comfortable, as far as we were concerned it was a big earthquake, but not a particularly destructive one. We never thought to check on Lois’ mother or our neighbours! It may seem incongruous now, but the street lights were still working, so no reason to panic.
I had assured Lois that we would be safe from falling chimneys about 3 weeks before the September Quake
Later in the morning when we got up we looked up at our chimney. The ‘quake has caused it to twist and much of the mortar had fallen out. The top of an aluminium flexi-hose threaded down the original chimney connected to our gas fire in the dining room was cemented to the top of the chimney. It acted as a springy pinion allowing the bricks to move laterally, but preventing them from collapsing into a pile on the roof.
This little fella served as our chimney for two winters until an expert came along and disconnected our gas fire.
About three weeks earlier Lois had expressed qualms about the chimney in the event of an earthquake and I had reassured her that an old chimney held together with lime mortar is pretty safe in earthquakes as it collapses into a pile of loose bricks rather than toppling in one piece like a cement-mortared modern chimney probably would.
Liquefaction in Maces Rd, Bromley
I used to joke with Lois about her house in Stourbridge St. It is a modern, brick veneer home on a concrete platform foundation. I used to tell her that her place wold be fine in an earthquake, it would sink into the ground with liquefaction – but she would be OK as she would still be able to climb out through the windows! Despite my callous comments, I had never seen earthquake liquefaction forming until the earthquake in June. With the June ‘quake I was parked in Cumnor Terrace when I felt the truck move towards me. It was quite a gentle quake so it took a few moments to realise the truck was moving because of the ‘quake, not because I had left the hand brake off. I saw tiny cones of sand erupt on the roadside. Water began flowing out of these tiny sand cones spreading silently across the road increasing in velocity until within a short while the road was under water. Ironically, I had a job servicing Port-a-loos and I had to get my truck back to Bromley sewage plant to empty it. The roads were increasingly flooding and naturally there were traffic hold-ups. However, I was able to get down Pages Rd to within a block or so from the entry to the City Council pumping station. The road was closed, but I spoke with one of the traffic controllers, explained that my goal was to get through the short section of closed road and I was let through. I drove steadily through the water, which was up to the bottom of my doors, and got to the pumping station where I was able to empty the truck. Shortly afterwards I had to go down Shortland St and on the approaching lane I saw an abandoned car, nose buried in a large water-covered pothole. But I was OK and was able to get to the depot at the end of the day.
During the first earthquake we had a lot of soldiers from Indonesia and Singapore in the city on some form of exercise. They were tasked – along with New Zealand military personnel – to man the barriers to the central city. They looked militaristic and seemed to enjoy the responsibility of the task. The role was taken over by reservists from the three military services, many from different parts of the country. They performed an effective role. Though obviously un-armed, they had two advantages over the police force when it came to ensuring no-one entered without authority. Police are trained to act within the community and therefore open to discussion and argument. Not the army though. They didn’t have to relate to the community. To any argument to gain access – no matter how important – the response was. “No access. Sorry sir, orders!” Also, the army is trained in boredom. Their role in military history has been days, weeks, months of little action. Sitting or standing around an access barrier all day was a relatively active compared to some military roles!
Service men – and women – controlled access to inner city Red Zone. They seemed to enjoy the somewhat boring task and were more effective than the police
One of the soldiers had a bit of a soft spot for me. She would offer me her military-issue lunch. No bully beef and hard tack biscuit for our military service! Her lunch consisted of a white bread sandwich and some sort of manufactured stuff like those awful packets of gooey ‘dip’ cheese and crackers. Plus a piece of fruit, not very sustaining. Guard duty became a boring task but I think the reservists enjoyed it and it probably added to their reservist skills.
It must have been after the first, September earthquake. I was temping for EnviroWaste based in Barton St, Woolston. Two of us were tasked with entering the restricted area to remove dangerous goods from an outdoors goods retailer. We entered the shop at ground floor armed with a torch each, some plastic bags and the obligatory hi-vis vest and little plastic helmet. Our task was to remove all the camping gas canisters. I questioned the other guy I was working with about the fate of the gas canisters and was told that they would be dumped. A retailer’s entire stock of brand-new gas canisters to be dumped. The Gore-Tex jackets, expensive copper ‘Benghazi Burners’ and the rest of the stock was to remain in the shop. While we had access to reclaim the gas canisters I understand the retailer was not allowed entry. While we worked in the darkness of the ground floor, there was a team of workers on the first floor, whom we could plainly see as most of the façade of the building had been destroyed. To me, the restriction of access for retailers and business owners to claim their stock seemed to be a bloody farce.
The Water Tanker and Line Flushing
Line flushing and CCTV inspection of sewers and storm water drains. An endless task that had to be done
At some stage I finished temping for Steelbro, and was offered a position operating a vintage 1960’s tanker and ancient automatic Scania. The rig was owned by a company for collecting used motor oil. I used the rig to supply water to an Auckland-based company, ‘Drain Surgeons’. The operators I was supplying did not like me as the tanker contained minute fragments of a bronze-like metallic particles, which could damage the CCTV and equipment used in line flushing. I gave the tanker and its filters a good going over, getting rid of the filings, but I was not wanted. I tried offering the rig to other companies but none were interested, so instead I did a lot of temping work operating tankers and vacuum pump trucks for a range of contractors. Ultimately I was offered a temp job with TransPac a listed Australian company that had entered the NZ market with a campaign of competition acquisition. In fact the company had overstepped its assets in Australia and to reduce debt, had to hive the New Zealand operations off to a Chinese company. Not that this had anything to do with earthquakes! But, the tempo of the company was to hire slow men to take it slowly and to wear excruciating amounts of PPE. Not the tempo I like working in.
Sometimes you had to take a closer look – City pump station out New Brighton way
A Shit Job
With TransPac, a group of us had been hired as temps to drive and operate a small fleet of hastily cobbled together ‘dunny trucks’. Our job was to work our way round selected areas searching for, checking and where necessary emptying TransPac port-a-loos. What a job! The loos had been conscripted from different companies from all over the country, different makes with different methods of operation. One ghastly brand relied on a lever activated metal belt that after use, the poor bugger forced to use the damn thing, had to crank forward to scrape clean for the next occupant. When the crank worked! The only positive feature of this model was the reluctance of the neighbours to use them and their relative scarcity – so locals generally used another port-a-loo down the road. Which meant we did not have to service them very often – a ‘shit job’. The best, for ease of maintenance, were the simplest; a dunny seat over a tank of chemical impregnated water, toilet paper and shit. No fancy trapdoors, no water reticulation systems for flushing or washing hands.
This little one became my main shit truck. It wore out clutch mechanisms at a great rate. Several drivers were sacked for buggering it up. When having the little truck serviced I checked up on its history. It had had incessant clutch problems BEFORE it was allocated to the TransPac shit-collectors!
The World Hears of the Glory!
There were about ten or twelve workers in the original dunny cleaning team, but by attrition there remained a core group of whom, I mainly remember Lady Victoria and Maurice. Lady Victoria maintained she had a legitimate title, though her expletive-laden conversation would sow seeds of doubt on the veracity of such a claim. For some reason I called Maurice ‘Mor- reece’ rather than ‘Morris’. Maurice had met his first true love and though besotted with her, believed (wrongly) that other young lasses were irresistibly attracted to him. I phoned a reporter at ‘The Press’ to explain that no one had done an earthquake article on the shit collectors. Quickly overruling my own vain desire for publicity I suggested the reporter interview the other two. TransPac executives blew their collective stacks over publication of the article.
Maurice mentioned that one thankful earthquake victim had given him a box of chocolates in appreciation of the shit job he had been doing for her. And Lady Victoria was able to tell the readership of her important title. A harmless article, the executives a bunch of useless wankers. Fortunately both were able to deny they were responsible for the article and of course no one thought to ask me if I had had a hand in the story. So, at that stage, none of us were sacked.
One of the two most important extremities of the Human Condition
Sure, we had a shitty job, but as I was able to point out to my workmates – and others who curious about our work – that we “Serviced one of the two most important extremities of the human condition”. I guess we took a bit of pride in that and I have to add, many earthquake victims were appreciative of our work and yes, did offer tips like chocolate bars or boxes of chocolates. Gradually as the sewer system was repaired or houses vacated there were fewer dunnies to service. Maurice and Lady Victoria – among others – were sacked – not thanked and dismissed but sacked for minor infringements. Meanwhile, the operating base was shifted from Waste Management in McAlpine St Sockburn to TransPac in Frankley St Bromley. There I began working with a very taciturn fellow Don. More and more of our work was servicing port-a-loos for builders and re-construction crews and supplying port-a-loos for public events. Some loos were out as far as Coalgate on the plains and Wainui on Banks Peninsula. I enjoyed my daily cycle commute to and from the place, and the physical demands of the job, but our esprit de corps was wearing thin as we were absorbed into the main body of TransPac employees. We were no longer an elite, independent team, but just another couple of dopey, overweight, regulation-ensnared workers forced to work a physically active job in overalls. It was like working in a plastic bag! In the end I got sacked leaving only Don who carried on for months until he found a better job elsewhere.
Inner City is a curious mess
I was able to snap off a few shots when inside the inner city red zone. Most were taken while driving, so make little sense. However, some sites were quite enigmatic.
Mannequins suspended in an open frontage gently twisting in the breeze – unmolested for weeks. Bottom of High St and Manchester St
Cupola from the Regent Theatre Bldg. – originally 1903 Luttrell Bros designed Royal Exchange Bldg. The cupola mysteriously ‘disappeared’!
Inner city red zone
HR Experts in High Heels
The saddest aspect of my lowly work was the mindless imposition of PPE. PP bloody E; one of endless acronyms, this one standing for Personal Protection Equipment! SCIRT laid down many of the rules. We were supposed to wear full legged and sleeved garments, steel-capped boots, helmet, hi-vis vest – and safety glasses. We worked in shorts. Why not? If we got a bit of shit on our leg we wiped it off with a bit of old rag and the anti-bacterial stuff we used for cleaning our hands. What do you do with a bit of shit stuck to your overalls? Go home and get a clean pair? Yeah right!! At my suggestion TransPac had us inoculated against hepatitis A and B. Other employees had been working in the job weeks before I started – and no bloody inoculations! So much for safety in the work environment!
Of course we were all druggies, so we had to be tested randomly. If we had an accident (or a near miss) we had to report it. If we reported an accident we had to be drug tested. I was backing my truck up a steep, winding unsealed driveway on a farm property above Wainui on Banks Peninsula. My off-side mirror was totally obscured by vegetation hanging off the bank on my left. As I eased around a curve the rear of my truck struck a fence post. It did not damage the fence as there was no fence – just a post. However, I broke a tiny, flat reflector glued to the extremity of the truck deck. Being the simpleton I was expected to be, on my return to Christchurch I filled out a form reporting the accident. As a result, the next day I had to do a drug test – and I was reprimanded for not returning to Christchurch immediately after the accident. The truck, incidentally, had an additional pair of complying reflectors integrated into the taillight assembly. Asked why I did not see the post I explained that my view out the driver’s side mirror was of blue sky. With the vegetation rendering my off-side mirror useless and the post being on a curve, it had not appeared in my vision. I was prescribing a curve, the post was still behind the truck not yet in range of the mirror. No wonder the Christchurch rebuild is costing billions!
Many of the properties I had to service were down long driveways. As time went by the trees and shrubs down many of these driveways extended further out into the drive. We wanted to ask the owners to trim the driveways – but oh, that was not our responsibility! We had to go through our ‘management’ to get driveways trimmed. We tried that, it never happened. In a couple of places I took my own secateurs and carved a tunnel for the mirrors.
In some disability home in Innes Rd I was severely reprimanded for ‘ruining’ a garden. Stepping on the garden (amongst bloody roses!) I had to climb up onto the top of the truck and down the back to connect the hoses etcetera, then return over the top of the truck to start the pump and climb back over the top of the truck to access the hoses to clear the toilets. The ‘damage’ to the garden apart from a couple of inches of tyre tracks was minimal – and the most valuable plant apart from roses was convolvulus! I worked out an alternative way of servicing the toilets which involved reversing through a mass of undergrowth and skirting a brick wall. Here though, I had to ask the chatelaine to move her car. She only did this under duress. She was a bitch.
But what really annoyed me with our Health and Safety stuff was the universal instruction on how to lift a box. A box! What about a bucket of water? What about working on one’s own and the bucket is above chest level? And paper cuts. Oh dear, a paper cut is an ACC event worthy of a week’s recuperation!
Thank you to the ladies in high heels who design and educate us on safety in the workplace….
Servicing extremities of the human condition comes to an end
From time to time and as the frequency of earthquakes decreased I was offered other temp work. Some of it operating vacuum trucks or water tankers for sewer and storm-water flushing and CCTV operations. I did not enjoy the work for helmets (I hate wearing hats of any sort) safety glasses and overalls became compulsory. Often the hours were long by which I mean each hour was long.. And there were many of them! One day, when driving a little City Council Libraries truck distributing library books amongst the various city libraries an earthquake struck just as I was finishing the last pick-up for the day. I received a call over my phone telling me to ‘drop everything and return to the depot immediately.’ Well, I had the rear hoist down and some ‘buckets’ of books to stow away and tie down. Despite being ordered to drop everything I completed the task at hand. You only had to look at one or two years data to know that aftershocks were smaller, and if felt at all, more than 20 minutes apart. Dropping the task at hand and returning to the depot was silly. Finishing the task and getting into the truck was safer than returning immediately to a concrete depot to await another ‘big one’!
The Sociology of Portable Dunnies
Some attempted to make their Port-a-Loo a little more homely. I took pleasure in maintaining this one in Locksley Ave
Initially we did our best to service about 80 dunnies a day. In the period following the earthquake the port-a-loos were unpleasant for everyone, but especially so for the poor buggers having to use them. They became foul and there were too few for the affected population – and we simply could not do a good job on 80 dunnies a day. (A competitor had a fleet of trucks servicing about 100 dunnies a day – but with two operators’ per truck, we were on our own.)
A real party piece. The hosts claimed they entertained 40 guests in here! Pages Rd
As time went by, we were able to more properly service them and they became progressively more pleasant for residents to use. With more time and ability to do a better job came a sociological ‘map’ of the various neighbourhoods. For example the doggie poo bags that were tossed into the dunnies along Dallington Tce, Rockinghorse Rd and Sumner. Linwood from Oliviers Rd to Aranui would be smothered in graffiti and ignition attempts. (And no, the dunnies would not ‘blow up’ if a match was set to them, they were too well ventilated)
Typical builder’s loo – literally ‘The Office’!
Manchester St and parts of Phillipstown would have intravenous needles scattered around and in them. Dallington Wainoni schools and dunnies in Rydal Rd, Hoon Hay often contained packaged sandwiches and plastic lunch boxes and in Rydal Rd, lots of graffiti. In Heathcote and Avonside attempts had been made to feminise and decorate dunnies. In Richmond several dunnies were used as a deposit for bundles of ‘New World’ household advertising circulars. In Waltham and Sydenham it was great sport to deliberately tip the dunnies over, and around Hagley park and dotted about the city you could pick out underpants, women’s knickers and, oddly, bras. One dunny near the Avon Loop was used as a receptacle for shark fillets. Some, out Shirley-way were receptacles for disposable nappies.
The author working in Selwyn St just a couple of doors away from home. (Photo M D Kerr)
The work tapers off
As the immediate damage of the Canterbury earthquakes faded away rebuild opportunities arose. Some of the work was site clearance work driving dump trucks, but as this work declined I became more involved with ‘horizontal rebuild’ work. That is, the rebuild and repair of roads and drains mostly under the aegis of SCRIT, where full length sleeves and trousers, safety glasses, Lego helmet, gloves and high-vis vest were mandatory. No way will I work in 23-29 degrees dressed like that! So my earthquake experiences faded away. I have to state that despite the low wages and nature of the work I enjoyed it – and I felt I was doing something useful for the community, more useful and rewarding than voluntary work. Also, despite the grubby mess in some of the areas I worked, on the whole the work was appreciated.
Our own house repaired
We had repairs done to our home which in the middle of winter 2014 were scheduled for two weeks. We rented a campervan and set off for a trip around parts of the North Island. In the cold, damp winter’s weather plaster and paint work would not dry and the two weeks dragged on to seven and a half weeks. Unfortunately, when up in the Coromandel my partner’s mother took ill and we had to return to Christchurch. Reduced to having to overnight in Christchurch every second day or so and having to camp outside our own garage for many of those days, we were still thankful that we had not moved into a motel, to be trapped there for seven or eight weeks.