– Eastgate Mall (Linwood Ave), Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand

It’s been a long time. I go through phases of remembering and reliving that day, even now almost 6 years on. The first earthquake, in September 2010 was frightening. My husband and I emigrated from Scotland in 2007 and Christchurch was our home. We had our first child in February 2010 and we saw our future in Christchurch. We had never experienced an earthquake before and to be woken up very early in the morning like that was an absolute shock to our systems. We cried, we hugged each other, we felt uncertain like everyone else. Our life was interrupted for a short while and that was scary. However, a few weeks later life got back to normal for most people and although the aftershocks were unsettling we coped. As the months passed we often talked about that morning. Although it was frightening we both agreed that it was a once in a lifetime experience and it was kind of cool. We never dreamed it would happen again and this time cause so much grief and suffering and that it would change our lives.

It’s strange how we just got used to the aftershocks, they came and went and it was ‘normal’, they were manageable and we never really felt they were a threat. The day of the 22nd February was a normal day for us. My husband was due to start work at 2pm in the city centre and like a lot of other days we went to the shops to pick up lunch before he started. We were in Eastgate mall. My husband got in the lift with the shopping trolley and I took our 1 year old up the escallator. We had just walked off the top when the shaking started. For a split second I just thought it was an aftershock then the reality hit me. I held on to the railing at the side of the escallator with one hand and my son with the other. A second later I knew it was another earthquake and the fear hit me. The noise was terrifying, the ground shook violently and the masonry started to fall. Glass shattered all around us and the sprinklers came on. There was screaming and crying and fear in the voices of the people around us. The noise that sticks in my mind the most was the fire alarms, that noise haunts me. My son was screaming and just as I was trying to steady myself enough to lift him up a piece of masonry hit my shoulder and knocked me to the ground. The shaking stopped and I was able to stand up again, I grabbed him and climbed over the fallen roof panels to the exit. Once out on to the roof car park I found my husband and we just stood there crying. Our car had been crushed, luckily our dogs were unhurt. We got them out and looked for the exit. The ramp was gone, we were helped by security to climb down the uneven staircase with our son in the pram and 2 little dogs. My shoulder and neck had been cut and I was bleeding heavily. We stood in the middle of the open car park with everyone else, not knowing what to do. There was fear and confusion on the faces of the people around us. We just stood there. After an hour or so people started to disperse. We understood there were no police, fire or ambulances coming, we understood the enormity of the situation and that we must be the lucky ones. We did the only thing we could do, we walked home to North New Brighton. That walk home was so incredibly traumatic. There were long lines of people all walking to a destination, silent and scared and traumatised. We fell to the ground with each violent aftershock and continued our trek once the shaking stopped. We walked past people in tears on their front gardens, their houses reduced to piles of rubble. We walked passed cars that had been swallowed up by the ground, the liquefaction consuming them. We walked knee deep at times through water, sludge and liquefaction, power lines were down and sparked. We carried our son in the pram and dogs over our heads, people helped us get through the deapest water. We passed people being transported in the buckets of diggers, trying to get to their fallen homes and injured loved ones. I held a nappy over my wounds and preyed that I could stop the blood before I passed out. We walked and walked and walked for 2.5 hours. My husband, son and dogs walked home and I walked into New Brighton to find medical help. Luckily the medical centre were helping people. They were operating from the carpark and road because inside was dangerous. I sat with other injured people, silently, waiting for my turn. I was stitched there in the carpark and a lovely women offered me a lift home. The destruction on that 5 minute ride home was awful. Buildings were gone, streets were cracked, it was like a war zone. Luckily our house was standing as were most of the houses on our street. My husband was waiting outside for me, too shocked and frightened to go in on his own. Everything was on the floor, most things were broken, the toilet pipes had broken and there was water everywhere. We salvaged whatever food we could and set ourselves up on mattresses in the least damaged room. We sat there, in silence. As it got dark we lit candles and covered ourselves in all the dry blankets we could find. Our phones did not work and we could not get in touch with our friends, we were alone. We listened to the emergency radio broadcast, hoping for help to come. My husband and I spent that first night wide awake, holding our son as he slept, in complete shock and fear that the aftershocks would be the end of us. As day broke we started to think about our options. At last our phones worked and we were contacted by a wonderful friend of ours. We packed a bag and she came to get us and the dogs. The most remarkable thing about that day was the drive to her house in Belfast. The difference between the suburbs was unbelievable. There was no damage, no loss of power, no loss of water over that side of the city. The only evidence of an earthquake was some liquefaction in the parks around. We watched the news reports in horror as we began to understand the enormity of the situation. People had died and the city was gone. It was too much to cope with, I started to have panic attacks and flashbacks and we decided we had to leave. We had heard that Air NZ were doing special flights out of Christchurch and we decided to go to Melbourne, where my sister and nieces lived. We put our dogs in boarding kennels and our friend took us to the airport. We sat on the floor in the airport with many other people and waited for a flight. 14 hours later we got on a flight to Melbourne. I didn’t cope, I couldn’t get through the security doors without having a panic attack, the feeling of the plane taking off and any turbulence sent me in to a panic. It was awful. We arrived in Melbourne shell shocked. It took days before I could even speak or function on anything but a basic level. We had nothing, just an overnight bag. Things were donated to us, especially baby things and slowly we started to cope. I stopped listening to the news, I couldn’t cope with it, I just needed to focus on living. A week or so later we thought about the future. My husbands work was gone, but he had an opportunity to be part of a clean up team at another location and then to work there. He went back to Christchurch to work and look after our dogs. He spent weeks with no water, making use of the local help stations that were set up. I spent an extra 4 weeks in Melbourne with our son before returning home. He had cleaned up and fixed what he could and our water had returned. It was a shock to come back to the broken city that we thought of as home. It was a shock to learn how many people lost their lives. We mourned with the rest of the city. We slowly learned to cope with the changes, we lived our lives locally instead of venturing in to the city. We got through the aftershocks and they became just another part of living in Christchurch. The first anniversary came and it was difficult to deal with, I was having counselling which helped on the surface but underneath I was not the same. I’d lost my love for life and my love for the freedom that I had been seeking when we first emmigrated. Another year went past and I was pregnant, it was then I realised that I couldn’t see a future for us in Christchurch anymore. Although I coped with eachaftershock, I always looked on them as the last experience. I was always ready to say goodbye to life, the uncertainty was depressing. We made the decision to leave Christchurch and New Zealand to start a new life in Melbourne with our family. I knew I needed family support if I was ever going to feel normal again. I had our daughter in October 2012 and we left Christchurch for good in February 2013. It was bittersweet, I love Christchurch, I loved the life we made for ourselves there. I just couldn’t move forward. We were careful where we parked our car when we shopped, we looked for exits everywhere we went, we had emergency survival packs and plans and we never really fully relaxed. We lived our lives on the edge, just in case it happened again. When I closed my eyes I heard alarms and the ground shaking and screaming. It took about a year of living in Melbourne before I relaxed and started to forget the harsh reality of living in a city devastated by an earthquake. We have been here in Australia for 4.5 years and we have a good life and we are happy and secure. I have a large space in my heart for Christchurch and I often think about the good times we had and the wonderful people we met. Occasionally I think of the earthquake and it’s hard, even all these years later. Every February we remember, we always will. I have a traffic cone in my house that I’ve decorated and every anniversary I put it out the front with flowers in it. I’m just about to have a traffic cone with flowers tattooed on my arm too. We will never forget. Kia Kaha.

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