– St Albans, Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand

4:35am 4 September 2010.
I dreamt a noise. A low hum, a rumble.
I sat bolt upright in bed and yelled “It’s a big one!”
The floor began to vibrate. I felt as if I was standing on a plucked violin string. The sound of smashing bricks, shattering glass, thunder, grinding rock, shouting earth was travelling towards us, fast.
I leapt up and ran for the doorway. It was dark, but light enough to see. I held the door jamb with both hands. The floor breathed in. It moved like a giant arc rising under my feet.
The sound hit, the floor jackhammered. The door jamb slammed back and forth. I swear it moved 5cm. Where was Terry?
“What are you doing?” I yelled, straining to hear myself above the noise.
Terry stumbled around the bed losing his balance. He made it to the door.
He put his mouth close to my ear “Couldn’t walk”.
“When you can, fill the bath and I’ll meet you back here” I said. “The pipes will probably break soon”.
“Where are you going?” Terry asked.
“To get Matt”. Matt was 14 years old.
I would probably get 20 seconds between shakes to run down the hall to Matt’s room. I breathed in. One, two, three. Breathed out, slower. One, two, three, four five. My heart was thumping. I had to wait. Could I make it to 10? The shaking was slowing. Should I go now?
I ran. Too soon. The floor of the hall came up to meet my feet. In the dark it was hard to keep my balance. I bounced off the walls but made it down the hall. Matt was in bed. His model planes were swinging wildly on the ceiling, and he was looking at them, trying to figure out what was going on. I sat on his bed.
“Hallo sweetheart” I said. My breath eased. He was fine.
Between a gap in the curtain, we watched the chimney next door tumble down. Bricks bounced, denting their iron roof, cascading over the fence, on to our driveway, gouging holes in the tarseal.
“Grab your dressing gown, and we’ll wait in the dining room door for our chimney to fall down” I said. Nothing had happened, we were fine.
Matt’s room was small, and the steel roof light. There was not much to fall on him, but we had practiced all getting under the large dining room table during an earthquake. After all, this could be the fore-runner of a much larger quake. The Alpine Fault was predicted to move up to a magnitude 9. If it did, our concrete tile roof – a tonne about our head – could shake apart, and come through the steel roof above his room.
Matt got up, stood in the bedroom door frame with me, and when the shocks subsided, lurched down the hall towards the dining room. Terry was still running the bath water. Glass smashed as the picture on the mantelpiece fell. Dammit.
“I need my slippers” I said.
“I’ll get the torches, too” he said.
Our chimney hit the brick porch with a thud. The whole house jumped.
“That was lucky” I told Matt “the chimney could have coming through the roof”.
“Slippers. Here.” said Terry.
“We’ll need a duvet too, and the radio”. I said, holding Matt. “Right, under the table!”
We ran and sat under the dining room table. Terry headed back into the bedroom and brought us the duvet and radio.
“The water has stopped” he said “but the bath is full”.
“What do we do now?” said Matt.
“Keep warm and wait ‘til the shocks stop. It’ll only be ten minutes or so”. I held him tight.
In the dark, under the dining room table, we sat wrapped in a duvet.
“All I could think about was you” I told him.
Another shake hit, and our standing lamp wobbled. I reached to steady it. The glass shattered on the floor.
“Bother, missed!” I hugged Matt tight. “Terry, are you coming under the table?” Terry slid under with us.
“Cut my finger” he said “had to get a plaster”.
He sat behind me, hugging me and Matt.
It seemed an age, in the dark, for the shocks to subside. Adrenalin surged through us. Our hearts were beating fast. Every instinct told us to run, but we stayed put. Eventually the shakes subsided.
“I’m going to clear up the glass” Terry said. He slid out, got the broom and swept the floor. “You can probably come out now”.
We sat on the couch and turned on the radio. My hands and legs were trembling and my heart was pounding. We hugged again and waited for the morning light to come.
“Won’t we be best under the table?” asked Matt.
“We should be alright, hon. That’ll be the worst one, and we’re OK. The next shocks won’t be as big, but there will be lots of them” I said. “There’s nothing to fall on us here. Besides we can always go back under the table later. We’ll stay close to it”.

Radio New Zealand announced there was a quake, and that they were waiting for official advice. The Beach Boys song “Good vibrations” played. We looked at each other and started to laugh. The song was abruptly stopped.
The sheepish announcer said “You are now listening to a reporter in the initial stages of losing his job”.
We laughed some more.
News of the quake began as a trickle. The interviewers asked officials at Civil Defence lots of questions. What is the damage? Has anyone been killed? The patient Civil Defence man stated the obvious. People were in bed at home and not at work. It was dark. The power was out. That made it hard to see. When the sun came up, there would be some light. That would make it easier to see. Dawn was a few hours away. People were probably having some breakfast and getting changed. When they got to work they would start to find out what had happened. It would take a while to figure out the extent of the damage.
There was no real advice for a couple of hours. There seemed to be no process in place for official information to be provided.
Then “There is no threat of a tsunami” and “Don’t use candles”.

We gave up listening to the radio and texted our family to let them know we were safe. Soon the phone lines were overloaded.

We were well prepared, with lots of tinned food, dust masks, first aid, gas burners, torches, spare batteries and water. We just needed a toilet and would dig one soon enough. We went outside. The sky was clear, and the stars bright. There were few cars on the street, and few people. Everything was eerily quiet. We could see other people, shadows, moving down the road. We waved, they waved back. Had it all really happened?

Dawn seemed to take an extra-long time. We got dressed, had breakfast and went outside. It was a gorgeous, warm day. With a great stroke of luck, the re-enforcing rods of our chimney had sheared off at the base and it had fallen in two shattered lumps next to the house. Six tiles, and the hole would be repaired.

Everyone was walking up and down the street, so we joined them. Most houses had lost their chimneys, but some had not. Most damage, however, seemed minor and reparable.
I phoned local builders. Thank goodness for phones that are not cordless or mobile. A builder arrived in frantic haste. I paid him cash, and said don’t worry about the receipt. He had a lot of houses to go to. His son of about 8 years was sitting wide-eyed in his ute. We were grateful he was there. By midday, we had some teracotta roof tiles, and Terry had repaired the hole. Apart from the picture on the mantelpiece, nothing had fallen off the shelves. Our garage had subsided a little bit and the wall had cracked through the mortar. A few window panes had cracked a little bit in the corners.

There were spiders and dust everywhere.

A neighbour came over.
“Come and siphon off water from my hot water cylinder. I’m going to stay with family” she said.
We spent the day lugging water around.

Another neighbour came by.
“We have power and water. We appear be on a different and undamaged supply to everyone else” he said.
We took our washing over and stayed for a cuppa.

As we were in and out of our shed, setting up water containers and gas cooking, we tracked dirt and muck into our home. Our clothes became smeared with dust and sweat. The air was full of dust. Our hair became sticky and thick.

Terry made a proper toilet, with a seat over a box, and dug a hole. We found some lime and put a trowel next to the dugout dirt – one scoop of each for every visit. The toilet was in the open in the backyard, but fairly well screened by vegetation. We got our chilli-bin out for when we needed to transfer frozen goods into it, and resisted opening and closing the fridge or freezer.

Rumours started to circulate on the best place to be for subsequent quakes. Next to a bed crouched on the floor? Under a table? In a door frame? Outside? We were on high alert, reacting to even minor shakes. Did they mark the start of another big one?

Funny stories were told. A teenage son leapt out of bed naked, and used his cellphone on a torch app. Scary stories were told too. Our neighbour’s son woke up when the chimney fell through the roof, opening a hole in the lathe and plaster ceiling above his head.
Soon there was a big run on food, water containers, buckets, batteries and torches at hardware stores and supermarkets. What amazed me was that people had gone to work to open the supermarkets and hardware stores while their homes could have been in ruins.

We wondered what to do with our chimney remains. It couldn’t stay where it was, as it blocked the driveway. We stacked it down the side of the house. Eventually we took photos of it, arranged for it to be dumped, and kept receipts. We only had a chimney to replace, and some minor damage – less than $10,000.

We felt extremely lucky.

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