– St Albans, Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand

12:51pm 22 February 2011.
I was in the kitchen. We had just had lunch. Matt was home sick, and on his bed. There had been several magnitude 4 quakes. This shake, however, felt different. I walked out of the kitchen. The last place I wanted to be was under cupboards where things could fall on top of me. I thought about sitting down under the nearby kitchen table, but decided to sit on the couch in the dining room. That way I would be closer to the stronger dining room table. I made my way towards it.

A bright, flickering light filled the kitchen. I tried to move but could not. I looked down. My feet were about 20cm or so above the ground. I tilted slightly forward but did not fall. My feet were behind me rising up level with my hips. The ground was now a half metre away. I couldn’t quite understand. Maybe was dreaming? I tried to take a step but there was nothing to push against.

A sonic boom exploded through the house. I put my arm up in front of my face, as the frame of the door came towards me at speed. I took the hit with the full length of my forearm, and slid down the wall. My feet touched the floor. The house shook suddenly and violently. My heart was thumping, there was a deepening bruise on my forearm, and my ears were ringing. That was really going to hurt.

You ok?” I called down the hall.
Matt was fine, he had been lying on the bed.
We went outside and checked on our neighbours.
“Yup, you?”

Inside the kitchen the remains of tomato soup were spattered all over the floor, the kitchen cupboards were open and stuff was thrown about, but not much had broken. Somehow my crystal bowl – a birthday present from my sisters – had bounced on the concrete floor and not broken. Suddenly that seemed very important.

I turned on the water. Nothing. A 30mm crack had opened in the kitchen floor, and continued through the next two neighbours properties, widening to 100mm. Our fence split as 20cm nails were pulled out from the posts.

Outside, puddles began to form on the ground. Soon sand and silt welled up with the water. The water and silt kept rising until mounds of silt covered the road. Our street filled up with silt to a depth of about half the height of car tyres.

The tarseal footpath lifted into a half metre high mound. It was mesmerising to watch – like a giant blister forming. Our garage doors were blocked by mounds of silt. The garage had subsided some more, and there were large cracks in the mortar in three walls that you could poke a pencil through. The reinforcing kept it safe, but it was on a bit of a wonk.

The stream across the road filled with silt, and the water level rose above the height of the culvert. The water pipe under the bridge crossing the stream broke. A jet of water burst 2m into the air, and undermined the footpath leading to the bridge.

Helicopters swept the sky. Security alarms went on and on and on and on. All day there were trucks, diggers, ambulances, fire engines, helicopters, planes. There was no one on the road. Most people just stayed put.

We walked down to the local shops past collapsed buildings. A car was completely buried by bricks. We couldn’t see far down Papanui road. Coming towards us was a mushroom cloud of dust. Soon the air was so thick with dust that we couldn’t see the other side of the road.

All the noise was centred somewhere in the middle of that dust cloud. Somewhere in there was the middle of the city. Our feeling of disbelief is tempered by reality.

This time, people had died.

A very nice man who was a complete stranger knocked on the door.
“Do you need a hand?’ he asked.
“I would like to get to our car” I said. “A sand volcano is blocking the door, and the firewood has fallen onto it.”
“That’s easy” he said. “Is there anything else?”
“We’re all good” I said.
“Is your husband home” he asked.
“He should be back from Kapiti Island soon-ish” I said. Terry had no cellphone cover there, so he would find out the next day.
“Have you got running water?” he asked.
“No, but I have a bath and containers full of water” I said.
“How about a shower?” he asked.
“I would love a shower, but a bucket wash is fine” I said.
“We have a spa that is working on the outskirts of town. Here is my card. Come over and use it if you want” he said “Or call if there is anything you need.”
“That’s very kind, but we will be fine” I said.
“I’ll go and get some help for your car” he said and he wandered off.

I went out to the shed and got the gas cooker. Matt and I sat in the sun and made us a cup of tea. Our neighbour came over.
“I’ve been told to dig your car out of the garage and to stack some firewood” he said. He told us that the nice man, who happened to be a policeman, told him to come over and do it. While we didn’t plan on going anywhere it was quite a relief to have the option to do so if we wished.

I grab a spade and we dig the silt, and pile it into mounds on the road edge. Then we go across the road to our other neighbours, who had gone with her young children to stay with family, and dig silt to fill their 2m diameter, 1m deep sink hole.

The next day the Student Army and a man in a small digger turned up. For a whole day they moved all of the mini-piles of silt into small mountains. We tied flagging tape to our shovels and spades to make sure we knew which ones were ours. I offered muffins and coffee, but they were on a mission and would not stop. We dug silt until we had blisters. A reticulated truck turned up, and took the silt away.

Over the course of the day, about a dozen cars drove slowly down our street, windows, down, the occupants leaning out, watching us digging silt, getting in the way of the digger and truck driver, and narrowly avoiding people removing silt from the road.
We yelled at them but it made no difference, so we simply ignored them and just kept digging.

Radio and tv coverage was excellent – mostly informative, with relevant questions. We stood with our mouths open as cameras showed us the city. Many multi-storied buildings and historic landmarks had fallen, killing over 100 people.

The fault line runs deeply down under the Port Hills at 65° then straight under the city. As it ruptured, the shock wave travelled down to the bedrock then reflected back. The reflected energy wave added to the initial shockwave, creating a massive force. Most of Christchurch is on sandy silt. There spaces between silt particles given them lots of room to move. People near the sandy coast saw metre high waves of earth travelling towards them. That would be freaky.

Rocks on the Port Hills exploded and cliff faces collapsed. Enormous boulders tumbled down the entire length of the hill. Five people and a cow were killed by falling boulders.
One man near Sumner, had just popped out to his garden to pick some raspberries when the entire cliff face fell on him. His wife was inside and was fine. A boulder the size of a small car went through a house and missed everyone. A man out for a walk around Castle Rock was found dead by his daughter. On Durham St, a town house with garage basement collapsed, crushing the car. It is so thin you can hardly tell it was a car. Thankfully no one was in it.

The MedLab building where Terry worked has a stairway on Kilmore St, and one on Peterborough St. During the quake, staff running down these stairs watched the adjacent Caledonian building collapse. Amongst the piles of rubble, two staff members heard cries from the newer kitchen area. A group of intellectually handicapped children and adults happened to be in the kitchen when the quake struck. They help get them out.

The Kilmore St MedLab steps are unusable and the Peterborough steps have started to separate from the building. An entire wall of unreinforced concrete fell off from the 5th floor directly onto the outdoor seated area of the 4th floor.

On the radio, stories abound on how builders circumvented building codes to increase profits and only show inspectors reinforced concreted walls.

The stories are harrowing.

On the six o’clock news we see footage of a friend being lowered down on a rope from the Forsythe Bar building. Other friends have no transport as their vehicles are in carparks within the city and too unsafe to access.

Over half (about 400km) of the sewerage and waste water lines have been damaged. Near the coast, the pipes have been destroyed. Everything liquid was still heading to the lowest point – the coast. Sewage floods into homes in the eastern suburbs. The sewerage treatment plant, which was also damaged and is running at 30% capacity, may fail due to the amount of silt that it is receiving. The stink at the Heathcote estuary were the sewage outflow occurs is disgusting.

Blasting to clear unstable rock mean that residents below have to be out of their houses all day. The houses and road were protected by shipping containers, lining the road edge. Rocks are marked with spray paint – dots meant would be blasted and question marks mean keep a watch. Geologists check on them particularly after heavy rain.

Friends and family call to check that we are alright. Their support is overwhelming and extremely welcome. Someone from Terry’s work asked us if we needed anything, then arrived with water containers, dust masks, hand sanitiser and chocolate.
It was one of the nicest most selfless things that happened to us.

After that a magnitude 4 quake never bothered me again.

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