On 22 February 2011, I was in the biosecurity lab of the Von Haast building at the University of Canterbury, doing the mind-numbing but critical task of treating my samples from Timor to allow them to be released from secure storage. Upstairs on the top floor (a wooden add-on of that since-replaced building that we called the marshmallow because it shook so much worse than the rest of the building in an aftershock), six little glass vials containing zircons from already-treated samples were arranged along the back of my desk. Not near the front where they might fall off in an earthquake. No sir, all along the back where they would be safe.
I was just packing up my laptop ready for lunch at 12:51 when the shaking started. It was violent but a lot shorter than the shaking from the 4 September quake. Nevertheless, it was a significant shake, clearly much >M5 and us Christchurch peeps prided ourselves as walking seismometers by then. I was wearing a lab coat and crocs (my shoes were upstairs) but there was no way I was going into the marshmallow during a vigorous aftershock period so I skedaddled with my laptop and bag out to the muster area, patting myself mentally on the back for putting the zircon vials nice and safe at the back of the desk. To quote the Tui beer advertisement, “Yeah, right!”. When we finally got back into the building, I discovered the vials, smashed on the floor under the desk.
Once at the muster point, we were told to disperse and head home. I was still wearing my crocs and lab coat, and for some reason was not able to get my bike out of the secure parking. It was only 10 km home, so off I traipsed to begin two hours of my life that I would rather forget.
Well worn crocs are basically tread-free and the closer I got to town the more mud I encountered. It was everywhere, bubbling up merrily around power and light poles, bubbling up out of massive potholes and cracks in the road, and lying in great opaque sheets that were impossible to get around and terrifying to go through. I wore the crocs when I could see the concrete/tar and took them off when I couldn’t. On, off. On, off. On, off. Progress was slow but faster than it seemed to be for the cars crawling along next to me, inching their way past unluckier, stuck cars. Everybody seemed remarkably patient.
As I started to make my way through Hagley Park, on the western edge of the city, I started to get a real feel for how bad things really were. Two middle aged women passed me, their faces covered in blood, laughing. One was trying to walk in heels, the other carried a single shoe. The other shoe was presumably lost forever. Huge gashes rent the beautifully manicured golf course, and the greens were grey brown, shiny and slick with the gloss of new liquefaction.
Soon the evidence of the devastation became ever clearer. More people. More tears. More blood. A pall of smoke. The throb of helicopters. There I first saw a helicopter climbing steeply away from the Avon with an underslung monsoon bucket. I knew this wasn’t guilt-free earthquake geology anymore.
As I emerged on the east side of Hagley Park I looked up at the 10 story ‘Terrace on the Park’ apartment complex, for which I did much of the electrical distribution work in 2000, saving my earnings for my wedding. One of them swayed particularly ominously as I looked up and I felt a wave of nausea. I started to make my way nervously along Salisbury Street, torn between the wish to go and see if I could help and the desire to get home to my family. I lived in Avondale and I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty there. Family won, I kept going. Home.
I soon passed the intersection of Salisbury Street and Victoria Street, where the historic clock-tower was obviously damaged. A multi-storey building on the north side was clearly leaning and swaying every time an aftershock shook it. I moved into the middle of the street, between rows of almost-stationary cars, hoping that the cars would offer protection if the building fell. I felt trapped. The walk was slippery, even barefoot, and I used the cars several times to stay upright. Nobody seemed to mind. And still the people flowed around me, in various states of despair, euphoria, disbelief. Soon there were more people walking between cars than on the footpath. Some drivers simply abandoned their cars.
As I drew level with the swaying building, I could see a pharmacist inside, busily locking the drugs away. I didn’t understand his commitment to what seemed to me a pointless task. Within the next few days, the building was surrounded by a clear drop-zone in-case it fell, but it was subsequently successfully demolished. On the opposite side of the road, I passed by the Crown Plaza, where I spent my wedding night, and the town hall, where I had graduated with my BSc and MSc. Both were soon demolished.
As I walked, people started to talk. People passing would tell you what they knew. People joining the flow from a side street would pass on information.
“You’re lucky you’re not in a car mate, Gloucester Street bridge is down”. Not down as it turned out, but impassable to cars.
“Fitzgerald Avenue is in the fuckin’ Avon!” Yes, that was about right.
“Eastgate mall has collapsed” – not exactly, just the carparking building fortunately, but that was another thing for which I felt some responsibility, having been an electrical contractor who worked on the mall expansion.
“Cashel and Colombo are a mess fella”. Little did I know how much of a mess, but even so I thought about the lovely proprietors of the wee music shop where I bought ukuleles for my wife and daughters. I hoped they were safe. I think they were.
And worst of all:
“The CTV building is on fire”. Actually collapsed and on fire as it turned out. That explained the monsoon buckets.
I kept doggedly moving, through the pall of dust and smoke. Past a little collapsed brick garage. I had no desire to see a building on fire. I never even saw the 9-11 disaster, having been on an army promotion course and on exercise at the time. Our wise troop commander told us that we needed to think very carefully if we wanted to watch it and I decided not. I never have and never will.
As I walked, still between rows of cars, I started telling drivers what little I had heard so that they could make route decisions. I soon realized what had happened to the bridges, the approaches rendered useless because the bridges stood proud while the banks and abutments sank and narrowed. You could climb on and walk across but certainly not drive. The further east I went, the worse the liquefaction seemed. Large swathes of river bank had collapsed, tearing roads apart and lowering the dismembered surfaces into the water. Cars were creeping cautiously past, hoping not to end up in the river in an aftershock. I slithered along in my crocs.
Eventually, just over two hours after leaving uni, I made it home. I checked on my family and my incredibly almost intact house but I really needed to do something. Eastgate mall was nearby and I’d heard it was down so I grabbed my hard hat, boots and a bike and headed off. There was nobody there, just a security guard and a fencer busy fencing off the damaged carpark. A guy in high-vis doing a police job on the intersection told me that evacuees were being collected in Hagley Park, so I headed for town on my bike, recklessly tearing through puddles with little idea of how deep they were. I was lucky. One guy died that day doing just that.
I reached Hagley Park and asked what I could do to help. The red cross guy said they were critically short of warm gear. It was getting cold and starting to rain. A hardware company had dropped off hundreds of sheets of ply and people were huddled in groups under angled sheets of ply, trying to stay dry. I jumped back on my bike and headed for home. Blankets I could do.
Back home I grabbed spare blankets and duvets and stuffed them into our bike kiddie trailer. I still had heaps of room so I headed up the street. Soon the trailer was full. Even my mother-in-law’s dressing gown was in there. Twenty five minutes later I was back at the park, increasingly tired but still going. I headed up to the organizers and tried to hand over blankets but they were too busy.
“Just find somebody and give them what you’ve got mate”. Ok!
The next couple of minutes were surreal. I spotted a large group of old people huddled under a board or two and took my trailer that way. They were so happy and we started chatting. Turns out that they were a bunch of geo-tourists, mostly retired British Geological Survey people. They had been out visiting Sumner when the earthquake happened, so they were pretty close to the epicentre. They were the first to give me a hint of the scale of damage out there but they were in remarkably good humour. There were a few jokes about coming out to New Zealand to look at active tectonics but preferring it a little less active than that. One of the ladies was shivering quite hard and was most delighted to have MIL’s dressing gown.
Next I bumped into a fellow PhD student colleague who was there with her husband, trying their best to help others. Seems like a lot of people had the same idea.
The next few days were a period of adjustment, getting used to a new reality, smugly eking out our earthquake supplies. The petrol stove and gas barbeque were fired up and the solar showers dusted off. The cans of food were sorted. Our toilets were out of bounds and many people dug long-drop toilets. We smugly brought out the camping chemical toilet and dug a long-drop to take the products. Eek!
A neighbour had a deep, capped well on his property with a 2m high pole. It blew the cap off and was fountaining so he attached a vacuum cleaner hose to it with duct tape and put it out through the fence, attached to a stool. We went down there daily to fill water containers, boiling them religiously. Soon the council started trucking water in and we could walk a few hundred meters further for drinking water. Luxury! Especially with a two-seater bike trailer/pushchair!
Fuel doesn’t last forever, whereas the lack of electricity and local fuel stations certainly seemed to do so. In the first few days, the street had cook-your-freezer parties in the street park and that cut into the fuel a bit. Finally, a couple of fuel stations opened but they were 10 km away, northwest of us and on the other side of the Avon River. The bridges were out of action and there was no way out there by car. Meals and supplies were being brought in by helicopter (Thanks people of Rangiora!!!).
I did a quick recce of the bridges on my bike and concocted a plan. I collected jerry cans and gas cylinders from people in the street and stashed them in the bike trailer. When I got to the bridge, I unloaded the trailer and lifted all the containers onto the bridge. Then I decoupled the trailer, lifted that onto the bridge and then the bike. Reverse procedure at the other side and I was across the river and 8 km from the petrol station.
I got to the petrol station in a sweaty mess to discover lonnnnng queues of west Christchurch cars. Lucky buggers I thought. Lucky and kind as it turned out. When I joined the queue they quickly figured out where I was from (the dreaded east) and I quickly found myself leapfrogging up the queue as consecutive drivers spotted me and let me go in front of them. I took about 10 min to negotiate a 2 hour queue!
The lady at the petrol station didn’t think my carriage was quite legal for the c.80 kg of liquid and gaseous fuel it contained in a 40kg rated trailer, but she agreed she could not think of a better solution. It was a long ride home, weighed down for the last 2 km with an extra few liters of water provided by a friendly Rangiora guy in a ute. He had filled his ute tray with bottled water and was sitting there handing it out to anybody who walked across the bridge. Legend! He even helped me get my load across.
Life slowly started to return to normal, but it’s hard to know where to end this story because, to be honest, it doesn’t end. It didn’t end when the power came back on, or the water. It didn’t end when plane-loads of chemical toilets were delivered around the city. It didn't end when we were allowed to use toilets again nearly a year later. It didn’t end when we were finally allowed back into the city, which my daughter described so eloquently as building mince. It didn't end when I finally stopped flinching when trams make the ground rumble in Melbourne where I now live. It didn’t end when we replaced the damaged sewer in our now-rented house three years ago.
I don’t consider myself overly traumatized, probably because knowledge is power and I learned a lot about that quake. I have always been a softy but I am certainly more emotional now than I was before. I also get that regular reminder when I hear loud bangs in my ears, or can’t hear something properly because of the damage done to my ears by an awful sinus infection following the earthquake. Whoever heard of earthquake-related hearing loss. Who knows if the echoes of that earthquake will ever end? Christchurch is still busy moving on and so am I.