Saturday, February 11, 2012

Remembering 22nd February

WARNING: This post may be emotional for some and contains images of a natural disaster

This week I have been thinking a lot about how much my experience of life has changed in the last year and a half. A few nights ago I read this wonderful post on Deb's blog, collapsed into husband's arms and cried for a long time with the realisation that it has been a year, I am on the other side of the world and yet a shiver still goes down my spine when a train or heavy truck goes by near our apartment. On the 22nd of February I will be on the Eurostar heading to the UK, but in the lead up to the one year anniversary of the Canterbury Earthquake the people of Christchurch are being encouraged to share their stories and reflect upon the year that has been. This is mine.

At 4.35am on the morning of September 4th 2010 I was tucked up in bed in the 8 bedroom villa I shared with 5 others at university. Our term break had just started, so my flatmates had all gone home for the holidays, apart from me (I had essays to finish and needed access to the university library) and one other. I was jolted awake with the sudden realisation that the world was shaking, HARD. New Zealand is an earthquake prone country and everyone knows that if one happens you get to a doorframe or under a bed, even though Christchurch wasn't known to be on a faultline. But if you're in one of that size, you quickly realise that it is easier said than done. The shaking was so hard that I couldn't move, so I pulled the blankets up over my head with a vague half-formed hope that that would help if the heavy corkboard on my wall fell down on top of me. It seemed to go on forever – now I know it was only 40 seconds long. 

Damage in my university library. It remained closed for almost a year following the September quakes. Source

When it finally stopped I picked up my cellphone and called my boyfriends (now hubby) French cellphone number. Thankfully I got through and managed to tell him that there had been an earthquake, it felt very big, but I was ok. I feel grateful in retrospect that that was my first instinct, because in the first aftershock phone networks went down and I was unable to get hold of him again for almost 10 hours. Then I moved to my bedroom doorframe, just in time for the first large aftershock and the many that followed in quick succession. In between shaking my flatmate (whose room was downstairs and at the other end of the house) and I managed to communicate to each other that we were both ok. He told me not to come downstairs, because the kitchen floor was covered in broken glass. So I sat in my room until daylight, until we could survey the damage together and start cleaning up the mess. Later that day I slowly drove the hours drive to my parents home over broken, mostly empty and still shaking roads. That first quake, the first earthquake I had ever been in and the first major New Zealand earthquake in my lifetime, was a 7.1 – larger than the earthquake in Haiti the same year. Luckily, as it occurred in the middle of the night when there was no-one on the streets or in offices, and as it was centered a fair way out of the city, there were no casualties. I stayed with my parents until University reopened, almost a month later. 

The Lyttelton Timeball after June 13th. Source

By February 22nd we were used to earthquakes. The aftershocks were pretty constant, ranging from the high 5's to low 2's, averaging maybe 4 a day that you could physically feel rattle through your bones. I had moved, to a little 3 bedroom unit I shared with two others in another part of town, and had become practised at making a flying leap to a doorframe. At 12.51pm I was lying on my bed, having just come home from my morning classes. When this one struck it immediately felt different, savage. It moved differently, to this day I don't know how to describe it. I jumped from my bed to the doorframe just in time, as my bookcase came tumbling down a second later, sending heavy books flying all over the room. My flatmate was in her doorframe right next to mine, our other flatmate was at university. I heard our big bathroom mirror fall and smash downstairs and I prayed that the mezzanine we were standing on wouldn't collapse. When it stopped I turned to my flatmate and said, knowing already that it would be the truth, that 'this time there are going to be people who are dead.'

The Christchurch Cathedral, at the centre of the city. Source

We carefully moved downstairs and realised quickly that we were lucky. Our power and internet were still working, though the phoneline was down, and there was no major damage to the house that we could see. We checked outside, realising very quickly that there must be sewage pipes burst nearby. We were scared though. There is something very deeply frightening about a city immediately after a disaster – everything is dead silent, there is no birdsong or human noise except for car alarms that have been set off by the shaking. Once again, I very quickly got hold of my boyfriend to tell him I was safe. As our internet was still on, he got out of bed and came onto skype. He would stay on skype with me for the next 5 hours. He rang my mother to tell her I was safe, as my cellphone was down. She told him that my father had meetings in the central city that day and that she hadn't been able to get hold of him. I switched on the TV, to be met firstly by static and then by raw footage that was being taken by reporters as they ventured out of their central city offices. That 15 minutes of footage before reporters in Auckland took over was horrific. There are images from it that haunt me to this day, and the footage in its unedited form was never shown again. My other flatmate and a good friend arrived home, having being released from the evacuated university and walking home to see that we were safe.

A boulder ran straight through this house as it came down off the Port Hills. Source

We stayed there together, trying to bolster each others spirits and get hold of our families as we sat in doorframes and under the staircase! At the same time we stayed glued to the television as it became obvious that my prediction had been right, people had died, and that the city I had known and loved all my life had been destroyed. Soon it became established that my dad had already left the central city by the time the quake hit, and that he was safe and had started to drive home. Once we got hold of him he turned around so that he could come and take us away, as I was in no state to drive. It took him 4 hours to reach us, a drive that would usually take 20 minutes. We left Christchurch, joining a steady stream of cars trying to get as far away as possible. The only thing heading towards the city was the army, truck after truck after truck. 

The Canterbury Television Building. 115 people died here on Feb 22nd. Source

Our family had been meant to go on holiday the day after. We decided to go despite of what had happened. We went hours away and for days did not turn on a TV or a radio. I couldn't even bear the thought of looking. When we came back, we found that the 22nd of February 2011 earthquake had been a 6.3, but far closer to the city. 185 people lost their lives, of over 20 different nationalities.

It's funny what you can get used too. I got used to taking my classes in a tent on the university carpark. I got used to diving under the staircase in our lounge. I got so used to the ground shaking that just before I left Christchurch there was a magnitude 4 when I was topping up my car at a petrol station and I only realised because I saw that my car was moving. I didn't get used to the central city being closed. I didn't really get used to the prefab buildings they eventually put up on the university sportsfield so we could move out of tents. Sometimes it felt more than surreal. Like when I was in my final history exam and there was a 3.5 and no-one even looked up from their work. 

Soil Liquefaction. Source

 In the 13th of June 2011 earthquakes I was in a major mall. That one rates as the scariest moment of my life. I am a person who doesn't get along with loud noises, and the sound of so many things breaking all at once is haunting. In the 23 December 2011 earthquakes I was in the UK. I thanked God that I wasn't there.

I am lucky. I survived, as did my family and friends. I have many friends that lost their homes, either to earthquake damage or liquefaction. A friend of my parents lost his life – I only knew him by name. I stayed in Christchurch until it was naturally time to move on, clinging to the memory of a city that in the form I knew it in was no longer there, to stubborn to flee like many others did. Part of me feels guilty for leaving, even though it was time, and part of me is thankful every day that I am no longer there. There have been over 10,000 aftershocks since 4th September 2010. More that Haiti. More than Japan. I am lucky. Sometimes I am still afraid. More than anything I am thankful, and overwhelmed by the magnitude of God.  

Some of the 4000 handmade hearts sent to Christchurch in the wake of the quakes. Source

Thank you for sticking with me, I know this is a very long post.

That's all for now,


  1. What an experience to have gone through, thanks for telling us your story.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this. I don't think it'll ever be something you'll forget. take care.

  3. Thanks for sharing your story Sarah.

    I went to a seminar recently presented by a firm who provide psychological support services - they said prior to the Christchurch earthquakes the number of people who came to them for trauma related support was 1%. After the earthquakes that jumped to 32%. No wonder when we read stories like yours.

    I remember some of that footage, like the woman on the top of the building, the injured lying on grass and people emerging from the rubble. It hadn't occurred to me that, that footage has never been replayed.

    I love that your DH spent 5 hours on Skype with you during the quakes. That must have been comforting. Thank goodness for technology!! :-)

  4. thank you so much for sharing this..and telling your story..
    sending you love and hugs xx

  5. Ahhh Sarah *huuuuuuugs* I remember hubby telling me about when when it happened and we watched and listened in horror at every new update. It was a helpless feeling to see all that happening and not being able to do anything about it but hope and pray that people will be safe.

    I'm so sorry you went through all that. I'd glad to hear that you dad got out safe and sound.

  6. Sarah for some reason I missed this post first time round, and only caught up with "your" story when you mentioned it on the next post. DH & I have visited Christchurch twice in the last 5 years, and it was one of the most heart-wrenching days to watch from the UK while such a beautiful city centre was destroyed by a natural disaster which could not be avoided.
    I am sure that the memories of the day will fade after time - never to be forgotten, but perhaps not to be so raw and painful. I have read a few blogs which mentioned their reactions to the day - and all who survived are grateful. I know many people lost their life, and my heart goes out to those families; but you now have a new life and your family are all around you. LOOK FORWARD TO THE FUTURE! With love


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