2011 February 22: The Christchurch Earthquake

Tuesday a week ago I left work at around 12.30pm to go to the gym, as I do most days. I was driving when a friend called me to meet her for lunch in the seaside suburb of Sumner. My automatic response was “no, I’m off to the gym,” but I had second thoughts, and agreed to meet her in 15 minutes at a favourite café. We sat in the window of the café eating and drinking good coffee- it was a beautiful day outside and we could hear the waves breaking on the beach 200m away. The café was packed with lunchtime clientele.

At four minutes past one our table leapt in the air and we were tossed off our seats onto the floor and shaken viciously back and forward. A bunch of cakes and muffins from the counter showered down on us. A plate glass window a meter away exploded into millions of sparkling shards. People screamed and there was a horrible roaring from deep in the ground. Forty seconds passed during which we were powerless to do anything but hang on….then all was still.

Christchurch, Feb 22 (1)

Everyone in the café scrambled to their feet and rushed outside, leaving behind handbags, brief cases, laptops, newspapers. Down the street towards us rushed an enormous cloud of red dust and others were running toward our crowd- it was like a scene from nine/eleven. Panicked everyone rushed back into the café, but someone screamed “get out get out” and we all rushed out again.

I ran down the street and on top of the RSA building was the most enormous boulder, the size of a house. It had fallen out of the 200 foot cliff of volcanic rock behind. All I could think was “there must be someone under that,” and with another person (I don’t remember who) ran up the debris towards the remains of the building. Then there was another violent shake and a smaller boulder bounced from the cliff and landed on a blue car, completely flattening it. The stranger and I ran for the footpath.

Christchurch, Feb 22 (2)

I must get home, home, I thought, and ran to my car. My friend has disappeared and I discovered later shed run to the school to collect her children. I began to drive. The road was jammed, the cars dodging the boulders, cracks and upheavals obstructing the road. On either side were houses demolished by landslides, some on fire. In the long line of traffic I reached a destroyed bridge. “I need to find another way,” I thought and drove to the top of the hill with the intention of taking a high route home. But the road was blocked by landslides. I tried to drive east into the port town of Lyttelton but was told by a policeman Lyttelton had been destroyed, so I drove back down in Sumner. Try and get through the back roads of Heathcote the policeman had told me.

Christchurch, Feb 22 (3)

Two hours later I made it home after tail gating a distraught line of traffic for miles. Mud bubbled from the ground and burst sewers and water mains flooded the route. On the radio I heard that Christchurch had been hit by a 6.3 earthquake, particularly violent because it was centred only 10 kilometers from the city. The Central Business District was decimated and many buildings destroyed with people inside. Even Christchurch’s Anglican Cathedral, the icon around which the city had been built was gone. I arrived home in shock, to no power, water or phone. It was like the end of the world had come.