Thursday, March 10, 2011


It’s been two weeks since the 6.3 earthquake that devastated Christchurch, but this is the first time I’ve felt capable of putting my experiences and thoughts into words.
Recently, I had been working every Tuesday at the outdoor store Bivouac on Colombo Street – partly to be able to buy cheap climbing gear, but more importantly to force myself into taking a day away from my computer and interacting with people.
At 12.30pm on February 22, I took my lunch break from Bivouac and walked outside into the CBD. After eating sushi, I bought coffee from Vivace on the recently renovated Hereford Street, before taking the lift up to the sixth floor of the Vero Building to catch up with friend (and incredible photographer) Lee Howell. Lee and I chatted about possible future projects we could work on together.


At around 12.50pm I returned to the ground floor, stepped out onto Hereford and headed east towards the intersection of Hereford and Colombo. The sidewalk was crowded with tourists and locals on their lunch break. Overhead, above the tall buildings, the sun was doing its best to prove the weather forecasters wrong.
The initial force of the quake knocked me from my feet. For the first few seconds I thought ‘hey this is a strong aftershock’, but that quickly changed as windows shattered and the fronts of buildings started collapsing. The noise was deafening. People around me were getting hit by falling debris. I tried to get up, to stay in the middle of the road, and shouted for others to move away from the buildings. Some did, but some chose to shelter near walls. I lost sight of them as more bricks fell from above. I didn’t really think much about what to do, other than looking up for falling masonry and trying to get up every time I was knocked over. I remember grabbing someone who was curled up on the footpath to drag them away from somewhere near Vivace. All the time, the ground roared with a deep rumbling sound.


It felt like the earthquake lasted for about 20 seconds, and when it stopped the street was filled with dust and debris. It was unrecognisable. Towards the intersection of Hereford and Colombo, it looked like a building had collapsed right across the road. The roaring had stopped, replaced by alarms, and people screaming or crying. Some people were running up and down the street. Some, like I, stood dazed, and others lay injured on the asphalt. Is my wife okay, I thought? Competing with thousands of other panicked residents concerned for loved ones, I tried to call and then text her with no success. Then through the haze I could see people, some injured, trying to get out from damaged buildings. I climbed over a pile of rubble and helped those that I could. I looked towards the Vero building and thought about Lee. People were kicking at the broken glass doors and clambering out. I shouted to get away from the building and to move down towards the relative safety of the Avon River banks. Some responded, but others slumped to the ground as soon as they got outside. At one stage I tried to get into the Vero Building foyer to look for Lee, but a line of people kept coming out. Then, about 10 minutes after the initial quake, the first aftershock hit. Someone called out a warning as more debris fell. A man next to me was hit. I ran.         

Upon reaching the Avon, I walked south along its banks, past the Bridge of Remembrance and then down Lichfield street towards where it intersected Colombo. The scene was utter chaos and destruction. Cars were crushed by collapsed walls. People stood in small clusters and looked on with shocked disbelief. Some held pieces of clothing over wounds. A few were inert on the ground, presumably having been dragged clear. Others dug hopelessly at mounds of rubble. I passed a man with a head wound, who couldn’t work out which direction the hospital was in, and I asked an uninjured bystander to take him there. My phone bleeped – Shelley checking to see that I was okay. Relief flooded through me that she was fine. I kept trying to text back to no avail. How were my work mates, I suddenly thought, and rushed down the remainder of Lichfield towards Bivouac, passing a burst gas pipe hissing and a dazed policeman not knowing what to do first. The Bivouac building was still standing, but the glass frontage had shattered. Rob stood outside, and Chris was getting on his bike to go and check that his wife and children were fine. We hugged quickly and he cycled off. John came over covered in dust, saying he had just helped to dig an elderly woman out from under a collapsed veranda. Both directions of Colombo Street looked like a war zone.
Another policeman arrived and they both started shouting: ‘You have to leave! There is a gas leak.’ I wondered how to get to Shelley at her work on the corner of Brougham and Durham. South along Colombo looked impassable. The only way out was east along Lichfield and then maybe south along Manchester. I figured that, at least, once clear of the CBD no buildings could fall on me. The road was gridlocked with vehicles, drivers trying to inch their way out over ruptured roads, while aftershocks continued and more bits of buildings fell onto the street. Inside a vehicle was the last place I wanted to be.

I helped a Japanese couple down Lichfield, escorting the elderly woman by the arm as we weaved between the cars and stayed as far away as possible from the more fragile-looking buildings. On the corner of Lichfield and Manchester I crouched beside a man who was lying, unconscious and alone, on the ground. There were no obvious injuries, but he was covered in dust. Someone turned up with a blanket, and soon after a police car pulled up alongside. I didn’t know what else to do. My father was staying at our house in Southshore, which had been hit hard in the earlier September quake. Finally I got a text through to Shell. The best option seemed to be to start walking home. Along with droves of others, I left the CBD.
Three hours later, after avoiding craters in the roads, and watching panicked drivers driving into them, wading through sewerage and wastewater and silt from liquefaction, seeing slumped bridges, crushed houses, fallen trees and snapped power lines, and peoples’ faces everywhere wide-eyed, blank and lost, I reached home.

Two weeks later: The death toll is still rising. I haven’t been back into the centre of town, but large portions of it are barricaded. The latest estimate is that 50% of the CBD will need to be rebuilt. Our house is liveable, though it has slumped sharply on one side and will likely need to be demolished. It looks like all 10 of the houses in our lane will go, along with thousands of others throughout the city. Power and water are back on here, and our day to day living is at least starting to feel a little more normal. The eastern district is like a ghost town. Tens of thousands have left Christchurch, finding solace in other parts of New Zealand away from the ongoing aftershocks.
Where to from here? I have no idea, but at least we are alive and uninjured. So many families and friends have lost loved ones. And hundreds of others are in hospital with serious injuries. Christchurch – and life – will never be the same. But how could it be after a natural disaster of this magnitude? I would like to congratulate the authorities on their concerted and sustained efforts. At times the organisation of recovery efforts has seemed disjointed, but I can understand why. This is not something you can plan for and hope to cover every contingency. This is fire fighting on a large scale.

I am touched by the level of compassion people are showing for their neighbours. It seems that the concept of community is not lost, even in a city the size of Christchurch. Every day our neighbours check on each other, pooling together resources and making sure spirits are as high as they can be. And that feeling and support is what Christchurch needs. Mayor Bob Parker said at one stage that the city was ‘on the cusp of not being a city’ any more. Canterbury, the South Island and indeed all of New Zealand needs Christchurch to, slowly but surely, return to its former glory. My Great Great Uncle, the poet and author Johannes Andersen, was one of the city forefathers. He wrote lovingly of its architecture, its coastline, its plains and its rolling hills. My grandfather grew up here. For better or worse, I am linked to this place, and I feel its vitality as my own.