I woke up on Tuesday, 22 February 2011 feeling stressed about the work I needed to get done that day. When the earthquake struck, I was at my desk on Level 15 of the Forsyth Barr building writing legal submissions on an immigration matter. The earthquake struck out of nowhere and with intensity. Work was quickly forgotten.
I jumped from my chair and tried to make my way away from the window and towards to my doorway. This was probably not the wisest move. My doorway was part of a glass wall, and I had to avoid a collapsing filing cabinet to get to the doorway, but I managed to get there safely enough.
One of my colleagues was standing in my doorway at the time. As I made it to the door, I turned back to look out my window. My office looked out to the north, over the PGG building, which had collapsed.
What I saw from my window was a huge cloud of dust coming up over the city. Even though we had already experienced the September earthquake (and the Gisborne earthquake in 2007), it was a struggle to accept that the earthquake was really happening.
A group of people from my office banded together. We helped one colleague search for her cellphone, which she had lost in the panic of diving to get under her desk. Then we made our way to one of the stairwells and set off for the ground. The emergency lighting had failed in the stairwell, so we could barely see the steps in front of us. As we slowly went down the stairs between our 15th floor and the 14th floor, one of my colleagues remembered he had a torch in his pocket. (I guess he grabbed this from his office, and then forgot about it) He flicked the torch on, and at the same time Paul, who was leading us down the stairs, turned around and told us that we needed to go back up and try to find another way down. The stairwell had collapsed immediately below the landing at the 14th floor. We did not realise at the time how badly the stairwells had failed, but it was obvious that we could not get down.
We climbed back up to the 15th floor and made our way to the stairwell on the other side of the building. The windows on that side of the building looked south to the Cathedral, which was a couple of blocks south. I was shocked to see that the Cathedral spire had collapsed, and that there was a massive pile of rubble in front of the cathedral.
I could also see that building frontages had collapsed on both sides of Colombo Street beneath our building. This stretch of road was always packed with pedestrians at lunch time, so it was almost certain that people had died in the quake.
Victoria Square was fast filling with people from other buildings, and with liquified silt coming up from beneath the ground. The Avon River was already very silty, and the water level had risen quickly so that it looked close to the top of its bank by the Town Hall.
Gathering together more people from our floor, we climbed over collapsed bookshelves to get to the second stairwell. Very quickly, however, the person at the front of the group told us all that the stairwell had collapsed immediately below our floor. At that point we became aware that we were trapped in the building.
When we realised we were trapped, we went back out into one of the larger rooms. By this time, people from the 16th and 17th floors had got as far as our floor before discovering that they too were trapped.
The phones in our offices were dead, but someone mentioned that a phone line in one of the other offices was still working. Someone suggested we ring someone and let them know we were trapped. I dialed 111, and was put through to an operator who said, “111 emergency – Fire, Ambulance, or Police?” Who do you ask to help when you’re trapped in a tall building? I wasn’t really sure, but asked to be put through to the Fire Service.
I was put through to a fire service operator. As I stared out over the collapsed Cathedral spire, he asked where I was. I explained that there was a group of us stuck on the 15th floor of the Forsyth Barr building in Christchurch. I said that we had tried to go down the stairs, but were unable to do so because the stairwells had collapsed. He said to me, “Obviously there has been a big earthquake in Christchurch.” They were being flooded with calls, but he took our details and my cell phone number, and said that our situation would be logged for action. We counted the number of people who had gathered by then, and told him that there were at least 20 of us trapped on the 15th floor.
After I hung up the phone, someone else took the phone and rung a family member to confirm they were ok. When they finished, I took the phone again and started to dial our home phone number to check whether Louise was ok. At that same time, however, another aftershock hit. I think this was the 4.9M aftershock that hit at 12.56pm. Five minutes had passed since the initial earthquake. The aftershock was big enough that it took out the last phone line, so I couldn’t ring Louise.
We moved out into one of the other offices, which had a balcony that opened out in the direction of Victoria Square. The air inside our building was filled with dust (which I assume came from the collapsed stairwells). We opened the balcony doors, and were hit by the smell of more dust from outside, and by the sound of car alarms and building alarms sounding all over the city. People were gathering in the square below. There was liquefied silt everywhere, but most people didn’t bother to walk around it, they walked straight through it and out into the middle of Victoria Square. Armagh Street to the West looked badly warped in places, and I could see that some of the Court buildings had collapsed.
We weren’t keen on staying on the balcony for too long, in case another big aftershock came, so we went back inside and sat down. I tried to call Louise, but was not able to get through. At 1.05pm, I sent Louise a txt, asking, “Are you ok?” I forgot to say anything about how I was doing. Some of my workmates had managed to make contact with family members. We took turns with different phones on different cell networks, but I couldn’t get through to Louise on phone or by txt.
Building sirens had helpfully been blaring in our own building since the earthquake struck. At the time, they were loud and annoying. We already knew we needed to evacuate, so the automated siren wasn’t particularly helpful. An intact set of stairs would have been better. Eventually, one of my bosses had the bright idea of attacking the siren on the 15th floor with a hammer. That quickly brought the noise to an end. It also brought a small (and vaguely pathetic) sense of satisfaction that at least we still had some control over our environment.
We were all in a state of nervous shock, which expressed itself in lots of ways – people laughing at various comments that weren’t actually very funny, people commenting that it couldn’t be a very good sign that the stairwells had collapsed. One of my colleagues told us how she had tried to get out of her office during the quake, but couldn’t because the door kept swinging and pushing her back into her office. She only made it out when another workmate from the office next door grabbed her and pulled her to safety. As we sat and talked, someone from one of the offices came in and stormed out onto the balcony. He waved his arms frantically and screamed, “Help! Help! We’re trapped! Somebody help us!” or words to that effect.
Others turned their energy into find possible escape routes. A plan was hatched to break through the doors, and get onto the roof. Someone suggested that perhaps we could lower ourselves down to the ground on the platform the window washers used when washing the outside windows. I was not too keen on that plan, though, which generated quite a bit of nervous laughter. We all became a bit more quiet for a time as we began to contemplate and wonder how exactly we would get down from the building.
There was another big aftershock at 1.04pm (5.7M), but it didn’t cause any more obvious damage in our offices. After sitting and talking to others for a while, I went back to my own office.
I had to climb over my collapsed filing cabinet to get to my desk. I had my phone with me, so took a couple of photos.
I had my backpack with me, so if I’d been thinking clearly now would have been the chance to take some items from my room. I might have taken some of the files I was most likely to need access to. I might have taken small things like my phone charger and the photos on my desk. I might have taken bigger things like my degrees and picture that were hanging on my wall, or my music books that were in my cupboard. I might have taken the new suit that I bought just before Christmas for Matthew’s wedding. I think I knew that once we were rescued we were unlikely to get back into the building again for some time (if at all), but I did not think to put anything in my bag.
I left my office and went into our boardroom, which looked out over the east side of Christchurch. It was quieter in this room. One of my colleagues, Joseph, pointed out to me a large fire that was burning near Latimer Square. We could not see the CTV building itself from our offices, but we could see that it was a serious fire. We could also see many more collapsed walls and buildings out that window. It looked as though the roof had collapsed on the Press building. I don’t remember whether it was at this point or sometime later that we saw people on the roof of that building trying to break through (presumably to free people from underneath).
I tried calling Louise again several times on my phone, but was not able to get through. I did not know whether the quake had been bad in Bishopdale (where my house is). I did not know where Louise would have been when the quake struck. I could see below our building that many people out on the streets would have been injured or killed. As more time went by, I became more and more worried that Louise might have been hurt. Most of my workmates had made contact with their families, so knew that (in most cases at least) nobody was hurt. Joseph could see that I was worried, and took me aside to pray for Louise and the children. Then we turned back to staring out the window at the damage.
Some time later (after an hour or so had passed), another colleague (Tim) managed to get through to Louise on his phone. I was able to speak to her and confirm that she and the children were ok. She had been at our Pastor’s place for lunch with his wife when the quake struck. After the quake, she had collected the younger children from their school, and someone was collecting Cora from her school. I told Louise that I was ok, but that we were trapped in our building because the stairwells had collapsed.
Before speaking to Louise and I hadn’t realised how worried about her I had been, but after I hung up I sat down, buried my head in my hands and cried.
By this time, a few people had climbed the stairs to the 16th and 17th floor and had made their way out onto the roof. There was a group of 23 or 24 of us trapped between the 15th and 17th floors. Collectively, we decided to gather up all the food, water and cushions from each of the floors and move up to the 17th floor. That way, if any more stairs collapsed (if any bigger aftershocks came) we would be closer to the roof of the building. We thought that perhaps someone might be able to rescue us by helicopter.
On the other hand, we could see that there were other buildings that had been much worse hit than ours was. We assumed that the civil defence personnel would focus on rescuing people from collapsed buildings before turning their attention to us. For that reason, we collected up the food and water supplies we had before heading upstairs. We thought there was a good chance we would have to stay in the building overnight at least before anyone came to get us.
I wasn’t that keen on climbing the stairs to the 17th floor, but it seemed to be the best choice, so up we went. The emergency lighting on the 17th floor in the toilets (in the same area as the stairwells) was working. I assume this means that the shaking had been less violent at the top of the building, so that there was less damage to stairs and fittings at that height.
Once we had shifted to the 17th floor, people broke up into a few different groups in different places. Some people preferred to sit in one of the rooms in the centre of the floor. Some people focussed on cleaning up the mess of glass and broken crockery that was on the kitchen floor. At first, I went into the 17th floor boardroom. This room opened up onto the balcony – looking north-west over Victoria Square.
The room had big glass doors and partitions that wobbled alarmingly everytime another aftershock struck, so we tried to shift the chairs to the other side of room in case a glass panel shattered. We also unpacked our food and water, and settled in for a long wait. One of the people we were with had a laptop computer and a Blackberry phone. She was able to tether the computer to the phone to get on to the internet. She checked Geonet, and we discovered that the Richter scale magnitude for the quake was 6.3. We were amazed that a relatively modest earthquake had caused so much damage. She also emailed civil defence to give them more precise details of how many of us were trapped on our floors, and what condition we were in.
At some point during the afternoon, some civil defence personnel attracted our attention from the intersection below our building. We went out onto the balcony. They yelled up to us to confirm that no-one was hurt and to confirm how many of us were trapped in the building.
There was the group of us trapped between the 15th and 17th floors, and also other groups of people trapped on other floors further down the building.
The civil defence people told us that they were working on getting us out of the building, and that they might have to get us out by helicopter.
We settled in for a long wait to be rescued, still thinking we were likely to be trapped overnight. After sitting for a while, I got up to walk around. Out the windows on the east side of the building I could see that a large fire was still burning by Latimer Square. Crowds of people were by now leaving the city – mostly on foot. There were rescue workers on the roof of the Press building trying to free trapped people. We could see that shop frontages had collapsed onto the footpath and road on both sides of Colombo Street. We could see how cars had been moved around in the Farmer’s Carpark during the earthquake.
On the north side of the building we now had more time to watch and see how bad the damage was at the PGC building. A large number of rescue workers were there and a number of them were on the roof of the collapsed building, trying to break through to free people underneath. It looked as though they had set up a triage area on the grass frontage on the other side of Cambridge Terrace. People were taken there for treatment as they were freed from the building.
Sirens still sounded all over the city. Helicopters flew back and forth over the city. Some appeared to be taking water to try to put out the fire. At one point a helicopter hovered close to our building. We thought perhaps they were coming to get us out, but as it came closer we realised that it was carrying a TV camera crew.
I went back to sitting in the boardroom. We had time to chat about the damage, and about what it would mean for our business. By this stage I also had text messages coming from friends and family around the world. I told them that I and the family were ok, but that I was trapped with my workmates on the 17th floor of the Forsyth Barr building because the stairwells had collapsed. People texted back to say that they were thinking and praying for us.
By about 4pm, a large crane had pulled up on Armagh Street. We saw the crane lifting a basket onto the eastern side of the building, but we didn’t know at the time what it was doing. We later learned that it had been rescuing people from broken windows on some of the lower floors.
The crane shifted around to the Colombo Street side of the building. It was a big crane, but it didn’t look big enough to stretch to the top of the building, However, as the driver began extending the crane arm to its maximum height, we realised that it was high enough to reach to the top of the building.
Two or three rescue workers climbed into the basket and it was lifted up to free people from the building. It first stopped at the large balcony on the 9th floor. Over a couple of trips they freed the people trapped on the 9th and 10th floors.
It was then lifted up to our 17th floor. The plan was for us to climb over the balcony into the basket. Looking over the edge of the balcony, we had some trepidation about climbing over and into the basket, but when it arrived we climbed in. The crane operator positioned the crane arm so that gravity pulled the basket in against the balcony. Two rescue workers positioned themselves in each corner of the basket next to the balcony, and began pulling people in.
It took a while for the crane operators to free everyone from the 9th floor and make their way up to the 17th floor where we were waiting.
When the basket arrived at our floor, I was standing on the balcony with Peter, one of the Partners at Parry Field. It was very surreal to be speaking face to face again with someone from outside the building.
I went inside to make room so that the women could climb into the basket. My colleague Joseph leaned over to help pull the basket in against the balcony. He was later embarrassed because, once the rescue workers were ready, they pulled him into the basket before anyone else. We quickly learned that the rescue was being filmed and beamed around the world. Joseph was dismayed to think that millions of people around the world would think he forced his way into the basket before anyone else.
Because he hadn’t been expecting to be rescued yet, Joseph had left his bag inside the building. He asked me to grab it for him, so I passed to him over the side of the basket, while others were also busy climbing into the basket.
I waited inside, but one of my colleagues yelled out and said to me that there was still room in the basket, so I should climb in. The basket took about 13 of us at a time, so they rescued us in two groups.
The trip to the ground was surprisingly quick and smooth. It felt as comfortable as an ordinary lift ride. On my way down, I received a text message from my brother in Sydney to say that he was watching our rescue on TV.
When we reached the ground, I said thank you to the rescue workers and a police officer who was waiting nearby, and stepped out onto ‘solid’ ground. There was another police officer nearby, who collected all our names, employers’ names and contact details.
I phoned Louise to tell her that we had been rescued. She told me that she knew all about it because she had just watched the rescue on TV.
The second basket load of people arrived fairly quickly, including a few more of my colleagues. We set out together to walk out of the CBD. I told Louise that I would walk North, and call her again in a few minutes to try to figure out where she could pick me up from.
By this stage, the CBD was virtually deserted apart from relief workers and police. There were signs of devastation everywhere. Armagh Street looked badly damaged by the Law Courts. There was liquefied silt throughout Victoria Square and spilling out onto Colombo Street. Back south on Colombo Street beyond our building the damage was very bad.
We walked passed Cambridge Terrace, and saw the ongoing efforts at the PGC building. I was walking with one of my colleagues, and mentioned that I knew Perpetual were based in that building. One of our friends had worked for Perpetual, but had taken up a new position the week before the earthquake (we later learned that he had been in the PGC building that day, but left about 30 minutes before the earthquake). My colleague was very worried because another close friend of his also worked for Perpetual.
We reached Kilmore Street, and a Police officer told us to turn left onto Kilmore Street because the next block on Colombo Street was unsafe. We walked down Kilmore Street passed the Crowne Plaza hotel, which also looked badly damaged. Then we turned onto Durham Street and walked north again. At 5pm on a Tuesday evening, we walked down the middle of the roadway on Durham Street – ordinarily one of the busiest streets in Christchurch. We passed a few residents standing by their gates, looking dazed. There seemed to be a few sightseers riding through the CBD on bicycles.
After about 25 minutes of walking, I met up with Louise on Rutland Street. We hugged, and a sense of relief began to filter through. She had left the children with our friends, so we headed in the direction of their house. Near the CBD the roads were badly buckled, but the further out we went the better they got.
We arrived at our friends house, and the children came running out to hug me. They had watched the rescue on TV too, so had been waiting for me to arrive home. We went inside, and sat down to eat some food our friends had prepared. Their house was basically undamaged, and they had electricity and running water. The emotion and stress levels were higher than usual, but otherwise it almost seemed like any other evening. It seemed strange that life could seem so normal just a few kilometres away from what had been a most abnormal afternoon.
The next day, we began to learn of friends and acquaintances who had been killed in the earthquake. Thankfully, none of our close friends had been killed or even seriously injured, but a number of my colleagues and friends had lost friends or family.