I was sitting at my dining room table at lunchtime on February 22 2011, eating a sandwich and reading the paper. My mother in law (visiting us from the UK) was in her bedroom, sitting on her bed, listening to a talking book. She would normally have been wandering around the central city but had fortuitously decided to stay back today to finish her book as it was due back at the library.
My husband was at work and the kids were at school.
Then suddenly… BAM! No build up, just straight into violent up and down shaking. This felt totally different from the 7.1 quake in September 2010, which had felt like a strong side to side shunting.
I immediately realised that this was bad, really bad. Everything started crashing off shelves and the noise was tremendous (nothing fell off our shelves in the 7.1 quake, weirdly enough). I leapt under the doorframe, then heard my mother in law screaming from her room. I ran down the hall, grabbed her off her bed (the bookcase had crashed down onto the bed, just missing her) and pulled her under the nearest doorframe with me. We clung to each other until the jolting stopped.
Once it stopped I led my mother in law outside, as I really did not want to be inside for another quake (and I knew more would follow). We ran through the lounge and saw the TV had toppled, as had the computer, and the kitchen was a mess of broken glass and food.
I couldn’t stop prattling on – a nervous reaction I guess. The amateur seismologist in me had to know WHERE, HOW DEEP, and most importantly, HOW BIG. I kept blurting out things like “That was so much bigger than the 7.1! It must be an 8! Definitely an 8! Or a 6 centred right underneath us!”
I ran down the driveway to the street and joined scores of shell shocked people. Sirens filled the air, and as we looked down towards the inner city (I live quite close to the centre of town) I was shocked to see a dust cloud rising. “Oh my god! Buildings definitely came down in that one!”
I went back to my mother in law as the earth kept rumbling beneath us. I knew that the kids were no doubt safe at school (they do a lot of earthquake drills) but that we should go and get them anyway. Then a large aftershock hit and the entire block of houses leapt and bucked in the air and people were screaming in fear and anger.
I grabbed my handbag, mobile phone and keys (running quickly inside to get these, then straight out again) and we started walking to school (I could already see that driving would be a stupid idea, as there were cars everywhere). Our 15 minute walk took us past the Stanmore Road shops, and I tried not to get emotional about all the collapsed buildings and the people desperately digging in the rubble to get to the people buried underneath.
Everyone was out on the streets and everyone asked the same question of each other – “Are you alright?”
I got to the school and was impressed that there was a strict emergency plan in place – staff on each gate issuing instructions. All the children were sitting in the middle of the open air playground area, many crying, all looking very scared. Teachers were sitting and cuddling several children at once, trying to comfort them. The air was thick with dust from collapsed buildings and smoke from fires. A burst water pipe had cracked through the surface of the basketball courts and water was seeping everywhere. It was like a war zone.
I saw my kids – they were looking incredibly traumatised and had been crying a lot. They clung to me and we sat down at the edge of the playground to wait for my husband, who’d texted me to say he’d meet me there. One of my best friend’s daughters was hysterical, so I grabbed her too and we had a big group hug for about half an hour, trying to calm down, trying to make light of the bigger aftershocks, which were rumbling through on average every five minutes.
My husband arrived, and we headed home. We had to leave all school bags, lunches, jumpers, etc in the classrooms, as no-one was allowed to go inside any buildings.
We were glad we were on foot, as the traffic was gridlocked. We walked on the side of the roads, keeping our eyes above us – we walked under no power cables, no shop awnings. We avoided the few brick walls that were still standing.
We warned the children about the collapsed shops before we got to them – it was just as horrendous as it’d been an hour earlier, except that no-one was now digging through rubble anymore.
We got home and realised that there was no power and no water. We put the kids on the trampoline and gave them a tub of ice cream and a spoon each – told them the trampoline would disguise the aftershocks and the ice cream needed to be eaten or else it would melt. Slowly the kids calmed down.
Liquefaction had appeared on our street – not as bad as some streets in town, but it was still a shock to see the little “sand volcanoes” having pushed their way through the tarmac of the roads and footpaths.
We used our mobile phones to text friends and family, and thankfully everyone was accounted for. My friend and her children arrived and they stayed for the next few hours as the roads were gridlocked out of town (they were hoping to get up to Kaiapoi to stay with her parents, as their house in South Brighton had been badly damaged). We listened to our little wind up radio, trying to get information on what was happening.
At one stage we went for a walk around the block – we passed The Red Verandah cafe and were sad but unsurprised to see it badly damaged. I continued on to my friend’s house in Gloucester Street and was sad to see the entire back of her house had collapsed (she and her family were safe thankfully). We were also spellbound by the sight of a large column of smoke and helicopters with monsoon buckets – we now know that the smoke was coming from the CTV building, a few blocks from our house.
Cracks were everywhere, many brick walls had collapsed, and the previously flat roads were now full of bumps, lumps and sinkholes.
Night fell, we got out the candles, and tried to get some sleep. It was a difficult night – the aftershocks were regular and the neighbourhood was silent and dark. I stayed awake til midnight, listening to talkback on my little wind up radio and feeling shell shocked.