Unlimited Paenga Tawhiti, the high school located in the very center of town, Cashel Street in fact, is where I have worked as a teacher for the last few years. On the 22nd of February as I went into what would be my last day working in town, there was not a bone in my body that ever suspected the chaos that was about to rock our city.
We had a PPTA union meeting on that day, a few staff had been to the morning session so that they could be available to supervise students at school in the afternoon while the rest of us were off at the afternoon session. The meeting was due to start at 1pm and so we had planned for us all to meet up at the town hall at 12.45pm to do a quick roll check. It was 12.35pm and I quickly sent off a few last emails, closed my laptop, grabbed my bag, ran down the stairs and shot off out the front door.
12.45pm and I had made it in time to meet up with the rest of the staff, I quickly marked off all those who were present, told everyone to go into the main auditorium and waited for the last few staff to arrive. 12.49pm and I had marked off the last few late arrivals and I checked my watch, had a quick few minutes to pop to the bathroom before the meeting began. Everyone else headed in and I shot off down the corridor to the men’s bathroom. I had just got in front of the urinal when the floor first wobbled. My brain went through an interesting thought process, I literally started saying to myself “oh great… another aftersho…” which quickly became “no no no no oh my god no no no no” – the floor heaved up and down, the power was cut and the bathroom went black – I looked around and all I had to hide under was toilets, urinals, and sinks – I immediately told myself I was not going to die in a bathroom! and I ran for the door out to the corridor. I say ran, but it was more like I was very drunk, stumbling in diagonal patterns, trying not to fall over. The room was shaking, the rumbling was so so loud, and I was freaking out. I got down the corridor and pinned myself against the wall, watching out into the hall seeing the windows shatter, people scrambling for the doors, chandeliers smashing back and forth on the roof and coming crashing down around us. Then it stopped, I ran for the door, and within seconds I was out in the street. I collapsed on the ground, hyperventilating, trying hard not to join the many many people around me who were crying. Next came a billowing dust cloud, rushing down Kilmore street, my immediate though was “what building was that which just collapsed….” I stood up and got out my iPhone and started texting my family. I remember having to brush the dust off my phone which was clouding the screen in my attempt to text. “I’m ok!” is all the text said, but it was all I could type off to my family letting them know I was safe, knowing that the networks were about to crash. I then switched to my facebook app and posted the same thing as a status update, then put my phone back in my pocket. I can’t imagine living in a world without technology to keep us in touch with one-another. I looked around and found a workmate of mine Megan, who was in tears, we hugged, it was all we could do, we both looked at each other and said “this is really bad, there will be people dead”.
We knew all 400 of our students were still at school, a few hundred meters back in town, with only a few staff doing the afternoon supervision. I said to Megan we had to get back to school as they would need us. We linked our arms together and I supported her as we stumbled through the broken street towards Colombo street. I don’t remember feeling any aftershocks from that time, all I remember is the sirens and alarms ringing out across the city, intermingled with screams and cries from people all around us who were devastated at what they could see. Looking up Colombo street to the north all the facades on the shops along there had collapsed, we didn’t have time to think about whether people were trapped in there, our heads were on our students and getting back to them.
We stumbled over the Colombo street bridge, the edges of which on the roading had been torn as the bridge moved. I saw another workmate of ours, Allan, talking to someone on the bridge, I yelled at him to “get off the bridge” as we shot past, heading towards the cathedral square. At that moment I did not trust anything – not the buildings, not the bridges, not even the ground. All we could see ahead of us was dust, there was dust everywhere, we couldn’t see the cathedral down the road, all we saw were people running as fast as they could in the opposite direction to us. All throughout Victoria Square there were patches of liquefaction bursting up out of the ground – as if giant water pipes had burst underground, the entire area was a mess.
We made it down towards the square when we ran into someone coming in the other direction who told us that the Cathedral had collapsed and that Police were shutting down the area and we probably would not be able to get through. We had to make a decision and decided to go to Latimer Square – our designated school evacuation location, to meet up with the rest of the school there. We staggered through the middle of broken streets, looking up and judging all the buildings around us – is that one safe – is it moving – is it looking like it is about to collapse on us. Some buildings we walked past, others we ran, it was just a nightmare. We finally made it to Latimer Square to find many hundred other people finding refuge from the buildings around us. Smoke was billowing out from the south end of the park – from what we would later learn was the CTV building.
We waited and waited, eventually a few students started to appear. We were freaking out because we didn’t know if our buildings had stood up to the quakes, if any students or staff were dead, it was too much to think about and we had to lock it out of our heads. Soon more and more arrived, we gathered them together and started comforting those who we could. The sirens and alarms continued to ring out across the city, never ending, constantly keeping us alert as the aftershocks rocked through. Eventually we learned that the school buildings were fine, that everyone was evacuating, and were on their way to the park. Many students and staff were in tears, but we were making it through. We put on our brave faces to keep the students calm while processing in our heads the devastation around us. Many students wanted to leave and go home but we did not know whether their parents were alive, or whether they even had a home to go to any more. I don’t know why i wasn’t crying my eyes out at that point in time, i guess it was about keeping calm and reassuring the students, but whenever I think back to that, even to this day I still well up with tears. We just told them to sit tight and wait for their parents to arrive when they could. Then at 2.50pm a large aftershock hit, it felt like we were standing on a swing bridge, the ground just moved back and forth, tree’s swayed, and people who had calmed down before burst back out into tears in fear. We watched from the park as the front of a building down Worchester Street collapsed into the street. I hugged more workmates as we comforted each other, all worried about our friends and family who were unheard of through the chaos. Parents were turning up scared for their children, bursting into tears of joy when finally making contact with them, hugging them so tight and not wanting to let go.
We were at that park for the next few hours, doing head counts, taking down student’s names, meeting parents, comforting who we could, organising ourselves and our plans ahead. Eventually the police came and told us that they were emptying the park as they needed to set it up as an emergency response site. I can’t remember whether it was a student or parent, but someone turned up and told us that the rest of the school was down at the CPIT carpark. They had evacuated out through the bus exchange and found that they had been unable to get through the rubble to Latimer square so had gone there instead. We gathered the remaining students and staff and began our group trek through the liquefaction filled streets down to the CPIT carpark. It took us a while but we eventually got there and we were there with students until around 6pm when the sun started setting. Most parents had turned up to collect their children by this stage which was reassuring, we still knew nothing about the full extent of the damage and destruction, only what we had seen around us at the time. My phone was ringing, it was my Dad, he finally was managing to get through, I managed to quickly fill him in that I was ok, it turns out in my adrenaline mode earlier I had forgotten to include him in the text I sent out, but he had luckily heard from my sisters that I was ok. My mum later informed me that at the time she was also worried sick as I had text at 12.52pm and then she had not heard any more – getting worried knowing buildings were still collapsing in the city with continuing aftershocks but not knowing whether I had managed to get out of there alive.
I walked with a student and another staff member – KJ, down to Sydenham where I lived, KJ continued on to walk the student home, and I went to go face finding out whether my house was still standing. It was, but the inside was a mess, everything that had not been on the floor before now was. My flatmate turned up home at that time too and we quickly packed a bag of clothes, locked up the house and jumped in her car, driving off to her parents house in Dunsandel.
There we remained until Saturday when I managed to get a flight to Nelson to finally get to see my family. All we could do in the days following was watch TV and try and process the extent of the event which had done this to us on that fateful day. I lost my workplace, I lost my possessions, I lost my sanity, but thankfully we did not lose any students or staff to the earthquake – the greatest blessing possible.