February 22 2011 started out as a cloudy, unusually cool day. My fiancée and I headed to university in heavy traffic. The day seemed fairly ordinary; we went to work in our respective departments. At lunchtime the weather had cleared to the extent that I decided to take a short walk around campus. I was walking alongside the Avon River, adjacent to the Student Association building, when I felt the ground jump under my feet. I paused. The footpath suddenly shook violently. Cars on University Drive rocked back and forward. Everything was being wrenched and thrown around by this new quake. The shaking went on for approximately 15 seconds. When it finished I uttered something like “good thing we were outside for that!” to the other pedestrians who were nearby. I then quickly sent a bulk text to my fiancée and friends who I knew were either on campus or in town. I jogged over to my department, knowing that we would be evacuated, at least for a time. I met up with colleagues who had been inside; they told me the shaking felt worse than in September. This was not a good sign.
In truth, it took some time for us to realise just how bad things were. I reasoned that we might have experienced a magnitude 5 event; or perhaps the quake had been centred right under the university? Being that no buildings had collapsed on campus, and no one was obviously injured, it was initially difficult to know the full extent of what had happened. As we stood in the carpark a significant aftershock occurred; like the event at 12.51, this quake had a great deal of vertical acceleration. I could feel the ground drop and watched and the buildings around us swayed significantly. This day was indeed different to September…
I eventually found my fiancée and some of her colleagues on the other side of campus. On the way there I happened to spot Dr Mark Quigley, the University of Canterbury geologist who had attained national prominence following the September quake. I asked Dr. Quigley about the size of the quake we had just experienced; he told me Geonet were reporting it as a 6.3 centred in the Heathcote Valley. Surprised by the size and location of the quake, I asked whether it could still be classed as an aftershock. He speculated (rightly, it would turn out) that the quake was probably triggered by events in September.
The scale of what had occurred that dreadful afternoon was soon made apparent to me by the number of aircraft now flying over the city. I have never seen so many helicopters in the sky at once outside of an air show. The Westpac Rescue Helicopter was stretched to capacity; Garden City Helicopters and others were helping to ferry badly injured people to any hospitals they could. I now understood that many people had died and hundreds more were injured. Reinforcing the scale of the disaster, an Air force Orion and Hercules carrying army personnel and supplies flew over us, en route to the airport. Disasters of this nature were previously seen only on the news or in films; to be in the middle of it all was surreal.