– University to Lyttleton to Sumner

February 2011
University of Canterbury
English Building
I remember eating lunch at my desk, and looking at the clock, and thinking that the student who had wanted to meet with me should be showing up soon. Then I heard the rumble and the building started to shake. My office is only on the third floor, so the shaking was not as bad as it was for some, but almost immediately I realized I needed to get under my desk — which is, fortunately, a large, old-fashioned one — and so I did. The quake seemed to go on and on, and some books fell from the shelves. But when it was over, I just thought that it was a particularly sharp and long-lasting aftershock. I didn’t realize how bad it had been. I poked my head out of my office and a colleague yelled at me “Get out Jennifer!” So I grabbed my bags and got out.

Outside we were all mingling in the nearest parking lot. I wasn’t sure if my husband had been on campus, or on his way to work, and I was trying to see if he was there. I met up with my colleague Phil and we made the mistake of walking back towards the buildings. It was then that the first big aftershock hit, and the building above us was terrifying as it creaked and swayed. We retreated back to the parking lot.

Eventually Phil and another colleague, Jennifer, and I got into Phil’s car to try to get back to the Lyttleton-Sumner area. We knew by then that the epicenter had been in that area and I was imagining the worst. I also knew that my husband might have taken a number 3 bus, and by then we had heard that one of those buses had been crushed. I felt chilled and I shook, and sometimes cried. The other two were calmer but of course still upset.

We got to Jennifer’s house in Graham Road fairly quickly, and she lent me a sweater. Then Phil and I set out for what we knew would be a long drive. And it was. As we sat in traffic we listened to the news on the radio getting worse and worse. Eventually Phil decided to go over Dyer’s Pass, as it was clear that we wouldn’t get anywhere on Moorhouse or on the highway going east. He thought the Sumner Road might possibly still be open from Lyttleton. I doubted this, but I thought I could always walk home if I had to.

We got over Dyer’s Pass eventually, passing stunned people, crumpled houses, and lots of liquefaction going through Cashmere. Going down the pass we had to skirt boulders in some places, and we could see the same on the road to Lyttleton.

When we turned into Lyttleton, we saw another colleague who was standing near his house; he looked dazed, but he said he was ok, although his house’s chimney had collapsed. As we drove through the town we saw the churches sagging badly, although most houses — from the outside — didn’t look too bad. We drove up the road towards the Time Ball and the Sumner Road, but even before we got there people told us the road was closed up there. Before we turned around we saw the Time Ball looking like a medieval ruin, its walls gaping.

At Phil’s house his partner and her mother were clearly shaken but otherwise unharmed. Annie’s mother was distressed that she couldn’t offer me tea, as the power was off, and I thought that was very kind although all I really wanted was to get home, rather like Dorothy and Kansas. Annie lent me socks and sneakers, and Phil a knapsack, and he announced his intention to take me up the path, as it was clear by now that only walking was an option. I told him he didn’t have to, of course, but as it turned out I was grateful not only for his company, but for his guidance. The path was so covered with boulders that it was hard to see where it was supposed to go, in some places.

Later we were told that a couple of people had died up there, and even before we started up the path a woman warned us it was dangerous. But we went anyway, and nothing happened. We encountered one man returned to Lyttleton after escorting his sister in law (I think) to Sumner, and he hadn’t had any problems either. Phil said goodbye at the top of the hill — he had the most dangerous bit to do again — and I continued on, but from there the path has no overhanging cliffs and it was completely clear. I could look down onto Sumner, which from that distance looked the same as ever, and almost enjoy being above all the destruction and anxiety for a while.

At the bottom of the hill I faced the prospect of walking down Evans Pass Road with no enthusiasm, but there were some workers there and one, who was returning home, kindly offered me a lift. He dropped me at my street and I stumbled down it, dreading returning and wishing I were there already. Before I could go up to my house several neighbors hailed me, asking how I was, and then my husband appeared and came down with the dogs. There was no emotional greeting, as we just talked about what had happened, and Christian showed me the bricks that had fallen off the house and the window that had imploded.

We did some more cleaning before bed that day — he had already done most of it — but I was still in shock, still shaking sometimes, still cold. Sometimes you wonder when the shock really wears off. The obvious symptoms go, but your mind is scarred by it for a long time.

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