Just over ten years ago I embarked on my first big travel experience. I booked a one way ticket to New Zealand for just me. What was originally intended as a short holiday, soon turned into a 15 month stay in this amazing country. About 10 weeks into my trip, I was back in Christchurch for a few days. However it appeared mother nature had other ideas…
Please be warned there may be images or writing in this post that you may find distressing if you have been in an earthquake or were here. All pictures in this post are my own unless otherwise stated.
This is very difficult for me to have written. At the time of this experience and my travels; I was using tumblr and twitter regularly to log my trip but I later made my accounts of this day private, to help with my own mental health.
On the 22nd of February 2011 at 12:51 a disaster struck the city. An earthquake at a magnitude of 6.3 hit us.
I heard thunder but it came from the ground. At that moment I froze. The ground shook up and down, and side to side. I tried to scream and wanted to… but nothing happened. I went to run but again my body didn’t respond. Luckily my fella at the time ran into the room and grabbed me to get me out of the house, whilst things were falling.
Everyone was outside, we heard an echoing of so many car sirens and building alarms coming from most directions. Our power had gone and the building was a bit fractured. We knew others would be worse off. The floorboards had been pushed up by the ground. There was a couple of small cracks in the wall of the main room and superficial damage. Most of the cupboards were emptied onto the floor and the items on the shelving above me at the time had all be launched on to the floor and even across the room. Thankfully nothing heavy hit me.
Once I was outside I looked to the side of the house and there was a large crack to the back of the house and part of it had subsided. It was still what the group deemed safe, but looking back it really wasn’t.
Some small aftershocks hit us every few minutes. We listened to the car radio as the power was out in the house and we soon found out the city had lost power. I became really scared of the aftershocks, knowing that each one could bring more instability to the cities foundations. Just knowing that the ground could soften, split and shake at any moment was very unnerving. As we listened to the radio the announcements of deaths, destruction and injuries around the city. We knew we were lucky!
Following some smaller aftershocks for about 30 minutes the lads in the house, decided they needed to check if they had to be at university. It was their first day back for the academic year and they hadn’t received any contact saying otherwise. They also knew they would probably need to reform the UCSA (University of Canterbury Student Army) with what they were hearing. I was reassured that there would still be one of the girls in the house and that the aftershocks are a good sign… “the big one is done”.
So I went to the room I was sleeping in and thought I best let my family know i’m ok before they see it on the news. The phone signals weren’t working consistently as so many people were making calls across the city. But I got through late at night in England. I let my mum know the house is still standing, there are things broken and that fell, a few cracks in the wall and floor… but i’m ok. But they should prepare themselves for the news, as we didn’t know what that would look like but there were people dead.
Whilst I was on the phone I was trying to take my mind off things and stay calm. I was asking my mother about family back home. I had noticed a few of my cousins being strange and suddenly not messaging back, I felt something was wrong or had happened that I wasn’t being told about. My mother took an audible gulp and said my name… I knew. My nana had passed away, who I was very close to. Both my mum and nana had asked the family not to tell me so I didn’t feel I had to come home. What a blow… this was honestly the toughest day I had ever experienced as I spent years being partly raised by her whilst my parents work many jobs to support us.
Whilst on the phone at 13:04 came a large destructive 5.8 aftershock. Just whilst I was just processing this news and I screamed… things fell and crashed, the sirens of cars rang loud and echoing through the streets even more than before and the phone cut off. There was no signal. I didn’t know if this would be another big one, I couldn’t freeze this time and I needed to move.
I moved and went to the main room where one of the housemates ran back inside. She was listening to the announcements on the radio still. Deaths were being recorded, we were being told not to drink from the taps, to avoid flushing toilets, that power was down over most of the city and surrounding suburbs.
Shortly after the first Earthquake came more aftershocks. Literally 100’s of aftershocks within that first 24 hours. One of them of noticeable and damaging size. If you click the link below it will show you the location of the earthquakes as they were tracked, the size and where they could be felt.
With the news of that passing and the earthquake that had just happened about 30 minutes before I knew I had to stay. I didn’t feel right leaving the city. My flight had been cancelled anyway, but even the emergency flights that were allowing others to escape the city were quickly filling up and I didn’t really know the people or place I was going to anyway. Along with this I was really worried about my partner at the time and felt so strange to leave him there (where he lives) in a city with so much damage.
My fella (at the time) and his housemates all came back in minutes after, telling us that it was worse than they thought. As they headed towards the CBD and towards the University buildings had collapsed, partially sunk, the ground had softened and swallowed cars and liquefaction was back. I had never heard this term before but it was essentially the ground becoming liquid and flooded the streets. The result of this in the days it dried up was silt (a mixture of sewage and soil and it needed to be dug up).
We decided to stay put and stay safe. We were in a bungalow and knew we were safer than others. We kept trying to get through to everyones family to let them know we are ok and struggled but eventually managed it.
An elderly neighbour came round with a large urn of hot water to offer us (young 19/20 year olds) a hot drink and see if we needed anything. She was walking with a frame and had this on a tray.
Other neighbours showed their faces and spoke with the group about the damage in their homes, a few of them had been caught by things falling or being thrown. Some of the bungalows had worse damage and some less.
We went to check some the safety of one of the lads friends who had just had a baby and were living out in the peninsula where we heard there was a land slide.
As we drove past the CBD we were in silence. The army had cordoned off the CBD to protect citizens from falling buildings and to perform more rescue efforts. People walking around were crying and still screaming the day after.
- Entire roads torn in half and lifted way above the opposite side.
- The ground split into two with cavities
- Buildings that were crumbling with each aftershock
- Other buildings that completely crashed or pancaked during the quake at noon.
The friend we went to check had evacuated the city and got on an emergency flight with her baby and was waiting to get a flight up to Auckland from another airport.
- The after effects of the silt were causing respiratory health issues for many residents in the city (with many needing to wear masks to walk the streets).
- Portaloo’s were flown in from America and Europe and places on the streets for others to use.
- People were homeless living in the park and having aid brought to them by the major supermarkets and takeaways (subway was one we saw a lot etc). The armed forces were joined by British, American and Australian soldiers to help with the efforts to keep everyone safe.
- We had to boil water to drink, wash etc.
- We had to live with regular power outages
- We had to live with the sirens of the cars and city alarms that I will never forget
We were lucky to be alive, 185 and were not so lucky and lost their lives that day with a similar amount of people left with serious injuries.
The sense of community is something I will forever admire. The kindness shown to me by strangers whilst I was stuck in the city. I ended up spending 3 more months in the city before another earthquake struck at 6.0 and it got a bit too much. As cheesy as it sounds being in a natural disaster like this amongst many other experience changed my attitude and approach to life. I was very very timid before travelling and no one believed I would do it. Although I still have introvert traits and a certain amount of this timidness. If I want to do something with my life I go full force with it. Sometimes a little too impulsively, especially when it comes to travel or my career.
I unfortunately in the weeks and months following this saw some things no person should ever have to see. And the fear for myself and the others around me took a long time to be able to look forward and not jump at the sound of thunder and hit the floor or get under a doorway (these reactions became an ingrained response that took a long time to lose).
Kia Kaha Christchurch. Forever in my heart. I have written another post that is scheduled about Christchurch and what to do and see in this wonderful city with some of the newer attractions. Christchurch was and is so much more than the disastrous day.
Photos from the Red Zone
The above two photos are stock images taken within the red zone and cordon by photographers who were permitted to enter.
This area of the city was still illegal to access, with armed forces at the barriers 3 months afterwards. But I wanted to include these as the images in the rest of this post show outside of this area in the outer limits of the CBD.