My first week of living away from home went amazingly. Parties, outings, new friends, Homage, the best food…I already felt at home. So waking up on the morning of Tuesday, 22nd February, I really had no reason to believe my happy little bubble of life I was already accustomed to should be about to change. I even made it to breakfast that morning amidst my silly Monday night hangover, and did my first wash, and printed out my notes for that day’s lectures. Organisation on the second day of lectures? I know, what?
I sat through Anna’s sociology lecture with her for an hour at 11am as way of returning her act of kindness the previous day where she had endured my first geography lecture with me. And then at 12pm, we had our second psychology lecture. I was lost from the start, and when Anna said it was more like IB biology than psych, my mind – I’m ashamed to say – switched off of its own accord. Needless to say, the lecture theatre breathed an audible sigh of relief when our lecturer finished 7 minutes early. With our brains already turned to mush, Anna and I decided to treat ourselves to lunch at one of the on-campus cafés.
It was here that the happy hubbub of the lunch-hour took a drastic change for the worse. I can’t recall everything completely clearly, but I remember as I was standing in front of the curry counter waiting for Anna to pay, the floor beneath my feet began to move. To start with it felt like the kind of movement you’d feel walking on creaky floorboards in an old house, but soon (it must have only been seconds) we were having trouble standing upright. Some instinct of mine grabbed Anna’s arm and screamed to get down. We crouched together half-under a tiny table. I remember watching the 10 or so other people in the café get under their tables, everyone’s eyes wide with fear, the heavy lights swinging from side-to-side above our heads, the curry sloshing over the counter, the screams from outside… And then, in what was apparently 20 seconds (I lost all track of time), it was over. The power had gone out, but daylight meant there was enough light to see the destruction the earthquake had caused even inside this tiny building where we were. Like Anna, I distinctly recall the café’s owner observing the damage to his business and shaking his head in despair and also a sort of resignation as if to say “Here we go again.”
The quickness with which the earthquake happened meant I still didn’t really know what I had just experienced. One of the girls in the café said to Anna and I as we left, “That was probably about a 5. Welcome to Christchurch guys.” Even she, who clearly lived there, had no idea of the scale of the damage. Our first instinct was to leave, and it is this moment that I keep flashing back to – walking across the usually impossible-to-cross Ilam Road with cars barely moving, and looking behind me to see a huge swarm of students following us and all doing exactly the same thing – phoning their loved ones. By this point I had already txt my parents and Blake, but the congestion and damage to the phone-lines meant I had no idea whether they had got my messages or not.
As I followed Anna down the pathway to her halls of residence (they were the closest to us), the first aftershock hit. Again, the power of it made it nearly impossible to stand upright and the movement of the trees and windows around us made me realise just how much damage the earthquake could have caused. While waiting with Anna at R&R (her halls), I managed miraculously to get a call through to Blake. Amazingly, he was also fine. Getting a txt minutes later from a friend back in Auckland telling me the CBD looked ‘like a bomb had hit it’, I began to appreciate the full-scale of our lucky escapes.
I decided to run back to College House after making sure Anna was OK at R&R, and returned to find everyone huddled on the grass outside the tennis courts, each already sharing their own stories. After waiting for a while in the rain and the cold, the bursar informed us of the damage. There was a damaged stairwell on one of the houses which was inaccessible, as well as a split concrete beam above the dining hall and visible damage on the lawn. He told us our rooms were “a mess, but we’re not sure if that is due to the quake or not. Either way, go and tidy up a bit?” Even this small amount of humour was more than welcome to lighten the mood.
On my way up to my room, Dad managed to get a call through to me. I reassured them that I was OK, but as I opened my bedroom door I couldn’t help but to burst into tears. My photo frames were all over the floor (luckily only one of them smashed), and my jewellery and phone and lamp had been rudely thrown all over the place. I realise that the damage to my room is minute compared to what others have suffered, but the fact that all my belongings which I’d left neatly that morning had been broken and thrown everywhere by some unpredictable force of nature was completely horrible to see. As I was tidying up my things, placing everything on lower shelves, the second aftershock hit. This one was by far the most terrifying. Being on the third floor of the building, the movement was unbearable. I can’t effectively describe the sensation of have a ‘strong’ three-story building swaying beneath you. I saw my lamp and phone fall to the floor again (I don’t know how), and the moment the swaying stopped I ran outside onto the grass with everyone else.
Huddled in blankets and listening to someone’s battery radio, we began to gauge an understanding of the scale of this earthquake. In the hours following when the power eventually came back on, we were also able to watch the news and visually see the devastation of Christchurch CBD. You only had to glance around the faces in the common room to see that we were united in our utter disbelief and shock at the events of the afternoon.
Being unable to access my room because it was on top floor, we were all told to have sleepovers in bottom-floor rooms. This was pretty fun despite the circumstances. The tutors came in just before we went to bed to tell us of the drill in case of an emergency during the night. Talking about flushing toilets (we were having to conserve and boil water), one of them said, “It’s been generally agreed that ‘if it’s yellow let it mellow, but if it’s brown flush it down.'” And then the other tutor piped up, “But if it’s a big one, evacuate.” Everyone cracked up. She was clearly referring to a big aftershock, but yeah…I don’t need to explain where all our minds were at…
After a night of intermittent sleep and 14+ aftershocks, I got to briefly see Blake (and Nick) before starting on the long road-trip home to Auckland. I cannot thank Anna and her parents enough for getting me out of there. If I had had to stay another night or two to wait for flights out of Christchurch, I don’t think I’d have been the happiest of people. It was scary enough for one night, let alone continuing aftershocks still days afterwards. The 10+ hour journey from Christchurch to Picton to Wellington to Auckland to Blake’s was made so much better by Anna being there with me the whole time. I’d hate to imagine how I would have coped alone, so Anna, I am forever thankful 🙂 Also, thanks to Blake and fam for letting me stay for a few days before returning back up North, as well as the boys for our cute little dinner on Friday – it was fantastic to see you all so soon 🙂
And now I’m back home, pondering life. The university’s updates say that 14th March is the earliest re-start date they’re looking at, so I don’t know what my plan is until then. I’m bored here already (although it was good to see my family again), and I feel like I am definitely ready to move out of home – it’s just a question of when and where. I miss Christchurch already, but I can’t help but remind myself that returning to College House and uni down there won’t ever be quite the same as the week I experienced. It is so cruel how people’s lives can be ripped apart so brutally and suddenly. And in that respect, I count myself extremely lucky. I’ve been watching and reading the news every day and my thoughts are constantly with Cantabrians who are suffering from this horrendous act of nature. I know of people who have lost people, and I can only begin to imagine the pain and trauma that they must be experiencing. However, through this event we become stronger together. Nothing I write here could ever compare to the words of PM John Key, Mayor Bob Parker, or Supt. Dave Cliff – everything these three men have said over the past 6 days has been full of respect, encouragement, power and emotion, all at exactly the same time. It’s times like these that we can learn to see ourselves as lucky, even the most unlucky of us. We have support from all over the world – from Christchurch’s own Student Volunteer Army, to rescue teams from the UK, the USA and China. Everyone’s heart goes out to everyone else. We are all thinking of you Christchurch.
This is the first song I remember hearing post-quake (albeit on Friday afternoon in Blake’s car on the radio). But the lyrics ring true.