Christchurch Earthquakes Part 1: The First Shake

Porritt Park, Wainoni

It all started on a Saturday morning. The 4th of September 2010, to be exact.

At 4:35am, Christchurch was shaken awake out of its slumber by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake.

I woke with a start as my bunk bed shook, and I saw my tall bookshelf opposite me rocking back and forth. I couldn’t quite believe what was happening and all I could do was sit bolt upright and shout for Mum and Dad.

The earthquake itself was long, noisy and had a rolling motion that lasted for about 40 seconds.

We had a family friend from Wellington staying in my brother’s room at the time, sleeping on a futon on the floor. My parents found him clutching the unsteady bookshelf next to him; he’d had to hold it during the quake to prevent it from toppling over and onto him.

Dad promptly switched on the radio for any news and the rest of us checked if the rest of the house was okay. Pictures on the walls were skewed, but there was no major damage as far as we could tell…until we went outside and discovered that our brick chimney had been twisted out of shape.

My Dad had to take down our chimney shortly afterwards

Later in the day we found out that the earthquake epicentre had been 40 kilometres away, near an inland town called Darfield. The earthquake hypocentre had been a shallow depth of 10 kilometres. There was widespread damage to buildings, roads and houses and some people had been injured, but luckily no one had been killed as a direct result of the earthquake. We all agreed that it was a miracle.

Crushed car on the street in Sydenham

Although we were told not to do it, we drove around the city to see the damage after lunch. This was referred to as ‘rubbernecking’. I don’t know what we were expecting as we drove into town, but we were flabbergasted at what we saw. Whole brick buildings had crumbled onto the streets, shops had shelves overturned and bottles and glass had smashed everywhere. It was a total mess.

Collapsed brick building in Sydenham

The area around my high school had been badly affected; roads had been cracked open like scenes from an apocalyptic movie and a steel bridge had been warped out of shape. Some suburbs were flooded and some were without power and water.

A huge fissure running down Avonside Drive

This was also our first introduction to the phenomenon known as ‘liquefaction’. Liquefaction is when saturated or partly saturated soil turns to liquid because of earthquake tremors and flows out of the ground in huge amounts. Once it’s out, it dries up as this awful grey sludge that is really hard to clean up. Some areas of Christchurch that were built on swamp land were more susceptible to this.

Liquefaction rears its ugly head

Amazing stories started popping up after the earthquake too, like the teenager who fell out of his second storey room because the wall next to him had collapsed, and yet he walked away out of the rubble with only bruises. Here is a news bulletin about the earthquake below:

Although there was widespread damage and a lot of clean up to get things back up and running again, we were all just grateful that there had been no casualties. We even joked that Santa Claus wouldn’t be able to visit Christchurch that year because of all of the chimneys that had fallen down.


Little did we know that the very worst was yet to come…