Christchurch Earthquakes Part 2: Our City Has Fallen

It all happened today, 4 years ago.

The 22nd of February 2011 is a day that Christchurch will never forget.

It started off as a normal Tuesday lunch time for me. I’d eaten with a friend at lunch and then I went off to study in the university library before my next class, which was at 1pm. The library was always full of people at lunch times and I sat down at a small coffee table that was in between two book shelves.

I remember my textbooks were spread out on the table, and I was texting my friend in Dunedin who was studying at Otago University at the time. I was just thinking about packing up my things to go to class, when the clock struck 12:51 pm.

BOOM. The earthquake came out of nowhere, with absolutely no warning. It was the most violent shake – more like an explosion – as if a freight train had just crashed into the side of the building. The roaring sound it made was all consuming, and a midst that I could hear screams – some that were probably my own. Books flew in all directions, all of the lights went out and a light shade fell from above, hitting me on the head. And then it stopped.

Since we were children, we were always told to get under a table or doorway in an earthquake, but the table I was at was about knee-height…and made of glass. The earthquake was less than 10 seconds long and it was so much like a scene in a movie that all I could do was sit there in shock and watch it all happening around me.

Immediately after the quake, loud sirens went off throughout the building. People were getting to their feet and holding each other as they made their way towards the exit in the darkness. I gathered up my books that had scattered across the floor and followed the other people out of the emergency exit into the main car park.

A big crowd of students and staff were already out there, and I found my classmates and teachers. We all asked where each other had been and agreed that the earthquake itself must have been around magnitude 8; it had felt so strong. Someone asked my teacher if classes were still on and he replied, “Of course not! Go home!”

That was when we started to realise that the concept of normality was over. People were frantically calling their families, only to find the phone lines jammed because of so many other people doing the same thing. I texted my friend in Dunedin, telling her what had happened and she told me that they’d felt it down there too.

Soon after that my Mum found me in the crowd (she worked at my university) and told me that my Dad and my brother were fine, which was a huge relief. The university was near the city centre and our house was a 30 minute drive away, but my brother had our family car. We presumed that the buses weren’t running anymore, so we started the long walk home.

That walk home was the most surreal experience of my life. The city was in a post-apocalyptic state and sirens were still ringing from every building we passed. People were walking in crowds and traffic on the road was heavy. We found my Dad when we were about half way; he was also walking home. Roads were flooded and we had to walk through dirty water at one point.

The whole time we were walking, I was terrified at what state our house would be in. Our house is over 90 years old and I imagined it being flattened in the earthquake. When we finally got home 2 and a half hours later, we found the house still standing, but the inside was an absolute mess.

The entire contents of the fridge was spilled out all over the kitchen floor, smashed glass was everywhere, framed pictures and our television screen had fallen down. The plaster of the ceiling had come down in some rooms and there was white dust everywhere. Two huge suitcases had flown across the room and landed onto the pillows of my parents’ bed – right where their heads would have been if they’d been sleeping there.

Our house had no power and no running water, so all we could do right then was to start cleaning up the mess. My brother got home with the car a while later – it had taken him 4 hours to get home, for what normally would have been a 30 minute drive.

We listened to what was happening on the radio and we ate leftovers in the dark for dinner. The death toll was 65 so far, with more than 200 people trapped or missing. We all slept in the same room for comfort that night while strong aftershocks rocked the house.We lived near some high cliffs and we could hear big rocks falling after each aftershock.

All I could think about were the people still trapped in buildings and I prayed that they would be safe. It was a long and sleepless night filled with fear and anxiety.

The next morning we decided it would be best to leave the city and go to my Grandma’s house in Geraldine, which was a 2 hour drive away. It took a long time to get out of the city because there were so many detours, but we finally managed it and had a smooth run to my Grandma’s house from there.

The first thing we did when we got there was to turn the television on. Although we had experienced the earthquake disaster first hand, we actually knew nothing about what had happened in other parts of the city because we only knew what we’d seen for ourselves. When we turned that T.V on and saw the footage, we finally understood the sheer magnitude of the situation.

The aerial footage showed a city that was unrecognisable. It looked like a war zone. When we saw that the Christchurch Cathedral, the symbol of our city, had been destroyed, we gave out cries of shock. The Christchurch we all knew and loved had crumbled to the ground and was lost forever. Our city had fallen.

The earthquake itself was first released as 6.5 magnitude, but was later downgraded to 6.3. What made this earthquake so much more destructive than the September 2010 quake was that the epicentre was just 10 kilometres away from the city centre and had a depth of 5 kilometres (The 2010 one was 40 kilometres away with a depth of 10 kilometres).

We all collapsed into bed early that night; we were still shaky and in shock over what had happened. It was a relief to be away from the strong aftershocks because they were really beginning to take a toll on our nerves – there was the ever constant fear that the next aftershock would turn into another huge earthquake.

The next day (24 February) we kept the T.V on all day; just watching for any news of more survivors. The death toll was up to 98 and 226 people were still missing. Dad was called into work to help at the Christchurch Art Gallery which was being used as the Rescue Headquarters. He left us and went back to Christchurch.

It was such a strange feeling during that time; we were all hanging in limbo. The immediate future was dark – we had no idea what was going to happen next and we had no idea how Christchurch could ever come back from this much destruction. The central city was cordoned off and all buildings had to be checked for damage; no businesses or schools were running until they were given the all clear.

We ended up staying at my Grandma’s house in Geraldine for three weeks. Dad camped in our house with no power and running water during that time. The final death toll was 185 and more than half of the deaths occurred in the Canterbury Television Building (CTV) which collapsed and caught fire in the quake. Our family friend also passed away in that building. The whole city mourned for every precious life lost.

But out of the loss and heartbreak of every person in Christchurch, something else began to rise from the rubble.

We started hearing stories of people that were helping neighbours, people that were helping strangers, everyone was helping everyone. An outpouring of love, support and help came from all corners of the country and even from around the globe. Human strength and compassion was in full strength. People and their lives were more important than houses or possessions, and that was how it always should be.

The disaster showed us the fragility of life and what was really of value within it. We Cantabrians are resilient and through this devastation, we were all certain about one thing.

Christchurch would rise again, and we would rise with it.

Our thoughts and prayers will always be with the seriously injured and the family and friends of the deceased.

This video was shot just seconds after the earthquake hit Cathedral Square in the city centre. You can see how much dust was in the air and how the Christchurch Cathedral was destroyed.

This video was also taken just after the earthquake hit. You can see the state of the cameraman’s house and what the situation was like in the city centre as people were evacuating. Whole streets of buildings were destroyed. It felt so surreal watching this video – I even spotted some people that I knew in it.

A documentary called When a City Falls was made about the earthquakes with Christchurch people’s stories. The video above is the trailer.