When You’re a Lucky One: Surviving a Killer Earthquake

On February 22, 2011, the city of Christchurch in Canterbury, New Zealand was struck by a destructive 6.3 earthquake that killed 181 people. Mr. Cesy and I were living in Christchurch at the time. This is my account of what it was like to try and deal with something so catastrophic.

Mr. Cesy and I had moved to Christchurch after I finished University in December 2010. We were keen to start post-University life somewhere new, and Christchurch fit the bill. It was the second biggest city in the country, the main city for the South Island and somewhere we were both comfortable with. Mr. Cesy got a job in a camping store and I was doing a 13-week course required for admission to the Bar, with the intention of finding a job as a lawyer after that.We were well aware that a large earthquake had occurred in September 2010 in Canterbury. We were both several hundred kilometres from it when it hit, but had felt the 7.1 quake that had caused much damage, but, thankfully, killed no one. Christchurch was suffering some aftershocks but everyone was optimistic about the future of city. It was a vibrant town made up of stoic people who got on with life. Cantabrians pride themselves on taking things on the chin and moving on. We settled into life in Christchurch, enjoying our new exciting environment.

On Boxing Day 2010, I pottered around our flat while Mr. Cesy went off to work. Our flatmate came home mid-morning and I went downstairs to say hello and ask about his Christmas. As we chatted, the house started to shake violently. Our flatmate dived directly for the nearest door frame while I frantically looked for somewhere safe to hide. Just as I was throwing chairs across the room to get under the table, the shaking stopped. We ran outside to where our flatmate’s mother and brother were unloading the car. They were fine but said being outside in an earthquake was one of the most surreal things they’d been through. As we chatted, another one hit and I found out for myself that they were completely right. Watching trees and houses move around you, shaking violently, is something you never expect to see, so when it does, you can do little but watch in horror. After a strong cup of coffee, my flatmate and his family headed off for their family function, leaving me alone and slightly freaked out. I spent the day outside, riding out various aftershocks that came on through, listening to the emergency vehicles screaming down the main road three blocks from our house. Later that night, we discovered the shocks were centred directly under our house. It was then that the risks of living in a very active earthquake zone became quite clear. However, Christchurch was still the place we wanted to be. My course was still going and Mr. Cesy’s job was solid. The house we were living in was safe according to the safety assessors. Besides, it was almost exciting to live the danger! To drive around and see all the damaged buildings was an interesting way to spend our time. We continued with our life, spending our time drinking with my friends from my course and enjoying those long summer nights.

In early January 2011, we moved into a house on the west side of town. At this stage, I was  studying from home and I spent my mornings learning how to draft wills and contracts. My afternoons were gloriously free to do what I wanted. I was to spend seven weeks studying from home, and then I would go back into the central city to learn advocacy skills for three weeks on the 28th of February. I looked forward to spending my lunch breaks pottering around the shops in Cashel Mall again.

On the 22nd of February, I had done my course work for the day and was cleaning the house. I was home alone, as everyone was at work. Just as I was vacuuming around my bed, at 12:51 p.m., everything shook violently. I dropped the still going vacuum cleaner and ran for the nearest door frame. The house seemed to shake for an extraordinary length of time. When it stopped, I jumped on the internet to see what had happened. After a large amount of swearing about the quake to friends on a message board, I checked Facebook. Friends in Wellington and Dunedin had felt it, but I knew it was a Christchurch quake. How bad I didn’t know. Mr. Cesy texted me to ask if I was OK. I replied that I was, the only thing that had fallen over was a Lego fort and a bottle of Johnny Walker. I didn’t hear anymore from him for about an hour. I sat on the floor with my computer for close to an hour not really sure what was going on, until a friend posted a message saying the spire on the Christ Church Cathedral had collapsed. This was when it really hit home that things were bad. The Christ Church Cathedral was the iconic building in the middle of Christchurch. This gorgeous Gothic Anglican Cathedral had stood tall for well over a century and now it was in ruins. It was then I turned on National Radio, the public broadcaster. The Prime Minister was speaking in Parliament about how things were bad in Christchurch and my stomach sunk. I heard a whirring noise overhead. Helicopters were travelling from the airport into the centre of town. I had texts from my Mum asking if I was OK, but I couldn’t ring her as the lines were jammed. Other texts came through and I tried to send replies, but often to no avail. I hadn’t heard from Mr. Cesy for a while, or from my flatmates at all. I didn’t know my neighbours and the car sitting in the driveway had no petrol in it, not that I could have driven anywhere anyway. I knew that the roads to the centre of town would be jammed and most likely damaged. I did what I could do. I knew the water system would be compromised, either now or with every aftershock, so I went around filling everything I could find with water. The bath, all the buckets, rubbish bins, anything I could get my hands on. I emptied a bottle of Smirnoff into a glass, chugged the vodka and filled that bottle with water too. Then I sat. There was nothing I could do.

At this stage, Mr. Cesy was trying to meet up with our flatmate in town. When the earthquake hit, he was in his shop. He got thrown into the wall, thankfully onto a display of airbeds. Some of his customers and colleagues ran out into the road. One customer got hit in the head with falling bricks, a colleague narrowly missed being hit by falling power lines. Mr. Cesy looked up in time to see the building across the road from him collapse to the ground, with workmen running out to escape the collapsing stone building. At this stage, he grabbed as much of his stuff that he could find in the dark, got everyone out to a safe place, shut the doors then went off to carpark where our flatmate had parked. She was on the other side of town, unable to get to the car. She narrowly escaped being trapped in a high rise building. She finally got enough coverage to text me to say she was walking home (not a short distance by any means) and would see me in a couple of hours. She thankfully was picked up by some people heading our way, and she made it home safely several hours later.

Mr. Cesy didn’t know this as getting texts through was extremely difficult. He waited at the car for 45 minutes, then headed home himself. He walked through ankle deep mud and dust, down the middle of main roads as the footpaths were covered in the debris of collapsed buildings. He made it most of the way home in about 2 hours. He managed to call me, telling me he was about 10 minutes from home. Our other flatmate, who had his own harrowing journey home, jumped in his car and bought my scared, filthy fellow home.

With everyone home, there was little we could do. We were incredibly fortunate. Our side of town suffered little, if any, damage and we were among the 10% of the city that still had power. We all put on our comfiest clothes and watched the live coverage on the TV from a safe distance, should it fall over in an aftershock. We heard the United States Air Force C-17 planes, normally involved in Operation Deep Freeze, fly overhead on their way out of Christchurch. We ate mac “˜n cheese in a desperate attempt to find something that would calm us down. I was a lot calmer than the others, mostly because I hadn’t been through what they had been through in the central city. I hadn’t seen people seriously injured, buildings collapse, heard the sirens blaring, got the dust into my nostrils, stepped through the liquefaction that rose from the ground. I just hadn’t been there, but I tried my best to make things as normal as possible. We decided we would stay the night, despite the fact I had managed to get petrol. We were exhausted and our house was safe. We just wanted to sleep. Any decision about leaving would be left to the next day. We all put a pair of shoes right by the bed, in case we did have to leave in a hurry.

The next day, Mr. Cesy and our flatmate went shopping at the local dairy and bought the most expensive bag of potatoes in existence. Later that day we discovered that the news was advising of aftershocks of 6.0 and higher. We didn’t want to stay for those, so packed the car, picked up a friend of mine and boosted to my small hometown two hours away.

The time after the earthquake was punctuated with uncertainty. Mr. Cesy’s work and my course were in what was known as the “red zone,” an area that covered most of the central city and was completely off limits. I only had three weeks left to go on my course, and was due to start it up again the Monday following the quake. No one could tell us what was going to happen with either Mr. Cesy’s job or my course, apart from that there may be a place open to do those three weeks in Dunedin, a city five hours south of Christchurch. So we went to Dunedin, intending to stay for the three weeks, maybe a little longer. Mr. Cesy’s parents lived there and had the room to have us. We ended up living there for three months. Mr. Cesy’s work, while theoretically still in business, wasn’t going to be up and running until at least September 2011. There were certainly no jobs for graduate lawyers in Christchurch, indeed I know of several who got laid off after the quake. We spent the three months applying for jobs, living off the goodwill of Mr. Cesy’s parents, trying to get on with our lives.

I eventually did get a job offer, and we moved to the North Island. Strangely, we moved to the place where the previous most destructive and deadly earthquake in New Zealand occurred in 1931. I feel like I’ve left a bit of my heart and soul in Christchurch. To see all the places where I spent sunny days turned into empty lots makes my stomach drop. Cashel Mall, where I used to shop and spend my lunch breaks, was utterly destroyed in the quakes, and many people died in the buildings I used to frequent often. Many have left Christchurch, because of houses being destroyed, jobs gone and just because they don’t feel safe anymore. It’s going to take a long time for Christchurch to recover, but it will. It will one day be a vibrant city again. I live in hope that I’ll see that day, and can return to Christchurch to make some happy memories and not relive the terrifying ones that caused me to leave. Christchurch was a city with real heart and soul, and I hope it can recapture that magic soon.

By Cesy

Cesy grew up in a sheep farm in New Zealand. Accordingly some of her views are a bit strange.

16 replies on “When You’re a Lucky One: Surviving a Killer Earthquake”

This really took me back, Cesy, to the news footage, and the crush, and especially the steeple falling off the Cathedral. At the time I was too shocked to cry (even from the safety of Auckland), but not now. You’re absolutely right – you grow up in the Shaky Isles, knowing the facts about fault lines, but never expecting anything like this all the same. Auckland had a tiny earthquake last winter, centred not far from my house, and it was barely noticeable but I still freaked out that the volcanoes were coming (for those unaware of the geological situation in NZ, Auckland doesn’t have fault lines, but it *does* sit on a volcanic hotspot) – it all seems much more of a real possibility after Chch.

I was just reading a column by Johnny Schwass, in happier news, and his new food venture (and others) suggest that new things are starting up and keeping things vibrant in Chch despite the wreckage.

I can remember my flatmate coming home,  even more freaked out because the dudes who picked her up told her the Akaroa harbour was the cone of a giant volcano and they wondered whether it would blow. I’m pretty sure it’s been extinct for a while now, but we didn’t let facts get in the way of a good panic that day.

Oh I am so pleased to see Johnny Schwass back up and running! Mr Cesy informed me just after the quake that he had planned to book us into Restaurant Schwass for the degustation meal for our anniversary. I was so gutted about that. He had done so well to survive the September quake, the east side was hit pretty hard then.  In the end, it turned out we forgot our anniversary anyway because we were so tired after our move to Hawke’s Bay.

So this gets posted yesterday, this morning I feel an earthquake! Get up and go to the toilet, while I’m sitting there, the house lurches to the right for a second. “Only” a 4.3 based about 30 km away, but that certainly work me up!

Thanks for sharing this, Cesy.

Mr Rah and I visited Christchurch a few months ago, during the Rugby World Cup. It had been on our itinerary long before the earthquake, and when our B&B called to say they could no longer put us up we thought we mightn’t be able to go. Luckily they were able to recommend another (fantastic) place in the Papanui/Merivale area which had been mostly undamaged, so we decided to keep Christchurch in our plans. Walking around outside the CBD was a really humbling and sobering experience, even though there were a lot of people about and the suburb where we were staying had packed-out bars and restaurants every night.

We actually spent an evening in a bar in Queenstown talking to a guy who’d owned a pub in Christchurch but couldn’t even access the site to rebuild, as it was still in the red zone. So he’d had to leave, but he was really reluctant to. The impact of the quake will clearly be felt for a generation.

I understand that Merivale/Papanui and Riccarton are two of the new areas people go to do socialise. That was one of the reasons we left, we knew that trying to live a normal life doing things such as socialising with friends would be just so difficult. We used to spend a lot of time at the Dux de Luxe in the Arts Centre, and there is a huge battle going on between the owner of the building and the owner of the bar about whether it can be saved.

We actually went back to Christchurch in March so I could get my wisdom teeth out (the day before the quake I’d made an appointment with an oral surgeon to get them sorted, I was very lucky to be able to get it done!). He was based in Merivale and that was shocking. Trying to walk on footpaths that looked like BMX tracks after you’ve been sedated and had 3 teeth ripped out of your head was incredibly difficult! We also went down to the fancy pants department store where the facade fell off. You could see all these boxes of shoes, exposed to the elements after the facade had just ripped off the building.

I was glued to the news when this happened. I haven’t been to New Zealand since 2005 but I feel like a part of me still resides there, and I was so worried and heartbroken for all of you. I’m glad you and Mr. Cesy were alright, and that the rebuilding effort is slowly but surely coming along. Christchurch is one place I never made it too, though I was of course familiar with that beautiful church. It was so sad to see it destroyed.

That was the moment I knew it was bad, when the Cathedral fell down.

I was thinking the other day and realised it was the earthquake that bought you into my life! I think you saw my Tumblr posts that were reblogged and we connected that way. So for that, the earthquake has been a real bonus for me! Bought an awesome chick such as you into my life!

I think you may be right about that! I didn’t realize it was only a year that I’ve ‘known’ you, but now that you say it, I guess that is the case! I suppose good can come out of even the worst situations.

I also forgot to mention in my other comment that I experienced my first ever earthquake when I was in NZ. Being from southern U.S. I’d never experienced one. The ex partner and I were staying in Stratford, which isn’t an area that sees a ton of earthquakes, but one hit us one morning when we were just waking up and I was really freaked out. There’s nothing that can prepare you for how an earthquake feels until you’re in one. The very air quality just changes…it feels eerie, and disjointed, and off kilter. It wasn’t a bad one at all, in fact a lot of people in the area didn’t even notice, but it remains the only earthquake I’ve ever experienced.

Thank you for your kind words. We’re now in a place where we’re very happy, but it was a very tumultuous few months. You couldn’t pay me to be in limbo, living my in-law’s basement again!

For me it was the time after the quake that was most damaging for me. Not knowing how to move on with life was hard. However for people who were in the centre city,  with buildings falling down around them, they came out totally terrified and then had  to deal with the fact their house and jobs were gone. It’s just horrible and many people are still in limbo.  It’s not a happy place to be any more.

I live in the middle of a continent, and I can’t imagine what it’s like to live with the threat of the earth shaking underneath your feet hard enough to kill people kicking around in the back of your head, let alone what it’s like to live through a quake like that.  Thanks for sharing — this is really illuminating.

One of the most shocking things was no one knew those killer faults were there. All South Islanders grow up knowing about the Alpine Fault which is under the Southern Alps and knowing when that one rumbles, we’re in trouble. No one expected there to be anything under Christchurch, which made September 2011 such a shock. Feb 2011 was based closer to the city which is one of the many reasons it killed people.

The other reason was it hit at lunch time. The September one hit in the middle of the night, everyone was in bed. I’ve seen people burst into tears seeing pictures of statues embedded in the concrete after they fell over, because had it been 10 minutes later, she would have been eating lunch under that statute. There are many of us with those stories, but the shame was that 188 people who don’t have those stories, as they  were in the wrong place at the wrong time and they lost their lives.

Thank you love. It’s nearly a year after the fact, and it was quite healing to write all this down. It was terrifying and I’m fortunate to not have to deal with it every day any more, but it’s something that is going to affect all New Zealander’s lives for a long time to come.

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