It is 12.51 pm when the earthquake strikes.
I have just finished my coffee, am halfway through a toasted sandwich and my girlfriend has just asked me how my day has been.
As I start to answer, I feel a slight rattle. Then a sideways jolt. The floor shifts, then everything explodes.
I am sitting in front of floor-to-ceiling glass panels. As they blow out behind me, my brain finally registers that this is an earthquake. A big one. Instinct kicks in and I leap for the door. I don’t even think to cover my head with my hands, but somehow I notice that I am bleeding and wonder how this is.
I don’t notice that I have fallen to my knees down the concrete steps or that someone has run over my thigh in their panic to get out. I pull myself up and stumble out onto the shaking street. I trip again on my four-inch heels as the buildings around me start to collapse.
There is masonry flying. There are piles of bricks in the road. There is dust swarming. There is the shrill shatter of glass smashing. There are people screaming. I have never seen anything like it. The street I am on I have known all my life, but I can’t recognise it.
The ground moves and moves and moves. It feels like it will never stop.
But it does.
The screaming, however, doesn’t, and the alarms begin to match their cries.
I am so shocked I cannot make a noise. I stagger back to the cafe and find my friend. She is inside. I shout at her to come outside. She comes toward me and grabs me hard. I start to shake. We link arms and stumble down the road.
“Was this bigger than the 7.1 in September?” I ask her repeatedly. It is somehow crucial to me that I know this.
“Yes,” she replies. “Much bigger.”
I am strangely relieved. I can’t bear to imagine that there could be anything worse than this.
It’s like a disaster movie set. It doesn’t feel real. There are people crying and dazed walking by us. I realise I am one of them. As we walk among the rubble, Amanda tries to convince me to walk with her. I refuse. All I can think about is getting back to work so I can tell my boss that I am taking the rest of the day off.
Amanda leaves me reluctantly and as soon as she disappears into the crowd, I want desperately for her to come back. Instead I head for my workplace and see my colleagues gathering by the river. They are crying and shocked and trying desperately to use their phones. They see my blood and make me sit down.
I sit and someone places chocolate in my mouth. I feel like I am going to vomit. I look around and see that I am sitting opposite the police station. I see policemen filing out of the station, horror stricken.
I look at them and it frightens me to see that they are as scared as I am.
Without warning, the ground jolts again. It comes with a rumble and breaks up the road in front of us, pushing the asphalt into a hard, broken ridge.
The river is rising. The city is falling.
I am now horribly aware that I am not safe. I am not safe anywhere. Amongst hundreds of equally terrified people, I am alone. I know at this moment I have to get out of the city.
I take off my boots and start to walk.
I look at my socks and am absurdly glad that they match. They are my favourite socks, black cotton with love hearts.
As I walk, I see remnants of buildings I have known since I was a child. They are crumpled. Shattered. Collapsed. Glass carpets the streets.
There are bloodied bodies lying on the riverbank. I barely glance at them. I am resolute in my walking. I head for the park, trying to find a safe place. The park is full of people, looking at the broken skyline as the earth beneath their feet turns to liquid mud.
I try to cross a road and am turned back. I don’t know what to do. I want to walk on but I am terrified the ground will shake again. I don’t know which route to take. I think I hear someone calling my name, so I turn and see an old boyfriend, whom I haven’t seen for decades. I run to him and he hugs me tight. He feels like an angel.
I look down the road to the centre of the city. For over a hundred years, the cathedral has stood tall in the square, a proud icon of the city, beloved to all its children. Its mighty steeple has fallen. The heart of the city has collapsed. My mind will not accept what my eye is seeing.
“The cathedral, Zak —” I say, pointing at what I cannot describe.
“I know,” he says. “Let’s walk.”
He takes my hand and carries my boots and we start to walk out of the city. We pass collapsed buildings that have pancaked in on themselves. We know there are people trapped. We try not to look, knowing that people are dead just metres away, crushed among the broken steel and splintered concrete bones of their workplace.
We walk down streets that have been torn open. Cars are beginning to jam and there are clouds of dust rising up from the city behind us, while the potent smell of gas swirls in the air.
We walk and walk and walk. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we don’t.
I can only think of my dog and my family and friends. I don’t know if any of them are alive. My cell phone won’t connect, and the only practical thing I can do right now is walk.
We pass people sitting on their lawns, afraid to be inside their homes. They have no power, no water, no words. We tell them what we have seen and they tell us of lost pets, broken homes and missing children.
I can only feel fear. It courses through me along with adrenaline. I feel like I am trying to escape an invisible monster. I don’t know when it will reappear. I don’t know where it will reappear.
I want a cigarette, but I know I am on the very fine edge of panic and my brain tells me that I need every bit of air I can get. My cigarettes stay in my bag.
Finally my cell phone beeps. I check it and see messages of concern that I cannot reply to. I try and try to get a dial tone to call my mother who is safely in another city. I finally connect and it goes to answerphone. I somehow make my voice calm. I tell her that I am okay. I tell her there’s been an earthquake, but not to worry.
As I hang up, the phone rings immediately. It is my mother. Her voice is cracking as she breaks down across the line.
“I thought you were dead,” she cries.
“I thought I was too,” I say, tears flowing freely.
She tells me to wait in the car park that we are walking across. She tells me she is organising for someone to come and rescue us.
Zak and I sit on the concrete of the empty car park. There is a building behind us with a whole side missing. The car park is eerily quiet, apart from the ever-present alarms wailing their distress.
All of a sudden, the earth moves again. It rolls under us and we leap to our feet as a multi-storied car park comes crashing to the ground behind us. The ground swells under us and the noise is unbearable.
We can’t stay here, so we begin to walk again. At least it feels like we are doing something. No cars are getting through, so we know our rescue won’t be coming.
As we walk, the ground thuds beneath us. We zigzag across the roads, hoping to outrun the next jolt, taking care to avoid holes, power lines and deep wounds in the earth’s crust.
Zak has a wife and three babies he is desperate to get home to. He has a business he knows is likely destroyed. I am amazed at his kindness and calmness as we walk on, towards God knows what. I cannot imagine what he is going through. I am just immensely grateful he is with me.
We are walking faster than the cars that are crawling along beside us. Everywhere we look, cars have been abandoned as shell-shocked people leave them on the side of the road to take their chances on foot to try and get home to their loved ones.
We walk over the road between the city’s sewerage ponds. The air is thick with flies, the tar is stretched liked chewing gum between the broken seal on the road. There are deep fissures here and my heart is beating faster, acutely aware that another quake could split the unsteady road and swallow us up. We are quiet as we cross the ponds.
In the distance, I hear my name being called. It is Bon, my mother’s oldest friend, come to find me. She has a severely injured leg and is riding a bicycle. She has ridden over uneasy ground and broken bridges to find me. She sobs when she sees me.
She offers Zak her bike and he rides off to find his family. I am at a loss how to thank him; all I can offer him is a wave as he leaves.
Bon and I stumble towards home. She has rescued my dog, she tells me, and has locked her safely in her van. I relax just a little, just a heartbeat, for the first time in hours. We clamber over a broken bridge and begin to wade through dirty water, slick with sewerage and rising steadily above our knees.
My love heart socks are wearing thin and I can feel my feet tearing up with stone bruises. I know that under the water, the ground has opened and with every step I take, I close my eyes and hope desperately not to disappear into a hole.
The road beneath the water feels brittle like candy coating. I can hear my footsteps echo on what was, just yesterday, solid ground. It unnerves me.
We finally arrive at my sister’s house. She is safe. She gives me milk to drink. I tell her I am leaving the city right now. She tells me I am in shock. I tell her I don’t care, I am leaving.
She gives me shoes.
When I arrive home, I cannot even enter my house. Everything is ruined. The television has toppled, all the glass and china is smashed. I know my cat is in here, somewhere, in the wreckage. I could look for her among the broken glass but I choose to leave her. I whisper a ‘sorry’ as I take my dog and put her in the car and start to drive.
I know that I need gas and that my phone is dead and that the sky is darkening. I know, above all, that the roads are dangerous. I pray as I drive — a single, hopeful word:
Please. Please. Please.
I pass great sinkholes that have swallowed cars whole. I drive around them on loose and shifting black silt and close my eyes with every judder. I pray and drive.
Pray and drive.
Until I make it out of the city.
* * *
The day after, I call Zak. I thank him for staying with me. Again, I don’t have enough words.
“It was nice to have a friend,” he says.
“Wasn’t it just?” I agree.
Wasn’t it just.
* At the time of writing—February 24, 2011—the city of Christchurch is devastated. The 6.3 earthquake struck 5 months after the first 7.1 earthquake – bringing down hundreds of buildings in the CBD and killing many, many people. The city remains without power or water or waste water. The New Zealand Prime Minister has called the tragedy – ‘New Zealand’s darkest day.” My thoughts and love go out to all those who didn’t make it home on February 22nd.