Christchurch earthquake, ten years on: The trauma, chaos and the compassion

Saturday 27 February 2021 | Written by Ruta Tangiiau Mave | Published in Features, Memory Lane, Weekend

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Christchurch earthquake, ten years on: The trauma, chaos and the compassion
CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - FEBRUARY 22: A Bus covered in building debris is seen on February 22, 2011 in Christchurch, New Zealand. The 6.3 magnitude earthquake - an aftershock of the 7.1 magnitude quake on September 4 - struck 20km southeast of Christchurch at around 1pm local time, with initial reports suggesting damage and fatalities far exceeding the initial quake. (Photo by Martin Hunter/Getty Images)

A decade ago, on February 22, 2011, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake hit Christchurch at 12.51pm, causing widespread damage across the city, killing 185 people, in the nation’s fifth-deadliest disaster. Cook Islands News columnist Ruta Mave had just dropped her children at school when the incident happened.

In an age of wireless and mobile phones, the lines ‘go down’ almost immediately after the earthquake. The instant I see my kids are safe, I text my family, ‘we’re safe’ I text their father in Canada, “We’ve had another shake, I’m over it, I’m taking the kids out of town for a couple of days” thinking he won’t panic when he reads it, so when the visuals hit the news, he already knows, we are safe. But it’s not over.

I go to the teachers, they were in the staffroom for lunch, they’d run outside without their bags and their phones, and they don’t know what’s happening to their own. I offer to call for them. Lesson one: no one knows their significant others’ number, it’s on speed dial, by name… panic, how to call them? They are duty bound they can’t leave until all the kids in their class are accounted for and in safe care, I pity them, not knowing, and having to trust someone else will care as deeply as you, as deeply as they are. The dads are arriving, dust covered, hitchhiking, or biking, in suits and ties. Some carry death and blood of others on their sleeves, from trying to clear rubble, from buses, before the first responders arrived. Lesson two: you learn how people react to helping strangers.

We go to collect a younger brother at kindy – his dad’s overseas, his brother’s distraught, his mother’s missing.  I know the teacher protocol says she can’t release him. She trusts me, we smudge the line knowing the mother would want her boys safely together. Lesson three: Canada have a registry that lists 3-4 other people, parents allow to pick up their child in case of emergencies. The eldest, was the man of the family his dad said, “look after mum and your brother for me, until I get back” Such big words of responsibility we give our little’uns never knowing they would be put into this position. This isn’t wartime Britain after all, but it’s starting to feel like it. Mum took nine hours to return home, safe. Phew.

Now what to do? Will there be a tsunami? What is your house like? Can you go back there? Where do we go? We can’t stand in the school grounds forever. We take turns of holding the fort with everyone’s children while each investigates the extent of damage, and viability to return and sleep. Shocks still hit, rocks fall, screams persist. It’s been three hours, reports of death, nearby, the houses that didn’t have the benefit of the cliff being water blasted and cleared after the September earthquake, and no security fence added which the school did, had 7000 tonne of rocks roll through two houses. Two deaths. The shock wears thinner and we think of another, “Oh, what about the old lady down the other road?” We search and assure we have accounted for everyone, except, the new neighbour. “Do they work in town? Yes. Does he catch the bus, to town? Yes. Was it the number 3? Yes. Oh, no?  Sadly, Yes”.

I return to our house, it stands, wobbly at the seams, I take a deep breath and enter looking for car key. I pack a bag, another shake, slams, bang! God, I imagine the headlines, “Mother of two dies going in to get kids toothbrush” It takes several short bursts in and out, shake, rattle, roll, how to decide what is important? My sister has a farmer friend two hours south, if we can get there…. Meanwhile the kids are at a friend’s house, sheltering under the table, watching their TV rock and roll its way closer and closer to the edge of the table, stop. TV saved. Thump, there goes the wardrobe upstairs. Where’s the cat?

They say don’t cry over spilt milk, but smashed beer and wine, brought a tear, because its time like this you need a drink or three not minties, to calm your nerves. Later you find you need more and more, and alcohol and chocolate become the staple diet. Alcohol calms, but too much, fuel’s fires, domestic violence spikes.

By 2pm, you can’t talk, but you can text, they are delayed, some got lost and arrived a week later. Most of NZ’s waiting for the 6 0’clock news special. The bridge across the river is closed to vehicles but open to foot traffic. Parents trapped on either side trying to get home. One mum runs across, finds another stressed mum. “Hi” she says, “My name is Jane, I have a car on the town side, do you want to swap phone numbers and car keys? I’ll take your car, you take mine, and later when the bridge is open, we can swap back, but for now, let’s find our kids.” The deal is made, trust and hugs are given. Lesson four: It’s amazing how we can find and make alliances with strangers, when you are in the foxhole together.

Do I stay or do I go now? I’m leaving to take my kids out of harms way, and to stop my mother coming down to get them herself. Driving brings more images of destruction face to face. A street all collapsed except for one random house, roads blocked, cars, trucks, pick their way along, one SUV is face first in a pot hole, only it’s tailgate showing, liquefaction, a sinkhole opened up while driving, a man, saturated, stands shaking in shock with others who helped him out. Later when the water content has gone, from the park, through people’s houses, holes in the road, all that remains is a steely, silver grey silt, fine to the touch, worse than mud to shovel out. Lesson five: All judgements fall away, as the Student Army is invented and mobilised where the local Canterbury University students become the saviours of the people, digging, shoveling, moving mountains of silt, happily, for free. A movement is born.

One last bridge ahead, the coal train has stopped above it, the trucks full of coal, it’s an old brick over bridge, cars line up either side taking turns at ducking under, another shock, Bang. The train rocks, dust falls from under the bridge. We make the farm, I make the plan, the kids will fly to Auckland on the next flight. Air New Zealand put on extra flights and extra big planes to take everyone escaping. Now, it looks like wartime England, hundreds of kids travelling unaccompanied, we don’t see Paddington Bear.  We reunite with friends, everyone’s leaving Christchurch, and the rest of New Zealand are welcoming them.

I return, to my house, to pack alone. I buy a box of black rubbish bags, and swallow a gulp of courage and start. It’s random, all thoughts and systems go out the window every aftershock and they are many, it’s nonstop, rock n roll.  I’d enter a room start piling everything into the bag, the house shakes, I’d run outside, wait, take a gulp, go back in sweeping whatever, wherever in front of me. Shake, run, gulp, repeat. into the bag. Weeks later unpacking, I relive it, a bag could contain clothes, cutlery, iron and potatoes. Lesson six: Having things is less important than having people, and times like this you realise how much stuff you have that is not important.

Redcliff’s main road is still blocked by fallen boulders; the park is clogged with liquefaction – 10 years on I find it impossible to believe this is where they have relocated the school. Traffic is detoured past my house. Trucks, emergency and army vehicles, I sit on an old chair, away from the house, dust blown, watching, the image somewhat like those you see on CNN news of some war-torn country. I have my remaining broken glass in the recycle bin, as the bright and colourful council trucks come around on time to collect. Lesson seven: During unprecedented times some systems still remain in place, and they are a welcome sight, of normality.

Not everyone has left, I sleepover with friends for the night, that’s the scariest time, being woken by shakes. We eat bread and cheese and drink wine and spirits, and share stories of other friends. The lucky escapes, like Kate, whose sister turned up and took her out for lunch in the park, minutes later the building and staffroom she would have been in, collapses and some of her work colleagues die or are trapped under the cafeteria tables for hours before being rescued. Plus, the Fraser boy, who was supposed to catch the number three bus, missed it, ran after it, was upset by it, until it was found under a building in town, and the other boy who did catch it, perished. Lesson six: Luck, synchronicity, coincidence, karma, who knows what it is that puts you in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time.

At 11pm the police knock on the door. They have decided this area is now unsafe and we have to leave, go where? Phones don’t work, who do we know on the ‘other side’ of the city we can arrive at midnight and say help. I find another friend, another place, this time at 6am the police arrive, this area is now unsafe, you have to move. There is no time to gather and pack, you have to leave now. Move, evacuate, repeat.

Two weeks after the earthquake, I fly to Auckland and only then when my mother greets me with open arms, I finally cry. The kids started school, the day after they arrived, “back on the horse is best” she said. They are happy, they have friends and play dates, it’s a normal world but mine now lives in plastic bags under my sister’s carport, soon to be garage sale out and away. A truck rumbles past, it sounds like an earthquake coming, I hold my breath waiting, a door slams I jump and brace, my nerves are shot.

I have a bag slung over my shoulder that carries all our important documents, it never leaves me, and for the next two years, when I walk inside building’s I scout for exit signs, I still prepared my sweater and shoes at night in case I had to run. I know the life we had is no longer possible, we’re on a new and different path, one we never perceived.  The Christchurch earthquake eventually brought us home to Rarotonga, and for that we remain eternally grateful.