For the rest of my life, I will always remember where I was and what I was doing on Tuesday 22 February 2011 when I first heard the news. I was living in Newcastle, Australia and had just returned from my lunch-break to find an email in my inbox from a shipping company in New Zealand advising that Christchurch deliveries would be delayed due to an earthquake. As aftershocks from the September quake were still a regular occurrence, I cynically interpreted this as a poor excuse for inefficiency. To make sure I had no cause for any real alarm, I opened a New Zealand news website and the first thing I saw was an image of Christchurch Cathedral in virtual ruins. I began to shake all over knowing instantly that if the 6.3 magnitude earthquake had wiped out the Cathedral there was almost certainly going to be loss of life. I rushed into my boss’ office and breathlessly announced that I needed to go home because the Christchurch cathedral had crumbled.
Since no-one in the office really knew about the earthquake, or if they did, hadn’t realised the degree of devastation it had caused, it occurred to me that I was probably coming across as a religious zealot needing to take time out for contemplative prayer. At that point I didn’t really care. My daughter had the day off and I tried to phone her because I didn’t want her to hear it about it from anyone other than me, but I got no answer. Anxious for news, I relentlessly attempted to contact my son in Christchurch but unsurprisingly there was no response. I drove home in a daze, desperately trying to get further news on the local radio channel but a local millionaire had just pulled his support from the Newcastle Knights and this ‘catastrophe’ was dominating the airwaves.
I arrived home and turned on the television. Before long the Christchurch earthquake had saturation coverage and my daughter and I, shaking and crying, watched as the grisly details slowly unfolded. The epicentre was near Lyttelton, just 10 km southeast of Christchurch’s central business district. The magnitude 6.3 earthquake had struck at 12.51 pm at a time when many people were out on the city streets for their lunch-break.
The city was in chaos with no power or water, limited telecommunications and getting around was almost impossible. 185 people from more than 20 countries died in the earthquake. Over half of the deaths occurred in the six-storey Canterbury Television (CTV) Building, which collapsed and caught fire in the earthquake. The collapse of the Pyne Gould Corporation building also claimed lives, eight died when two city buses were crushed by crumbling masonry. Rock cliffs collapsed in the Sumner and Redcliffs area, and boulders tumbled down the Port Hills, with five people killed by falling rocks. Several thousand people had been injured but mercifully, when I was finally able to get through to my son, he wasn’t amongst them. And neither were any of my friends from Diamond Harbour which is on the other side of the harbour – only about a mile away from Lyttelton.
In something of a daze, we drove down to the Central Coast to be with my sister in law. We needed family. We needed someone who was really going through this as we were. Watching it all safely from afar but seriously affected. Not knowing when all these earthquakes and aftershocks were going to end. All that panic, uncertainty and the ongoing stress. It’s not something you want to watch your family and friends go through.
The next morning we drove back home as I had to be back at work. We stopped at a Macdonalds along the Pacific Highway and read the morning newspapers. I saw images of the building on Colombo Street where I had worked part-time before I left New Zealand, in ruins. There was a picture of my old desk which was looking seriously al fresco as it teetered precariously on the second floor of the partially collapsed building. I think everyone at the Swansea Macdonalds must have known we were from Christchurch as we both unashamedly cried our hearts out into those newspapers. I could see the compassion on their faces, but they didn’t like to say anything. I probably would have been the same.
I went back to work but felt like a complete lost soul. All I wanted to do was cry at the sadness of it all, because there’s nothing quite so sad as seeing the city where you grew up from a small child, slowly crumbling before your eyes. I felt so massively fortunate not to have been there but at the same time not being there was also a nightmare. Every reported aftershock made me worry more about my son and the possibility of another major earthquake. It didn’t help that just a few weeks later, on the 11th of March, there was a huge earthquake in Japan which triggered a devastating tsunami.
It didn’t occur to me immediately, but I had in fact dreamt about what I think was an earthquake a few days before the quake on February 22nd. My daughter and I had been standing on the wharf in Lyttelton waiting to catch the ferry to Diamond Harbour. The ferry had just pulled in and as it jarred against the mooring, the pontoon began to shake in a way that seemed disproportionate to the impact. We were thrown into the water and although both of us were reasonable swimmers, we were gasping for breath as the waves washed over us. Unable to help myself or my daughter, I was coming to accept that this was the end for both of us when two giant helping hands seemed to appear from nowhere and plucked both of us from the water and gently placed us back on the ferry to safety.
I didn’t think about it too much at the time because I wasn’t sure if it had been an earthquake in the dream or if we had just ended up in the water because the ferry had hit the pontoon too hard. Strange though that my dream had taken place at the epicentre of the February quake … Lyttelton.