- Posted February 27, 2011 by
Christ Church, New Zealand
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand
The tragedy of the Christ Church Earthquake
Adventure Update: Christchurch Earthquake
The bus was late, and I was getting impatient. School had already drained me for the day and I still needed to get into the city to drop off resumes and do some job huntung. Shortly after we got under way the bus began to pitch violently, it felt like we were going to roll over or veer into a wall. I thought for sure we had blown a tire, but even after the driver pulled over and stopped, we were still shaking side-to-side and front-to-back. Most of us were oblivious as to what happened until the front passenger pointed excitedly to a cracked wall and said ‘that just happened!’. It became clear immediately what had actually ‘just happened’.
All buses were being ordered to pull over at once and await further instruction. The gridlock was immediate and absolute. Drivers radio in frantically to report injuries and casualties on board. Yet others call in desperate to get word to loved ones. Cell phone lines are immediately jammed. With no way else to get home I, and most of the passengers, went out on foot.
Sitting in our safe bus near Riccarton Bush, we had no idea the severity of what had just happened. Every step I took was a step closer to hell. The sidewalks and roads were completely buckled. In some places entire cars had been swallowed whole by gaping chasms in the earth. Liquefaction seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, flooding the streets. People were everywhere. Schools were in their second day of lecture, the fairgrounds were having an international flower exposition, tourism is in the high season, and people are moving into to town for the beginning of a new year. Everyone is now scrambling on foot.
Throughout town people are stumbling the streets in shock, carrying vestiges of their daily grind, now desperate mementos of normality. Businessmen clutch their brief cases and loose papers, mud staining their neatly pressed suits. Women abandon their high heels, likely forfeitures to the quick mud. Rescue reserves and off duty patrolmen pull hi-vees out of their trunks and rush to the mobile command centers set up throughout the city.
The sound of sirens now fills the air with a new tone on every block. Entire facades lay in the street splaying the contents of their buildings like a dollhouse. After shocks riddle the city, some so strong I’m nearly knocked over. All overhanging objects suddenly became potential ‘widow makers’: street lamps, signs, windows, and anything made of brick. Frightened guardsmen quickly rush survivors away from any building, forcing pedestrians to the middle of the roads where emergency vehicles make haste to the various triage scenes.
Smoke and ash fill the air; the entire town smells like burning plastic. Everyone pulls their shirts up over their mouths and nose and squints their eyes from the burning fumes.
My house is nearly five miles from where I got off the bus. Five miles through toppling buildings, rubble, and quagmire. Refugees scurry about pulling behind them everything they can fit in their rolling luggage.
In what seems like an eternity, I finally make it to the apartment. I grab two cameras, check the batteries and memory cards, pause for a quick prayer, and pull on my hiking boots before heading back out. Dying of thirst after my trek I tug on the faucet only to discover the inevitable: no water – a problem that is to persist.
Cameras in hand I head back out to the main road and immediately throw out my thumb. A beat up and unidentifiable vehicle from the 80’s (presumably of eastern European descent) swerves straight over to me. A kind woman in her mid-forties with a delicate frame and hand woven clothes offers me a lift on her way into town to find her child who was at school. She squints to me through her overly magnified glasses with complete disregard for the current situation, trying to suss out the best route into town. I let her know that most large groups are gathering in the parks to get away from falling debris. We slowly made our way through ten blocks of locked roads and parked in a back alley where we wished each other the best of luck and parted ways.
The city is now well patrolled and cordoned off. Explosive after shocks still plague the crumbling city and the danger is now palpable. With no electricity, no water, and no safe place to be inside, people are now gathering in any open area. I saw one group passing a bottle of champagne, yet another a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. BBQs are set up everywhere. Occasionally there was an odd radio set up, but it was too early for any cogent reportage.
I walk the city vainly snapping at anything in front of me. I make my way to Latimer Square and to the Cathedral; through Barbadoes and to the Art Gallery; to the mobile command battling the fires in the CTV building, and to the PG building where the scene is so macabre it defies description. Victims stumble outside with blood soaked bandages around their head asking about their coworkers still trapped inside. Firemen assault the building with cranes and all manner of light equipment to make their way through the concrete flotsam and jetsam to the faint moans and scratches they hear below.
I walk the city for hours trudging through the muck. Eventually I am so tired and dehydrated I can’t go any further. I sit down on the curb. All of a sudden large army trucks with cranes, generators, and 500 gallon gas tanks come barreling through the make shift blockade in front of me, that’s when I first saw the helicopters. Specialized heli operators with water baskets fly over head picking up water from the Avon river in the middle of town to aid rescuers at the CTV building.
With little delay I get back to the flat to sort through the wreckage of my own shattered life. The kitchen is ransacked: appliances in the middle of the room with broken eggs, sauce bottles, and various other messy (and smelly) ingredients. Amongst the goo I find one surviving beer, I guzzle it down in one gulp – it was the best beer I had ever tasted.
About this time my flat mates started arriving home and we started thinking about what to do next. It’s now completely dark, we have no news from the outside, and it’s too dangerous to stay in the still shaking house. Kiril and Artim, my two Russian flatmates, offer to take me along to look for a place to sleep in the car, someplace away from any buildings. After several hours navigating the deteriorating roads, we decide it is equally dangerous to camp out where the ground could potentially open up at any moment. So we just drive. We drive and drive with the Russians expertly navigating the post apocalyptic roads with expertise that could only be won by growing up in a war torn country. The car is the first place we get any news from the outside. We swerve through pits and bulbous mounds that have sprung up in the road. The liquefaction offers a nice cushy ride, like a fresh snow. We listen to the news on the radio almost as if it were something happening to someone else; it still isn’t quite real.
Eventually we abandon our Quixotic search for a safe night’s sleep and return to the abysmally dark flat. We lay awake through a night of after shocks to get up jittering from exhaustion, dehydration, and hunger.
The Russians head out to look for petrol while I take another roommate’s car to look for electricity and internet. After several hours we reconnoiter back at the flat, they had accomplished their objective, I had not. They say they think they know a part of town that had power and they might have a friend there. So we set out. A trip that would normally take 5-10 minutes took a couple of hours. Almost every road was crumbling, filled with liquefaction and flood, or completely closed off by rescue workers. Finally we made it to Mairehau, an oasis in the devastation. Save for a few broken windows and pieces of furniture, the place is untouched. They have power, television, even water – I didn’t want to leave. We got to the Russians’ friend’s house and I finally got to get online and get word out that I was alright and send out a few photos. It felt great to reach out to the rest of the world and to know that normality still exists.
Artim, Kiril, and I continued driving. The city is still shaking.