22 Feb 2011 Canterbury Quake story

Ten years after the fact, I decided it was time to write down my experience of the big quake that hit Christchurch city and the broader Canterbury region at 12:51 pm on 22 February 2011. It was the most devastating of more than 10,000 quakes we felt during the period from September 2010 to this day (although, to be fair, the frequency tapered off fairly steeply from about 2013).

Warning: contains some slightly gruesome narrative that might affect some folks.


On 22 Feb 2011, I went out for lunch with my colleagues Rob Fraser and Kale Worsley.

We left our office (the 7th floor of the Link Centre that we shared with our generous hosts, Viastrada, for whom we provided IT services, after our long time offices on the top floor of Kenton Chambers were "red stickered" after the Boxing Day 2010 quake) and made our way south along Colombo Street.

I was literally stepping over the threshold of our lunch destination, Govinda's (a Hare Krishna vegetarian restaurant we hadn't been to for ages - can't remember if it was between Tuam and St. Asaph, or in the next block south), when the shaking started.

I remember it was a sudden shock - I immediately jumped across the footpath and into the street, narrowly avoiding being hit by a passing car, which, thankfully, stopped, the driver noticing the mad shaking. Rob hugged a nearby curbside tree. I'm not sure what Kale did.

Then all hell broke loose. The facades on the buildings across Colombo came crashing down onto the steel awnings over the footpath, and most of them collapsed onto the ground. I vaguely thought I remembered seeing a few people walking there in the instants before it happened, but I wasn't sure. A few seconds later, the shaking subsided, and it was briefly silent as the dust filled the air... and then things got crazy - my recollections come in brief snapshots, not a full narrative - obviously I was in shock too.

Within a few seconds of the shaking stopping, I was almost bowled over by a very tall, broad, Hare Krishna (I recognised him as one of the staff in the restaurant) burst out of the door and ran (I'm almost sure I recall he was barefoot!?) across the road and started pulling bricks off the roofing iron that'd fallen onto the footpath, looking to rescue anyone who might've been caugh underneath. I remember a guy, around my age, in shock, standing there looking... sort of murmuring (in disbelief) that he thought his wife and girl were under there... I never found out.

People in cars - all stopped now, most looking at cellphones - were starting to climb out and looking aghast at the damage around them. We hadn't seen the busses in the next block that were mostly flattened under the falling facades from the west side of Colombo (there weren't many down on the east side, where we'd been, for some reason). I'm not sure what Rob or Kale were doing, in fact, I think they went off to do their own things... we haven't actually talked about it specifically since. I tried to ring Jos but couldn't get through as the cell system was either down or overwhelmed with the load of everyone in the area trying to contact loved ones - I was concerned about Jos, who'd been at work (but outside the Central Business District (CBD) so far as I knew) and our boy, Seb (2yo), who was being looked after by some friends that day at their house in Somerfield (where I hoped he'd be safe, at least from falling things).

The next thing I remember was someone pulling their station wagon into a space along the curb right near me and getting out to see if he (or she? I don't remember) to could help. Then a young fellow, mid 20s I'd guess, came wandering over looking dazed and mumbling incoherently to himself. I think I grabbed his arm to see if I could help him... and as he continued past me, I saw a massive dent in the back of his head, probably from a falling brick... the station wagon person and I managed to gently wrestly him (he protested a bit but weakly and incoherently) as we carefully put him into the back of the station wagon, and I remember telling the person to get him to hospital (only about  as quickly as they could (realising that, of course, the road had many cars stopped, meaning it was anybody's guess if they'd be able to get down the street.

I remember seeing someone else with a bad cut - also from falling mansonry - on their leg or foot, and I wandered back north to see if I could help anyone else. That was when I saw the buseses. There were a few people gathered around - I seem to recall a couple going around the bus and calling to see if there was anyone inside it (you never knew if it was a full bus or an empty one going to the bus exchange). It was more or less unsurvivably flattened on the curb side of the bus (it'd been north-bound), except for the front end, on the street side...

There were a couple people there who apparently managed to get a man out of the bus onto a bed sheet (not sure where that came from). He was in a bad way, unconscious and with badly fractured ankles, his white shirt open to his waist, but he was breathing. A few of us carefully lifted him (by gripping the sheet) onto the back of a light truck with a flat bed that just happened to be stopped nearby. I don't remember anything about the people or the driver of the truck, but I got up on the bed and knelt with my knees on either side of his head to steady it and used my hands to keep his head tilted back so his airway was open. He was breathing slowly and raggedly. He occasionally groaned a bit, but was more or less still otherwise. The others put up the low tailgate, and the driver started to move... It was very slow going. I saw a couple people I knew walking along the roads we were driving on to get to the hospital... they looked at me with some concern amidst their own shock - there was a low rim around the flatbed, so they could see me from the waist up, but not the man I was attending to... And I couldn't move my hands to signal them - I seem to recall it was too noisy with sirens to be talk to them... so I had to just nod to them and silently wish them well... Looking down at the man, I noticed that his white shirt had a "Red Bus" logo stitched into it (I was seeing the back of it, as his shirt had been pulled open).

After what seemed like ages, due to the stop-and-go traffic (I can recall being annoyed at the bolt heads in the floor of the flatbed digging into my kneecaps), we finally got to the emergency room entrance to the hospital - I'd guess we were towards the start of the glut of arrivals... There were other private cars and maybe an ambulance or two, but I don't remember for sure. I seem to recall a few harried EMTs rushing out as we pulled up and relieving me... I stood there for a couple minutes as private cars pulled up to bring in others - I recall a man rushing in with a young man (I think) over his shoulder... but from his visible injuries I knew he was long gone.

Realising I couldn't do much more to help, and that I was probably getting in the way, I started to walk back into the city, walking along (I think) Cashel, or Lichfield, or perhaps Tuam St - not sure, and I might've gone between them - to the east and towards home, where I hoped to find my wife, Jos, and then work out how to get Seb.

I don't really remember much about walking back across the CBD, not the condition of the buildings or anything, except that I seem to recall that a multi-story scaffolding that'd been set up around the building on the west corner of Cashel and Liverpool (our office had been at the other end of Liverpool, in the same block, but on the east side) had collapsed into a mess like bunch of toothpicks, still all haphazardly connected at the ends. I remember there was a lot of dust and smoke down Madras St (I later found out it was the CTV Building that had collapsed, resulting in most of the casualties... I must have walked past the scene of another collapsed building on the corner of Manchester and Lichfield, where I later found out that an acquaintance had been crushed in her car by a falling hairdresser salon's facade. The whole thing was dusty, confused, and surreal. Most people were walking in a daze.

As I crossed Barbados on (I think) Lichfield, I heard someone call my name from nearby, and a couple colleagues including Patrick Davey (I only remember Patrick for sure), who said "you might want this" and handed me my work backpack (I cycled to my office with it each day) containing my precious laptop. He told me that everyone had gotten out of the Link Centre ok (although another colleague, Jonathan Hunt, had sore hands, and that I should get the story from him when we next saw one another)... I thanked him and said I'd be in touch regarding next steps for our business. I remember being struck by the unlikely coincidence of bumping into him like that. We wished each other well and Patrick continued south along Barbados as I continue east.

At Fitzgerald Ave, I saw it was completely bumper-to-bumper cars as people tried to turn north to get out of the CBD and (presumably) towards home/loved ones. Someone nearby yelled out that the bridge (near Kilmore St, opposite my future office, at Pomeroy's Pub) had collapsed, meaning it was futile to go that way. So I ended up stopping in the middle of Fitzgerald, and telling people trying to turn north that there was no point - they'd have to find an alternate route. I stood there doing that for about an hour, I think... then I realised I should continue with my plan to get home. Walking east - I think I was on Tuam at this stage - I saw an old garage with breezblock walls, flat on the ground, having collapsed. Don't remember much else from that point except for, by the top of our street, Norwich St, where it T-ed into Worcester, there was a gaping hole in the pavement, and a light ute (pickup truck) was tipped into it. Liquifaction was dotted all over, and the streets all had new sickly undulations. Water was gushing around in the street from various sources. 

I got home before Jos. I didn't know what'd happened to her and Seb, but for some reason, I was confident they were ok. I like to think I checked on our older neighbours (but, to be honest, I don't remember), and quickly surveyed the damage to our house. I noticed that the house (a wooden bungalow) had shifted about 50mm on its piles, based on its relative position on its ring-foundation, so pretty minor damage (we'd lost the chimney above the roofline in the September 2010 quake, so there wasn't a lot more to fall down).

Inside was a mess, especially in the kitchen. Everything had come off the shelves in the pantry and the broken glass (mixed with golden syrup and cooking oil) was strewn over a remarkable radius. I'm pretty sure we lost all our drinking glasses. The flatscreen TV had toppled off its shelf and was hanging from its cords. My precious KEF Monitor speakers had fallen off their stands and their covers had come off, the pins holding them in snapped... Most of the dressers had tipped over, pictures fallen off the walls, a filing cabinet had tipped over, and my home computer monitors had fallen off the desk (I'm looking at one now, as I type this, that I recently pulled out of a closet to use with my new desktop - I noticed when I set it up that it had a noticable scratch on the screen... it must've happened then, a decade ago!). But generally, things could've been much worse.

I fairly quickly noticed that there was no power, and no water pressure. I also had no cellphone reception (turns out the fish and chip shop on the next block had collapsed, killing at least 2 (or was it 3) people, taking down the local celltower that was positioned next to it in the process) so I couldn't get in touch with Jos. Judging by the damage to the under-street infrastructure that was plainly visible - the sink-hole at the end of the block was due to a ruptured water main, I surmised that the sewerage system was also probably toast. It was.

After an hour or two just sitting there trying to work out what I could usefully do (I recall going up and down the street a bit to make sure folks were ok. Lots of the neighbours (many of whom I'd never seen before!) were out on the street talking. I heard one neighbour say that he'd heard from a mate down at the other end of the road, which comes out at Eastgate shopping centre, that some houses at that end had already been looted (this was Linwood, or "Lin'hood'", one of Christchurch's slightly dodgier neighbourhoods). Next thing I knew, Jos pulled in, with Seb in the car with her! She'd been reviewing a kindergarten (she worked for the Kindergarten association that oversaw most of the kindergartens in Christchurch) in McCormick's Bay (on the estuary, on the east side of the city) when the quake had hit. She'd made sure everyone got out of the building safely, and that she'd done as much as she could there, and then she'd jumped into her car (which was dangerously low on petrol - many people who lived through that now have real "range-anxiety" lest they be caught out again - in face, even today, we stopped to fill the car at the petrol station because Jos wasn't comfortable with it getting below a quarter tank full) and dashed across back towards the city to collect Seb! She'd crossed the Ferrymead bridge (over the Heathcote, where it empties into the estuary) - she would've got there before it was closed off by city officials as being unsafe - it wasn't opened again for a couple years after that, needing to be fully rebuilt! She'd managed to get to Seb before the rest of the city had gotten over its shock, so the roads across the south side of the city that she had to traverse had been fairly quiet... but getting from our friends' house in Somerfield back to Linwood had taken a couple hours due to the chaotic traffic. She'd had to do quite a few double-backs when she realised that various routes she wanted to take were closed, or gridlocked with traffic...

Practical considerations quickly came to the fore - Seb was in cloth nappies, meaning that we did a lot of clothes washing. Without power, water, or sewerage, that was going to get unpleasant really quickly. I'm not sure how she managed to do it (I think she might've been using a different phone company for her cellphone, and as such still had a working phone), but Jos got in touch with a friend of hers, who worked for the NZ Airforce, and managed to score herself and Seb a flight out of Christchurch for the next day. They were going to stay with Jos' parents in Hamilton, in the north island. We agreed that I should stay at home to look after the house, particularly given the looting and lack of police availability and poor communications. It was a long and relatively sleepless night, with lots of aftershocks and pitch black - we were concerned about lawlessness in our 'hood... (we weren't able to use the toilet - we went out into the yard).

The next morning, luckily, we saw that my car still had nearly a full tank of petrol (and, because I cycled to work, it was sitting in the driveway, unlike many people's cars, that were trapped in various hastily condemned intercity parking garages, and weren't seen again for months in some cases) so I was able to take them to the airport (I recall being shocked at the damage - the route we took to the airport - to the west of the city -  also required quite a few backtracks, as we'd decided to go across to the north of the CBD, which also was the most badly damaged areas, which was to become the "Red Zone" - now de-populated (with thousands of houses - entire neighbourhood - having been bought out by the government and turned to a huge park, because they were too expensive to  repair and then maintain due to the inherent instability of the land in those areas (mostly along the Avon River). It was eerie, because it was so clear the area was completely "munted" (the term that came into its own at the time of the quake). Amazingly, the area near the airport seemed completely normal - almost entirely unaffected by the quake. It was completely surreal.

When I got back home, I did some more cleaning up.. and as night fell, I remember being quite worried and a bit scared - I was alone in the house, without the ability to call the police if anything happened (they wouldn't have been able to come, even if I'd been able to call!)... I remember lying in bed, feeling very vulnerable. There were aftershocks every few minutes which didn't help the nerves much.

The next day, I don't really remember what happened. I must've got busy trying to clean things up. I must've gone to fill up some water containers. I think I was able to partly fill our bath tub with water left in our attic-mounted cistern, which, thankfully, hadn't collapsed and fallen through the ceiling. It had, however, sloshed out quite a bit, from memory, I might've seen water running down a wall - I vaguely recall going up into the attic through the access hatch with a torch to see if I could shore it up (I think I remember doing some stuff with ropes).

I don't really remember it specifically, but I know that despite a few bad eggs taking advantage of the lawlessness, I was amazed at how neighbours pulled together to help one another - families with ruined houses camping in yards or even in homes of neighbours, sharing meals over the barbeque because kitchens were out of action. Kids enjoying the idea of camping in tents where nothing could fall over on them, treating it like the great adventure it was... Parents, of course, generally found it and the total uncertainty of what was going to happen next very stressful. But there were remarkably few stories (I can't think of any) of people losing it during those first few days.

I had the great fortune of being far less anxious than many folks around me, many of whom had much worse damage to their homes - cracked foundation slabs, tonnes of liquifaction bubbling up, tipping walls, roof leaks, etc. because, by complete lucky coincidence, we'd sold the house only a month prior, and had (in another great stroke of luck) been invited by the new owners (an expat kiwi couple living in Sydney) to rent it back off them until such time as we found a new place... so, unlike most home owners in Christchurch, the damage and insurance woes were not part of our story, at least not at this stage (when we bought a house in May, that changed, although by and large we have continued to be among the very lucky ones!).

Rather than spend another night in the house feeling impotent to protect it, I somehow managed to contact some friends, Jeff and Debi James, who lived in a house they'd built a few years prior at the top of Mount Pleasant hill. Turned out they - despite most of the houses below them on the hill having been very badly quake damaged to the point that the playing fields of Mt Pleasant school were full of people camping because they didn't trust their homes, my colleague Jonathan Hunt and his family among them - had power, water, working sewerage, and internet access - I think my phone battery was almost flat and I desperately wanted to charge it and talk to Jos, to make sure she and Seb had arrived ok. I ended up going up their place, and availing myself of their generous hospitality and great company (as always)! I think I stayed there 2 or 3 nights. During the day, I tried to work out, with Rob Fraser, what we'd do with Egressive, our business. I think on the 3rd day after the quakes, we all arranged (I think everyone else in the company had managed to find working phone and network connections, so were able to communicate via SMS and email) to meet at Rob's house in Beckenham. Amazingly, although his place was pretty damaged (like the bricked front porch had broken quite badly, and the floor was "soft" or sagging in places, meaning there were problems with the piles and/or bearers), from memory) he had water, power, Internet access, and (maybe) working toilets. Not sure about that last bit. It's possible the lemon tree in his yard got well watered. So his place became our temporary home base. Everybody got there and we got to work assessing the situation.

It turned out, against all the odds, that our hosting provider, the plucky little company "Unleashed" which had a hosting facility in what we assumed would've been the worst hit area next to the old rail yards just south of Moorhouse Ave, near the Waltham Rd overbridge, had kept their entire facility powered and running <em>the whole time</em>. They'd even had to specially truck in barrels of diesel fuel from Timaru to keep their backup generators running, but they'd done it. Amazingly, none of our customers' site ever went down!

Even more surprising, it turned out that our offices in Kenton Chambers, that we'd been forced to abandon almost 8 weeks prior due to structural damage it'd sustained in the boxing day quake (the epicentre was almost directly beneath us!), still had power! And, more surprising still, the totally Heath Robinson long range wireless connection we'd been using as our main internet connection via a matching antenna on the roof of Unleashed's building were both still intact. We were even able to log into the couple servers and developer desktops we had in Kenton Chambers that were <em>still running</em> and make sure we had backups of key customer and business data (luckily, most of our systems were already well backed up in various places).

Ultimately, unlike almost every other business in the CBD (including most of the IT-specialists that we competed with!) we didn't lose any business or customer data, and none of our customer-facing systems <em>ever went down at all</em> which is still almost inconceivable to me. We were back up and running and earning money within 2 days of the quake. It was months before a few personal items and some of our physical machines (desktop computers, backpacks, etc.) were recovered (illicitly) from the condemned Link Centre, thanks to one of the Viastrada guys knowing whoever it was who was charged with assessing the structure of the building, and asking them to collect some key things from the building when they were there). Many other businesses in the CBD were unable to access any crucial computer systems for weeks or months in many cases, as the whole area was cordoned off due to the threat of the 26 storey Grand Chancellor hotel, which was less than a block away, and structurally buggered, meaning it might come down at any time with one of the many continuing aftershocks.

Jos and Seb came back to Christchurch after a week or so, and we slowly, bit by bit, started to pick up the other pieces... Thankfully, none of my family or close contacts were really badly affected, or at least not until the real tragedy of the quake bit like a slow-motion train wreck: the complete failure of our national Earthquake Commission to be fit-for-purpose or even vaguely ethical, matched only by the ineptitude of the insurance industry and its representatives. My personal story was pretty positive, so I cannot personally complain, and the feeling of community that characterised the time after the quake for most of us is something I'll always value and never forget... But many more folk who survived the quake without physical trauma will always carry the mental scars of the deceitful human and policy failings that affected them and continue to affect more than a few to this day.

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