My 22 February 2011 Quake Story

This week, with the second anniversary of the devastating 22 February 2011 Christchurch earthquake, I’ll be blogging about several issues relevant to our situation here in Christchurch and natural disasters in general.

This is my account of what happened to me on 22 February 2011, when a shallow 6.3 earthquake struck a few miles from Christchurch’s city centre, causing massive damage and killing 185 people.  This has been taken from my Quake Stories entry.

Christchurch city, moments after the 6.3 quake on 22 February 2011

I heard a loud bang, like an explosion, and felt a jolt at the same time. My colleague / friend Jacqui’s eyes were wide as she sat at her computer and said, “Oh fuck, it’s a big one.”

That was the start of the large quake on 22 February 2011 for me. It’s where I remember it all starting.

Oddly enough, a week or so before, I had been talking to students in the lounge upstairs for a staff member’s going away party, saying I had a strong feeling we were in for a high 5 or low 6 quake. I kept remembering to say that to everyone I could because I had the feeling that something bad was coming and we needed to be prepared.

Moments after the 22 February 2011 quake, the city was shrouded in dust from the violent up-and-down and side-to-side motions of the quake. It was one of the highest peak ground accelerations every recorded near a major city, maxing out a 2.2g in some areas.

The morning of 22 February 2011, we had a smaller quake, and it was the strangest sensation. It made me feel queasy because it was a deep rolling motion, and a voice somewhere inside of me said, “This is a precursor. Be prepared.”

So when I heard the loud bang at 12:51 PM, felt the earth give an almighty shudder, and heard the fear in Jacqui’s voice and saw the colour drain from her face, I knew it was going to be bad.

I leapt towards her (she’s only small; I’m 1.8m tall and about 110 kilos in weight due to my German-American genes. I’m from Chicago) and pushed her against the wall behind her desk as the ceiling tiles started to come down. Someone’s voice kept repeating, “Stay calm, keep down, hold on” only to find it was my own.

I lost my grip on Jacqui with the violence of the quake (there was a slight lull in the violence and then it picked up again) and I grabbed onto the wall / doorframe between our office and my partner Noel’s office as hard as I could.

It was the most violent movement I have ever encountered in my entire life; Noel wasn’t at his desk and I saw all the items on his desk shifting violently. The cabinet doors on one of his sideboard were swinging open and shut with the violent movement of the earth. I turned to look into my office to see all the binders eject from the cabinet next to my desk, watch the large photocopier (easily 150 kgs) marching across the floor towards Jacqui and me, before another large jolt struck. I couldn’t hold on and was thrown across the room; luckily, I thought it would be best to turn around, so I did so in mid-air and collided with the door frame, my arm and shoulder in one room and the rest of me in the other room. My arms wrapped around the wall and I held on as tight as I could, watching Noel’s credenza on his other sideboard come crashing down, a large brandy bowl (about the size of a glass fish bowl) full of glass ampoules he’d collected over 26 years in beauty therapy smashing with an almighty sound. With that, the power went out with a huge dooooooosh noise like you hear in the movies.  I took a quick glance into our board room, and the large bank of hanging lights were swaying so hard they were hitting the ceiling either side of their swing.

And three things raced through my mind as the earth continued to heave violently: “I hope wherever Noel is, he’s okay; I’m glad I talked to my Grandma this weekend; and I’m glad I talked to my Mom and told her I loved her.”

The final thing was: “Close your eyes. This is it. Close your eyes and it will all be over soon.”

But then I had a strange feeling like there was a green-black cone over me, almost like dark wings wrapped around me. And I wasn’t scared, but accepting of whatever would happen.

Then the shaking seemed to stop.

The aftermath of my work and desk area. I was very lucky not to have been sitting there!

I grabbed Jacqui off the floor (she was in high heels), grabbed her around the waist, and we went running out into the reception area, with me muttering to her, “That had to be an 8, that had to be at least an 8”. A student ran out in front of us.

I was yelling at the top of my lungs to evacuate the building. Noel suddenly appeared from a dark hallway and said, “Go!” and he dashed over to the fire alarm and smacked the panic button. The fire alarm screamed (luckily we had covered evacuation procedures and what the alarm would sound like about 3 weeks prior at orientation).

Jacqui and I ran out to the parking lot to see people lying on the ground, some of them with blood on the palms of their hands and their knees. The eerie silence was replaced by sirens and fire alarms and burglar alarms going off like a discordant symphony, more and more instruments added second after second. The smell of hot rocks (almost like the little eraser-like tool you use to clean model train tracks) was in the air. There were clouds of dust rising around buildings everywhere, as if someone had picked them up and slammed them back down onto the ground.

As Jacqui and I stood at the ready to help students to the evacuation point, suddenly a stream of staff and students piled out from the building. Some were crying; some were bleeding; everyone was pale.

Our building, two days after the quake. The liquefaction has dried up.

We hurried the students and staff (the staff were amazingly calm) to the evacuation point. I asked Suzie (a tutor) to make sure each student in each class was accounted for, and she and some of the other tutors (including a new tutor who had started that day) organised that.

We heard a strange noise coming from the building, and some of the staff and students were not out yet, so I dashed back into the foyer. I could hear this strange, almost inhuman panting / gasping sound coming from inside, so I yelled up the stairs, “What the hell is going on up there?” And Noel, his business partner Don, our principal Catherine and a few students were escorting out an elderly client, a student who had been hit hard on the head and was concussed, and an extremely hysterical client.

Piko Wholefoods Store, a block from our work

They headed down the stairs and into the parking lot with them, and I decided to run into our offices to retrieve my backpack, shoes (I was in my socks because my shoes were uncomfortable… I reckon that’s why I was still able to stand pretty much during the quake) and glasses.

Damage to Jacqui and my office. Note the photocopier in the middle of the room.

When I returned to the office, the photocopier was in the middle of the room, its power cord as tight and extended as it could be; the stand holding photocopier paper next to it was across the room next to Jacqui’s desk.

I dashed around and over these things to find my bookcase and desk completely emptied on the floor and my computer monitor flat against my desktop. Finding my shoes and backpack, my quest for my glasses (somewhere in the pile of books) lost to my knowledge that an aftershock or an even bigger quake were probably coming.

Running back out, I pulled my cell phone out and called my Mom in the USA. The phones were jammed the first two or three times I tried calling, but on the next attempt, it connected to her voice mail. Not knowing what was coming next, I left her a message to tell her we’d had a large earthquake, that we were okay, and that if she could let everyone know that we loved them if we died, we would appreciate it.

Jacqui and I were shepherding students back to the carpark area — we would not let them go home until we had further information — and the air of desperation and slight panic was starting to rise. The smell of rocks was getting stronger, and the small patches of liquefaction were getting bigger.

Noel and Suzie had ran back into the building to see if there was anyone left inside and to retrieve essential items.

A downtown area after the 6.3 quake hit. The dust in the air is from the strong earth movement, one of the strongest PGAs ever recorded in an urban area. Incidentally, a man died in the white van struck by the top of the building (the large beam in the street).

One student got a text from her sister in Hamilton, stating the quake was a 6.3; in an attempt to be a little light-hearted, I asked the students gathered for a vote on who thought that was a lot stronger than a 6.3 (everyone raised their hands). Students were sharing stories with staff members about where they were and what they were doing; nearly everyone in the building was knocked to the ground in the quake due to the strong shaking. (The strong shaking, we learned later, was because we were in a strong shaking zone, and our building was so close to the Avon River.)

A few moments later, I was trying to calm down two students when the 5.9 aftershock hit a little over 10 minutes later. The first thing I saw was students against Jacqui’s car and the car rocking very strongly, back and forth; and then I realised it was another strong quake, and I could barely stand, so I grabbed the two students (one of who was hysterical by this point) and held them against the car, telling them, “It’s going to be okay. Stay calm. This will be over soon.”

Once the shaking stopped, Noel and Suzie emerged from the building, Suzie upset and Noel stoically calm. The liquefaction was now bubbling like mini-geysers from beneath the building, underneath my car in the carpark space in front of the building, from the gardens beside of the building, and a rather wide stream of liquefaction water (as wide as my car) was running down the carpark.

Noel stated he was going to try to get as many of the students’ and staff members’ essential items out of the building and then we were going to evacuate the area. As he and Don headed back upstairs to do this, the rest of us went to notify the students.

Damage to our neighbouring unit’s fins

Two images stick in my mind after the second aftershock (because the rest became quite a blur until we started to head home). People on the first floor balcony of the Unit 6 (the one next to ours), unsure of how to leave the building (their foyer was quite damaged), so they ended up sliding down the concrete panels on the outside of the building; and, when down near the Barbadoes Street end of our complex talking to students looking after the concussed student, a young woman wearing only a sweatshirt and underpants screaming and yelling hysterically, with some of our students grabbing her and sitting her down to calm her down while a woman who worked in Unit 9 saying, “Doesn’t anyone have anything to cover this poor girl up with?”

With the ground shaking on and off pretty much continuously, the Amuri Park community was checking on one another to make sure one another were okay, but nerves were starting to fray. The traffic started to back up on Barbadoes Street. People started to leave Amuri Park with their cars and not being particularly careful around all the people gathered. Noel and Don were bringing bags up and down the stairs for students, and the rest of the staff were liaising with students to match the bag to the student.

Once the student had their bag, we made sure they had somewhere safe to go, a way to get there, and a link to our Facebook page so we could keep them informed of what was going to happen over the next few days.

Some students were making demands on what they wanted, and staff members like Jacqui and I were pointing out that we were restricting things to essential items only (keys and cell-phones).

The liquefaction was so bad at this point that I moved my car in fear it might be swept away or flooded.

Builders gathering liquefaction in the car park two days after the 6.3 quake

After what seemed like forever and after yet another strong aftershock, Don and Noel started sliding the bags down the stairs to save time and to try to get out of the place just in case. Some students objected to this; I lost my cool and let one student have a piece of my mind as it was my partner risking his life to get some inconsequential and non-essential items out, as if his life meant less than their towels or what have you. (All our nerves were frayed, so this is understandable!)

Finally, the number of students dwindled down to only a handful, and Noel and Don retrieved all the essential items they needed to get home. One bag remained unclaimed, so one of the tutors took it with her (as she lived close to the student). Don offered to drive another student who had no car home. Jacqui and the others left to check on their family members, friends and home. Noel and I were the last people from the school in what was now a pretty deserted Amuri Park, so we hopped in the car and headed home.

On the way home, texts and calls started to flood in. We went down Churchill Street to Cambridge Terrace to find the newly finished Cambridge Terrace with huge gashes in it and slumping towards the river. The Avon River was grey and swollen.

The newly completed Cambridge Terrace, severely damaged by the quake

Driving along Cambridge to Fitzgerald Avenue, we saw huge gashes in the road with cars trying to navigate around the gashes in Fitzgerald Avenue. We headed towards Hills Road; the traffic was heavy.

Liquefaction clogged some city streets

On Hills Road, liquefaction and water was everywhere, with people walking down the road, down the side-walks, down the parkways, knee high in water, like zombies. The image struck me as similar to 9/11: that pale expressionless face due to shock.

Every so many minutes, we’d progress a little further down the road, watching the water ripple and telephone poles vibrate after yet another aftershock struck. Power was out, with stoplights off and everyday people directing traffic in the intersections. In some areas, cars were abandoned, stuck in high liquefaction or deep holes in the street.

Damage to duplex houses on Bealey Avenue, a block from our school. These used to be two stories, but the ground floor has collapsed due to the violent movement of the quake

But once we hit Radcliffe Road near Main North Road, it was like Dorothy stepping from the black and white crashed farmhouse into the colour world of Munchkinland in the Wizard of Oz. The stoplights were working; there was very little damage; very little damage was to be found.

Pulling up to our house, our neighbour Gordon was already home; he had a beer open and was standing in the front yard. By this time, the phone systems were overloaded, texting was nearly overloaded as well (with fluctuating between instant texts and delays of hours), so we weren’t able to find out if Jacqui (who also happens to be our neighbour across the street) and James (her husband) wanted us to check out their house.

We went inside to look for our two cats and dogs; the dogs were understandably upset but happy to see us. One cat emerged from her hiding place to greet us, but the other cat was no where to be found.

Our house and neighbourhood suffered light damage compared to parts of the city and other suburbs. Here, the old ANZ Chambers, once a 3 to 4 story building, has completely collapsed.

Noel and I established our first priorities were to check what was working and to find our other cat. Noel checked power (working), water (working), gas (working), phone (overloaded) and internet (working). I searched for our cat (who is very sensitive to quakes). Going into the garage where their litter box and drinking water are, I found quite a few things collapsed into a pile. Praying to God our cat wasn’t crushed or severely injured under that pile, I lifted it up to find she wasn’t there. Noel joined me and we kept searching for her until we found her hiding under a really small area under one of the couches, her pupils wide and she not very willing to come out.

How the bookcases in my office looked (this is after the September 2010 quake, but you get the idea…)

Noel and I decided to check the house for damage, and found our bookcases had emptied themselves out, pictures had fallen over, ornaments were over, that sort of thing. Noel and I grabbed various supplies, including passports, important documents, computer drives, and so on and gathered them in one place.

All our bottled water (again, that feeling of a large quake coming made me go out and buy a lot of bottled water and supplies) and canned goods were placed in our kitchen for easy access. Pet cages and leashes were added to the emergency pile just in case we had to evacuate the house quickly.

After we finished with that, I went over to Jacqui and James’s to find their dog hiding in the closet and their cats were nowhere to be seen. They had ornaments over, water on the floor from the spilled water bowl for the animals, and a huge speaker stuck in their lounge door. Everything was working there too, so I decided to come home.

Across from the ANZ Chambers, the old Ruben Blades hairdressing college building also nearly completely collapsed. A woman and her baby were killed, but her partner and his sister were saved after quick thinking by the partner, (He pushed both himself and his sister through a window, into the relative safety of the building).

After I spoke to my Mom on the phone to reassure her everything was okay, James showed up with Charlotte (their daughter) and they came over to be with us. Jacqui was picking up Nicole (their other daughter) but could not be reached on her cell phone (we were trying to let her know James had Charlotte). Noel had gone on the internet in his home office to find out information, and we had the TV on as well while James, Charlotte and I were talking about the quakes. A live press conference was being broadcast on TV One when I heard people gasping and startled on the TV; from what I remember, the camera fell over, and I wondered what in the world was going on when James grabbed Charlotte and me and threw us all into a door frame; seconds later, another large quake hit. Charlotte and I were trying to get my Chihuahua Levi to come to us (he was shivering in the middle of the room), while I yelled out to Noel in the office (as you could hear the DVDs left on the top of the cupboard in the office coming out, and the doors on the unit opening up and spilling the DVDs out as well). Noel was okay; he yelled out he was holding the 42” monitor on his computer and his iMac from falling over. Towards the end of the quake, the drinks cooler (like one you see at a service station) in our garage ejected bottles from the top shelves onto the floor. Luckily, none of them broke.

Noel’s office after the September 2010 quake. Imagine a large pile of DVDs on top of this, and that’s what happened on 22 February 2011

James, Charlotte and I didn’t feel comfortable in the house, so we went outside; Noel joined us in a few moments. Our neighbours who were home all came outside and we stood out on the parkway as the earth kept trembling. One neighbour’s house windows kept bowing as aftershock after aftershock struck.

Not long after, Jacqui and Nicole arrived and we were all staying outside together for a while. A text arrived on my phone that our friends Emma and Phil (who live in Papanui), asking if they could come over. Knowing there were problems with the phone systems, especially delays in texts because Jacqui hadn’t received any of our texts, I kept trying to phone Emma and Phil on my cell phone, and I finally got through. They had no power, no water, no internet, no landline phones, so we invited them to gather what they could and come stay with us as long as they needed to. Jacqui’s parents (who live in St Albans) also had the same issues, plus heavy liquefaction, so she informed us they were coming to stay with them as long as they could too. Our friends Dave and Shaun, even though they lived around the corner from us in Northwood, asked if they could stay too because (I think) they wanted to be with others during this ordeal, so we said yes (of course).

Other people arrived at other neighbours’ places — Northwood was mostly spared from heavy damage, thank God — and our community became like a little refugee camp. We shared resources where we could, having group meals to conserve gas and power.

The aftershocks that night and into the next morning kept coming strong and heavy. We all got very little sleep, even all considering getting up about 3:30 AM after a load of strong aftershocks kept rolling through.

I remember crying that night after being woken up for what seemed like the zillionth time; Noel was very comforting (he’s used to earthquakes; I’m from Chicago, where we rarely have earthquakes, just every other type of natural disaster).

Of course, the light of day made things feel better, even though things were very grim for the city indeed. And safety in numbers made us feel a lot better.

Christchurch Cathedral, its spire on the ground, moments after the 6.3 quake. The Cathedral lies at the heart of our city. Its fate remains uncertain.

2 thoughts on “My 22 February 2011 Quake Story

  1. Scott, we are so ignorant of the reality if that day for you and the ongoing battles you are dealing with on a daily basis. As i type, tears are streaming down my face again as i have only a small insight into the horror that was the 22nd Feb 2011. I wish it had never happened but more so, i wish it hadnt happened to you. Does that make me selfish! Possibly but i love you guys so much and my heart breaks for you. Bravo Scott. You are inspirational x x

    1. Thanks, Lorna. I just wrote down what happened on the day the best I could remember it a few months after the trauma settled down. To be honest, life is getting better! And you were the first person outside of Christchurch I spoke to on the phone! It meant a lot to Noel and me that you called. Love you! (You are NOT selfish lol)

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