Published in The Australian Writer issue #374 February 2012
***This page is copyright to author Anne Frandi-Coory. No text can be copied or downloaded from this page without the written permission of Anne Frandi-Coory.***
I was living in Melbourne when the Christchurch earthquake struck on 4 September 2010. My daughter Gina, her husband and baby son, were living there at the time.
The first I knew about the September quake (without realising it at the time!), was when my daughter sent me a text: “We are under the table, and Jack thinks it’s great fun”. After getting out of bed at around 4 am to search for my bleeping mobile, only to find this message from Gina, I promptly turned the thing off, muttering “I will have to have words with that girl about the time difference”, and staggered my way back to bed. When the news automatically came on our bedside radio clock at 6am announcing the 7.1 magnitude earthquake in Christchurch, I leapt out of bed, wide awake, the full realization hitting me. I had gone back to sleep ignoring my daughter’s text. I was used to Gina texting at all hours of the morning after Jack was born, mostly to tell me how gorgeous he was, but often to ask advice about his sleeping and feeding routines.
Panicking, I managed to get through to her and calmed down when I heard she and her family were okay and that their house sustained no damage. At that stage, no-one in Christchurch had died as a result of the quake and damage to buildings was minimal.
However, I was in Christchurch when a devastating earthquake hit five months later on 22 February 2011; Gina and her husband, Paul, were not. They were off to an education conference in Rotorua and I was there to look after Jack, a 20 month old with attitude. On Monday the 21st, Gina and I had spent the day with Jack shopping in the CBD, having coffees and snacks at cafés, and generally having a wonderful mother/daughter day out.
On Tuesday the 22nd, Paul and Gina left me with Jack early morning to catch their flight to Rotorua. At 9.30am I left the house to take Jack to his usual private day care. Gina works Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and we decided it was better for Jack if we kept to his routines while his parents were away. I was a little nervous when they left, because I recalled that the last time they had arranged for me to come over from Melbourne to look after Jack for a week, Paul snapped his Achilles tendon and their trip away was cancelled. I wondered what my little charge had in store this time to get his parents back.
After dropping Jack off, I did a few messages and returned to the house in Avonhead to settle down, while Jack was away, to some serious writing on my laptop for my next book. Deep in thought, re-reading what I had just written, I felt more than heard, a loud rumble and then the whole house heaved, seemingly all over the place. I leapt up and raced to the nearest door frame with double french doors dividing the dining room and lounge. I gripped onto the door jamb to stop myself falling as the glass doors swung back and forth on their hinges. The quake went on for many seconds and slowly settled into faint tremors. I immediately sent Gina a text “earthquake, all ok”. That was the last communication with her until that evening, and I learned later how important that simple message was to her, as she could not contact anyone in Christchurch for some time.
Not knowing of the hell that engulfed the CBD, I raced for the car in the driveway, my only thought to get to Jack. Before I left, I had tried ringing the carer on the landline and mobile, but neither worked. Ten minutes driving on almost-empty roads, got me to my destination and I arrived to find the carer and her charges under the substantial dining table, watching cartoons on a tiny laptop. Jack was serene, as though it was perfectly normal to sit under the table. I joined them.
In between the aftershocks, I got up to watch the horrors unfolding on TV in the adjoining lounge. The earthquake was of a lesser magnitude than the one in September; 6.3, but shallower at 5 metres, and centred at Lyttelton. Much of the CBD, where Gina, Jack and I had spent most of the day before, was all but razed. Gina told me later that as the news got through to her and her colleagues, all Christchurch residents at the conference just wanted to get home to family and friends. But there were no flights to Christchurch that day. All control towers and runways had to be inspected. Back at the house in Avonhead, after spending an hour and half drinking comforting tea at the carer’s, I speedily carried Jack from the car into the dining room, closed all the doors and removed the chairs from around the dining table, to enable us fast access under the table. I gathered nappies, toys, books and anything else I needed for our enclosed space. I had no electricity and no phones, and no battery radio. That was the worst time, because I felt so isolated. I managed to find enough food for Jack and I that didn’t need cooking. I took Jack to bed at about 7 pm after playing with him and reading him stories, in between grabbing him and diving under the table during each aftershock tremor. Singing Jack’s favourite songs had him swaying and laughing.
Down in Jack’s bedroom, I dressed him in his pyjamas and lifted him into his cot. I dragged the single bed in his room over beside the cot and lay with my hand through the bars, holding his little hand. Jack thought this was great fun and fell asleep without a murmur. Tremors kept me awake most of the night so I was in a state of ‘fright and flight’ while Jack slept on. The next morning Gina managed to get through to speak to me on my mobile, relieved to hear we had made it safely from the carer’s home and that the house was undamaged. They were hoping to board a flight late that morning to come home. In the meantime, she told me that all drinking water had to be boiled and not to flush the toilets because raw sewerage was flowing into the estuary and it was probably seeping into the city’s water supply. The best news of all was that there was a transistor radio and torch I could use, on a top shelf in the pantry, put there for just such emergencies. Also, there were several bottles of drinking water in the deep freeze. I told her that although there were few cars on the road when I went to pick up Jack, on the way back, cars were bumper to bumper going in the opposite direction, probably frantic drivers travelling to loved ones and picking children up from their schools. Many schools were badly damaged in the quake, but no children were injured or killed.
Meanwhile, still holed up in the dining room, waiting to hear from Gina, I received another text message saying that they were on their way to Christchurch, when a man on the plane, worried about family he could not contact, had a heart attack, and the plane had to return to Rotorua. Gina and Paul finally arrived back at their home at 4pm on Wednesday, relieved we and the house were fine, but distraught at news that many colleagues had lost their homes and some acquaintances were missing or dead in the rubble of the city.
The next day we travelled to Cromwell in Central Otago, five hours drive away, to Paul’s family’s holiday house. We were lucky to be able to escape the city, but we were all on edge, thinking of what was happening back home. After eight days, we returned to Christchurch and the growing total of the dead pulled from rubble. There was no peace to be had and the after shocks reminded us of the ruin of one of New Zealand’s most picturesque cities. Over 10,000 homes cannot be rebuilt because of the liquefaction of the land under them. The violent tremors liquefied the land pushing the sandy-silt up through roads and buildings. Many families whose homes were destroyed, are living in caravans, cars, halls and tents. Many have left the city.
Post earthquake, the fanatics and soothsayers had their say in letters to newspaper editors and on radio talkback. Apparently God destroyed Manchester Street because it is alive with prostitutes at night. One has to ask why God would destroy the rest of the city as well, trapping people at work in multi-storied buildings, and flattening countless family homes. Then there are the churches. Why did God turn Christchurch Cathedral, Baptist churches, Anglican churches, Catholic churches, Protestant churches, to name a few, into piles of rubble? Is it possible that the earth moved because of a fault line in the earth’s crust? I prefer that scientific explanation myself.
© To Anne Frandi-Coory All Rights Reserved 10 March 2011