Christchurch in Ruins

"Wow, I think I've got a blown tire... in fact two front tires... maybe all my tires...?!?!"

I was driving along Moorhouse Avenue in Christchurch, New Zealand, at 12:51pm on Tuesday 22nd February 2011, when the city's future was changed forever. It took me quite some seconds though to figure out what was happening when my car went suddenly out of control, lurching from side to side, the steering wheel with a mind of its own, and many thoughts kept racing through my head:

"...I can't have blown all my tires?!... in fact I'm stationary now... but the car is still shaking... the hydraulic power steering pump must be faulty... cars all seem to have on board computers don't they... maybe the car has come alive like in a science fiction movie...".

I was brought back into focus from my crazy theories by bricks crashing into the footpath on the other side of the road.

"...ah... earthquake... big earthquake... "

I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, having come to a stop under the large brick clock tower of the old Christchurch railway station, which was now waving back and forth above me like a children's block town just before collapse, raining bricks with each wobble.

Hitting the accelerator I screeched around into the nearby Countdown supermarket carport in excellent Christchurch boy racer style, coming to a stop on the far side, as far away from the tower as I could get before being blocked by the chain fence.

As I jumped out the shaking came to an end, and I looked around at a suddenly stationary scene slowly coming back to life. People starting streaming out of "Science Alive", a children's educational area housed in the old railway station, but they were stopping on the footpath, directly under the damaged tower. Filled with more than a little adrenaline, I raced to the central traffic island (as close as I felt safe), and quietly and politely advised those evacuating the building that perhaps they would like to move away from the obvious hazard above them in an orderly manner.

In the heat of the moment, this good intentioned message perhaps came out a little more on the impolite side, possibility laced with some expletives, and involving phases closer to "... YOU WILL MOVE AWAY FROM THE BUILDING IMMEDIATELY... @#$%... START RUNNING NOW...". It only took a few people in the crowd to twig to the situation and break for it and quickly everyone else was also well clear of the building.

Taking a breath, I thought, that's all I can do here, and turned away. But at that moment the lights at the Moorhouse Barbadoes intersection turned green and a three lane wall of traffic seemed intent on taking the place of the evacuees, directly under the damaged tower. Out onto the road again I had an attempt during one phase of the traffic lights to at least direct traffic into the lane furthest from the tower, but quickly realised the futility of it all, and turned to more drastic action, blocking the entire westward side of Moorhouse Ave with wheelie bins.

Several other people in the area joined in to help me, and the very minute we finished our handiwork, as if to confirm our decision, the first aftershock struck. It felt as if all the eyes in the area fixed on the tower: we at the makeshift cordon, the groups huddled on the footpaths around about, the hundreds of grid locked drivers behind us on Moorhouse Avenue.

The tower rocked back and forth alarmingly, chunks of bricks fell again from its four corners, the plywood covering put in place on the tower after the September earthquake bulged as bricks came loose inside, eventually spilling out bricks when one corner split open. When the shaking stopped, the dynamic buildings around us turned static again, and to our collective amazement, the tower was still standing.

I finally felt that I could leave the site knowing I had done all I could, and sprinted  towards the polytechnic institute where my partner Elodie was with our baby Zara. After many frantic laps of the campus and many attempted cell phone calls, I found them waiting in front of the still imposing Catholic Basilica, now with its large front two towers lying in crumpled ruins on the road.

Although we still had no idea of the full extent of the earthquake, the number of injured I had seen in cars passing by me at my roadblock, and the damaged buildings now coming into view, meant that perhaps the central hospital could be overwhelmed with wounded. It was basically on our way home and so that was the direction we headed. It took a long time to make the journey, wandering down the middle of the roads hopefully out of reach of the teetering buildings, weaving in amongst the stationary traffic, looking north up Colombo Street with its crushed cars and buses, pausing to block another road (St Asaph Street) to clear the way for ambulances to reach the hospital, trying to send cars back down a basically empty one way street to escape the city.

The hospital turned out to be in ok shape, with a couple of wards flooded, but the emergency department appeared to be in good working order, and the massive streams of wounded I feared never eventuated. Helicopters were filling the sky, emergency vehicles raced past, injured were being brought in at regular intervals by various means, from pickups to police cars. Elodie was helping an old lady whose wardrobe had fallen on her into the hospital when another large aftershock hit, sending the main hospital tower block swaying back and forth in a hideous motion above us.

At this point the idea of witnessing the hospital collapse with Elodie inside was a little too much for me, and hours of operating on adrenaline was taking its toll, so we headed off down the street for home. On the way was the bunch of students trying to roll the remains of their chimney off the roof, the elderly man standing next to his collapsed brick garage, and the liquefaction volcano on a neighbours front lawn.

Our little cottage was untouched outside, though the inside scene was quite a mess with broken wine glasses, mixed with dessert syrup, making the kitchen unusable. There was no power and water, and the aftershocks just kept on coming, every half hour it seemed through the night. All three of us got little sleep that night and so in the morning we recovered the car from where I had abandoned it on Moorhouse Ave (a story in itself), and headed south to friends in Dunedin to rest and recover.

The center of Christchurch now lies in ruins, and only time will tell now just how much death and destruction occurred on this single quiet Tuesday afternoon.


Anonymous said…
Richard...good to see your blog, stumbled on your clips on youtube.

Give us a yell when you are back in town
Tony Sharpe

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