Truly Reeling

21:07, Mar 10 2011

Feb 22, 2011

First, let me say it was nothing like a disaster movie.

A disaster movie ends.

I was on the phone with a colleague in The Press's 102-year-old building at 12.51pm on Tuesday when my computer screen leaped up and smacked me in the face.

The features editor was out at lunch and a page needed to be resent to the printing press. I was about to send it when the world roared, the room started doing the shimmy shake, and my computer screen jumped at me – all at the same time.

I don't think I hung up the phone or that page ever got sent. I dived under my desk with my keyboard and mouse following quickly after and hung on for dear life as the world shook and roared like a freight train was rolling past your head.

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As soon as things steadied, I emerged to find that everything that had been on the shelves around my desk (thankfully not too much stuff since we'd all been packing to move to the new Press building next week) was now on the floor around me.

I clambered over the debris and looked down the long corridor that leads (or used to lead) from the features department to the newsroom. Nothing but white dust clouds, dangling roof tiles and wires. No exit that way. The arts editor asked if I was OK and pointed out my lip was bleeding.

We had no idea that a part of the top floor above us had collapsed, trapping four. A colleague's account of this moment has it that someone yelled to stay where we were, but obviously my brain – which has huge capacity for self-protection, I've discovered – was not accepting this message. I could portray this moment as showing leadership, by leading the way down the back stairs, but I just wanted out of Satan's bouncy castle (thanks Moata for so neatly summing up the feeling).

On the next floor down, we met more colleagues fleeing the premises and left out of the basement garage, and down Press Lane's narrow egress, now covered in fallen bricks and mortar. I didn't want to think about the very real possibility of more bricks falling on my head as I scampered over the detritus to Gloucester St.

More workmates gathered and as we looked up at the cracked and crumbling buildings and fragile facades looming above us, including the shattered glass walls of the newly built Press building, a certain amount of shock set in. This felt far more severe than September 4's big quake.

My immediate thought (sorry darling) was to make sure my toddler was safe. I'd had the foresight to grab my handbag with two cellphones in it - hindsight had me cursing for not grabbing my jacket or gym-bag with sensible sneakers in it. For some bizarre reason I was also holding my half-empty takeaway coffee.

Of course the phone networks were overloaded. As I was trying to get through to anybody, a workmate mentioned that the Cathedral Spire had come down. Being a bunch of journos, we couldn't resist the long-held instinct to witness it for ourselves. That's when the surreal became all too real. There was no avoiding the realisation, even with my talent for denial, that people have died. Many, many, far too many people.

Everyone knows there are tourists constantly traversing the Cathedral's landmark bell tower for the view. We could see a woman sitting in one of the arched leadlight windows at what looked like the equivalent of three storeys high.

We could also see that the rubble had crushed at least one car.

I didn't see any bodies (maybe my brain wouldn't let me) but that somehow didn't stop the knowledge sinking in that there were bound to be people under there. A fierce aftershock sent more debris flying and made many scream.

Another Press journo came up to tell us we were meant to be meeting at the assembly point in Gloucester St so our names could be ticked off as safe.

It was as I tried to phone family that my boss Ewan wandered up looking his usual calm, unflustered self – I've never been so relieved to see a workmate. I've also never hugged so many colleagues as I did on Tuesday.

After getting the OK to leave, I headed off in the direction of my husband's workplace, hoping to find it still standing. My beloved works on the other side of Victoria Square, where the amphitheatre behind the Crown Plaza hotel had turned into a lake full of sludgy, murky water. Likewise, the Avon river was full of milky-grey sludge and rising. Liquefaction was extensive and everywhere as I trudged north through town. Collapsed frontages and shattered glass were sprayed into the streets. I was wearing ridiculous high-heeled boots, definitely not built for walking several kilometres through rubble and silty sludge.

It was while I was walking dazed through the disintegrated houses and shops of Merivale that I witnessed one of the most romantic things I'd ever seen. A man was kneeling at his pregnant partner's feet tying his own sneakers on to her feet. They then walked on, him in his socks, carrying her high-heels in one hand, and holding her hand with the other.

I managed to get hold of my own beloved as I reached Papanui, what felt like excruciating decades later. I've never been so relieved to see him. Our two-year-old was happy to see us and seemed largely unfazed, but he reacted badly every time an aftershock rattled and didn't want to leave my arms – which suited me just fine.

My parents had just finished picking up fallen books when an aftershock knocked them down again.

That Tuesday night, we had 13 sleeping over at our (almost unscathed) house. We never lost power and luckily I'd been stashing fresh, clean drinking water in the deep freeze for months. It was just great to have everyone together in one place, and safe – even if we did have to dig a hole in the backyard.

Thursday, we got mains water back in a trickle, though we're still collecting rainwater, just to be on the safe side. Friday morning, we were ridiculously excited to be allowed to flush the loos! Feels like huge progress.

I completely understand people wanting to escape from the quake zone, but I need to stay and see if I can help my incredible Press colleagues in any way – the people who haven't missed a single edition of the paper, even as we discovered that one of our workmates was killed in the quake.

I know there are far greater heroes in the police, military and SAR teams, but it's so reassuring to wake up and find the paper sitting in the driveway and constant updates online. Just a Herculean effort from an incredible bunch of professionals - from journos and photographers to graphics, sub-editors, web-editors, printers and delivery staff. Proud to know you.

Margaret took these pictures on her long walk home.