Bus survivor praises her heroic rescuers

QUIET AWE: Ann Brower leaves Burwood Hospital in April.
QUIET AWE: Ann Brower leaves Burwood Hospital in April.

If I'm honest, this is not a good time to ask me how I feel about the earthquake.

For most Cantabrians, the new normal involved traffic, portaloos, sweeping up broken glass, shovelling silt, and fighting with EQC. My new normal involved surgeries, strict bed rest, then a wheelchair, then crutches, then limping, and so on. And pain so indescribable that I couldn't even tell the docs where it hurt. I would have given anything to use a portaloo.

On February 22, 13 of us were crushed by an unreinforced brick building at 603-13 Colombo St. I broke half a dozen bones or so, severed a tendon, spent two months in hospital and six months off work. And I was lucky. Twelve people died. I did not know them, but they forever travel with me.

That said, 2011 was by no means all about anger and pain for me. Recovery was obsessively hard work, but surprisingly fun and exciting. I even met the Dalai Lama.

In many ways, though, meeting others who were injured was even more inspiring. I left Ward 20 in quiet awe of what I'd witnessed that day: Courage personified. But I wasn't just thinking of His Holiness.

The Dalai Lama told us to let go of all the shoulda-woulda-couldas that haunt the survivors. The point isn't that we could've died, the point is that we didn't. And we all have lives to look forward to and contributions to make to society.

I am looking forward to tramping the Banks Peninsula Track. But before you look at my scarred and skin grafted ankle and ask "are you still in pain?" the answer is yes, every step still hurts, but the pain rarely stops me. For that I thank the staff of Christchurch and Burwood Hospitals and Lyttelton Physiotherapy.

On a deeper level, I owe my health to Doug, Rick, Paddy, Garry, Matt, Dave, Rob, Jordan, Ken, another Rick, Mike, Nathan, and half a dozen others who dug me out of the bus on Colombo. Not one of them was a professional rescuer, but they did an extraordinary thing that day.

They dug a metre of bricks off the collapsed roof of the bus, ripped the roof off with their bare hands, crawled into the bus, untangled me from the wires somehow wrapped round my ankles, lifted me out delicately, splinted my broken leg under the watchful eye of a nurse on site, flagged down an SUV and convinced the driver to take us to hospital, lifted me gently into the SUV, parted the Red Sea of already gridlocked traffic on Tuam St, held my unbroken hand and told me stories in the back, and delivered me to the emergency department.

All in less than an hour. My hospital records begin at 13:50.

One of them stayed in hospital with me for a further two hours. I nearly broke his hand when they re-set my leg. When he left, a medical student held my hand until I went to surgery that night. She stayed as I floated into and out of shock. She explained what was happening, and even took me up on the bet that my leg wasn't broken. I lost that bet.

When I came to and found myself crushed by a building and trapped in a bus, I will admit that I saw the Dark Place. I remember thinking, "This is not an acceptable situation. It cannot be happening." So I did what most rational people would do when faced with the Dark Place. I screamed at the top of my lungs.

My scream was apparently a bit too much for the gang on top of the bus, so they immediately sent an emissary down to calm me. Within seconds Mike appeared, in a fluoro vest outside my window telling me over and over, "We're going to get you out. We're coming for you." His reassurance worked. I remember telling him "I'm fine. Get the others first."

And we must not forget Rob. He saw through the window of the red bus that I was trapped, but very much awake, and in a spot of bother.

While Doug and Co were smashing the fallen masonry on top of the bus, Rob squeezed his way into the bus in front of me.

He looked at what was around and behind me, went white as a sheet, and set about to distract me from my bothersome situation.

Rob grabbed my hand, and right away ascertained that I was a keen tramper, and a general lover of the outdoors. So he told me his favourite fishing stories while we waited to be dug out.

It was a selfless and generous act of kindness to risk his life to distract me.

Thanks to Rob, Doug and the gang I saw none of the horrors of the No3 bus. I only saw Rob. If I were to have flashbacks, I would have images of Rob's face, not the horror. That's an incredible gift they gave.

Doug, Rob, Rick, Mike, Paddy, and the rest of my gang of rescuers put others' welfare ahead of their own safety. The CBD was still shaking and bricks were still falling. Most fled. These men stayed.

When I think back to the earthquake itself, my mind's eye doesn't see the horror. My visit to the Dark Place was so brief that I don't even remember what it looks like.

When I think of February 22, all I see is my rescuers. And I smile. It's a wet and salty smile, but a smile all the same.

The Press