The day the earth roared

VICKI ANDERSON
Last updated 09:00 23/02/2011

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With no warning the earth roared and shook us ferociously. Like my colleagues in the features department of Christchurch newspaper The Press, I dived under my desk.

I'm a music critic and as we shook and my mind's eye flashed images of my four children I was pelted with CDs including, ironically, an Underworld album.

The same thing happened to me on September 4, I was even hit by the exact same CD, but this was completely different and a much more visceral and potently deadly quake.

Halfway through the 6.3 quake I wanted to see if my colleagues were OK so stupidly stuck my head out from under my desk only to be hit by a piece of roof. I said "F**k!" at the top of my lungs and it was drowned out by the sound of our building falling down around us.

Across the room from under their desk someone was yelling "yahoo" like it was a fun ride.

I was certain we were all going to die. Things seemed to be happening slowly but quickly at the same time.

I had a fight over something stupid with my partner before I left for work.

Just a few short hours later all I hoped was that I would have the opportunity to see him and hold him again.

Running late, I had given my children a quick peck before leaving. I wondered if it would be my last memory of them.

After what seemed like forever the shaking stopped and my colleagues emerged and checked each other.

"Get out," screamed one, "stay where you are," said another.

Somehow I had the presence of shaken mind to dig out my handbag and cellphone from the rubble.

We walked down the back stairs which were OK, as we left I looked to my right. All I could see of the busy newsroom was the roof of the three-storied building. No people in sight. I had just walked through there 10 minutes prior.

A split second decision to answer an email instead of having a cigarette break probably saved my life.

Outside the inner CBD looked like a war zone. Outside on the street strangers were holding each other and crying and gazing bewildered at the gutted ghetto surrounding us.

The Press' incredible fashion editor, Kate Fraser, 70, and I linked arms. I tried to tell myself it was for her benefit but she was steadying me.

I saw colleagues crying, people covered in blood. We congregated in a spot left empty by the September 4 quake.

The editor, Andrew Holden, a strong and stoic man, kissed me on the cheek and as he did so I saw he had tears in his eyes.

His usually immaculate suit bore a smudge of dust on one shoulder.

He wanted me to sit with his partner and their small baby while she breastfed, so I did so while simultaneously trying to txt my partner and parents with no luck.

A male colleague who is always immaculately dressed and who speaks like a BBC newsreader had clearly been so frightened that he had wet himself.

For some inexplicable reason it was this sight that made me realise the enormity of what we had experienced.

The naked desperation and fear we all felt was manifest on his pants.

Phone systems were overloaded so I couldn't reach my loved ones.

It was the same for everyone, people compared phones, shared phones, chainsmoked, stood on rubble with heads at funny angles hoping for reception.

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Telecom - no, Vodafone - sometimes and 2 degrees most successful. Sometimes it would ring once and my hopes would shoot sky high before overloading would cut me off and my heart would start to beat like there were 1000 hummingbirds trapped in my chest.

In the 17-storey PriceWaterhouse Coopers building across from us people appeared to be trying to escape by throwing makeshift ropes out the windows and shimmying down them.

All the while enormous aftershocks hit us every five minutes. Each time they were accompanied by mournful screaming and sirens.

After standing together for an hour it suddenly dawned on me through a traumatised fog that the blue blankets on the street opposite us were covering bodies.

A gas leak in the street behind us meant a move to Hagley Park.

Standing on the corner of Gloucester and Colombo Streets and seeing the Cathedral crumpled like a toy was a heart in mouth moment.

Around me people hungrily snapped photographs mindless of the blanket-covered bodies. I felt physically sick at the sight of these voyeurs and vowed not to take a single picture myself.

A tourist wheeling a luggage bag said that she was in the Cathedral at 12.30. Her hotel has split in two, she doesn't know what to do and neither do we so we walk, dodging blood-covered bricks and weird liquefaction.

We walk en masse down the middle of the glass-strewn street, strangers united by fear accompanied by dust swirling, sirens wailing and military helicopters circling. I felt like I was on a movie set and that Bruce Willis would surely appear around the next corner.

With each aftershock strangers clung to each other, some prayed. Others, like me, blasphemed and swore at the ground.

I found myself hoping that international musicians Amanda Palmer and the Melvins were OK.

Thank goodness the council spent all that money on the Ellerslie Flower Show, for greeting us at Hagley Park is a giant marquee perfect for the frightened and displaced.

Hagley Golf Course looks like Rotorua with its liquefaction. A group of Japanese golfers were laughing, pointing and smoking around it.

On Riccarton Road we enter a darkened dairy. We buy essentials - chocolate, water and cigarettes - while the dairy owner argues with a  passing structural engineer as to the soundness of the building, half of which is lying on the road.

In one street students have pulled their couches and TV into the middle of the street and are cracking open stubbies and sharing marijuana with their shaking neighbours.

At 9am my footwear choice of leopard print stilettos seemed fun, by 3pm I was in a stranger's house begging for jandals.

Between 1pm and 4.30pm I tried to call my partner nearly 500 times but couldn't get through.

Unbelievably the only txt I got was from someone in Auckland telling me the show by Michael Jackson impersonator Kenny Whizz had been cancelled because of the earthquake.

That txt made me cry.

Then, after three and a half hours of fear, a txt arrived from my partner Matt saying: "We OK xxx".

Turns out he had been driving with my three small children - twins Travis and Finn, 3, and Hollie, 2 - on the way to Lyttelton when the quake hit. Lurching across the road their car had ended up in a hole in the road.

The car's electrics failed so they were trapped inside until he crawled out a half-open window and a passing truckie helped get the car out and Matt was able to drive them all to his mum's house in Beckenham.

My immense relief turned to horror, however, when a text at 4.30pm from Matt revealed that my eldest daughter, Lily, 11, was not with them.

Having tried the South New Brighton school for some hours I texted neighbours and friends for clues as to her whereabouts.

With the bridge to South New Brighton out and no car I had no way of getting to her.

My best friend texted that her husband had tried to collect Lily with their son but the teacher wouldn't let her go with him.

She says Lily was shaking and hysterical with fear.

For the first time I howl like a baby. My work colleagues Dave and Christine Armstrong, their inner city apartment destroyed by the quake leaving them with just the clothes on their backs, hugged and reassured me.

Five minutes later I am whooping with joy when my friend and neighbour Pennie says she has Lily with her.

She is there now and my heart aches that I can't hold and comfort her through these terrifying aftershocks.

I managed to be reunited with my partner and small children around six and a half hours after the disaster struck.

My house is uninhabitable but I don't give a toss about the material crap it holds. My children are alive. They're alive!!

On Facebook my friends advise they are OK but there are many I can't contact and I am fearful for their lives.

The list of the missing on the Stuff website contains a number of people I know. I couldn't read all the way through that list, however, because I am struck numb by the base humanity and palpable fear the list silently offers alongside the names.

With the power cut off, my extended family - eight in a two-bedroom unit in the suburbs - were unaware of just how bad the city had been hit.

I couldn't tell them what I had seen and what I feared for my colleagues and fellow Cantabrians trapped in the rubble.

My heart hurt too much. When the power came on I watched their faces as they saw the carnage on the news and, one by one, they hugged me solemnly.

To just hear the numbers you would assume a 6.3 would be nothing compared to a 7.1 but as newly-schooled geologists, Canterbury residents know the difference proximity to the city and the shallowness of the quake can make is vast.

On the news stupid journalists asked people freed from death's clutches "how they were feeling" and seemed more interested in having an accurate body count than sensitively and respectfully telling the stories of those affected by what may well be New Zealand's darkest and most destructive minute.

The toll-counters say 69 people have died but I saw easily 30 bodies in the streets, and believe it is more likely that hundreds have been killed.

If you have lost a soul you loved and treasured, I send you my love for I know that turgid feeling in the pit of your stomach and how the pain burns.

Tears are rolling down my face as I write this.

This disaster seems unspeakably cruel coming as it does just when we felt slightly more secure and positive about our city's future.

When the earthquake hit I had just started writing something on Lyttelton for The Press' 150 Reasons to Love Canterbury series and now the historic and tight-knit small community of Lyttelton, my favourite place in Christchurch, is all but flattened according to friends there.

I feel traumatised and I haven't experienced a tenth of the pain of some in this city.

I can't sleep tonight, I am just too frightened. I have survived two major earthquakes in six months. Third time unlucky? I don't want to find out.

And while my children sleep I am on the couch writing this by the light of a miner's headlamp belonging to my sister-in-law. I'm wearing my mother-in-law's dressing gown and my leopard heels.

Every few minutes an aftershock hits and the adrenalin and fear rise in my throat, my heart races and the house rocks like a dingy adrift on a mysterious geological storm.

I don't know how we're going to be able to pick ourselves up from this. When it started to rain it seemed like the final straw. The sky is crying for Christchurch, a friend posted on Facebook.

Here we all cry, make pleas with unknown forces, and sit wide-eyed and fully clothed huddled in darkness waiting for the reassuring dawn when the turbulence somehow seems less menacing.

February 22, today, is my mother's birthday. Yesterday morning I had grand designs for her gift, now I would simply like to see her face. And I don't know how I'm going to do it but I am going to get my daughter Lily to me.

Fumbling around for a book to read before writing this I found a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, tripping over the corner of the couch it fell open to this quote: "With hue like that when some great painter dips his pencil in the gloom of earthquake and eclipse."

New Zealand, we need you to have our back on this one. We don't need insensitive journalism and voyeuristic pictures of our dead.

We do need decisive leadership - on the radio at 3pm Mayor Bob Parker's comment that he couldn't declare a state of emergency was met with jeers of derision from the affected. That said I don't want to give Bob a hard time, kudos to him for stepping up again. Maybe, though, it's too much for one man to be expected to lead us through another disaster like this?

New Zealand we need you to have our backs. Aside from practical support which we thank you for, we need you to understand how draining and anxiety-causing these aftershocks are. We need you to give us your strength, kindness and support to help us get through this anxiety-ridden time.

Wherever you live, whatever you do, hold your loved ones close, tell the people you care about what they mean to you, and please, no matter where you are in New Zealand, pack your survival kit - I used to watch those ads and think they didn't apply to me too.

Life is fragile. I stood on the edge of the abyss and peered into the darkness today.

People of New Zealand, let your love be our light now.

And, Lily, if you can read this I will cuddle away your fears today no matter what honey, mummy will come get you and keep you safe. Be brave my darling... I love you.

- The Press

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