Mother's survival against the odds

Last updated 05:00 22/02/2013
A MIRACLE: Olivia Cruickshank and her daughter Abigail Walls.

A MIRACLE: Olivia Cruickshank and her daughter Abigail Walls.

CHILLING: Olivia Cruickshank's foot protrudes from the rubble.
CHILLING: Olivia Cruickshank's foot protrudes from the rubble.

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It is one of the little-known miracles of the Christchurch earthquake. A mother and her young daughter were buried alive in the rubble of City Mall. The child was carried to hospital in the arms of strangers as her mother lay lifeless. For the first time, they tell their story to reporter Olivia Carville.

Left for dead beneath a grey blanket, she lay face down amid the ruins of City Mall.

She lay silent and still as the sirens roared and the people screamed.

Her face was lifeless as her 6-year-old daughter's limp body was pulled from beneath her.

Over two hours, three men separately searched in vain for a pulse or a sign of life from the woman. She gave them nothing.

Olivia Cruickshank's story of survival defies belief.

In one of the most chilling photographs captured on February 22, 2011, a white-sneakered foot protrudes from a dirty blanket nestled in a mountain of rubble.

The foot belongs to Cruickshank.

Now, two years on, she wants the world to know that, against tremendous odds, she and her daughter are alive.

The 35-year-old mother does not often talk about how she came back from the dead, nor does she like to discuss how her Abigail Walls nearly died beneath her.

She has little explanation for their survival - to her, it is truly a miracle.

"I didn't believe in miracles to the extent that I do now. A miracle to me now is something that cannot be explained easily. There are some things in this world that you just can't get your head around. Maybe there were guardian angels or maybe it just wasn't my time."

Looking at Cruickshank and Abbie now, there is barely a sign of their ordeal.

Their physical scars are hidden and they laugh often.

To outsiders, they are just another mother and daughter, giggling as they cuddle on the couch.

But, seeing the pair together, knowing what they have had to overcome, makes their survival all the more wondrous.

From the comfort of their north Christchurch home, Cruickshank begins to relive the horror of February 22.

"All those people thought I was dead and yet here I am, drinking a cup of coffee, sitting on the couch."

She explains how she suffers from post traumatic amnesia and still has no recollection from a week before the quake to a month after it.

Her mind has mercifully wiped it from her memory and her account of what happened on the day is based on a jigsaw of second-hand information from her rescuers, hospital notes and appointment cards.

She starts with what she knows: On Tuesday, February 22, Abbie had a routine dental check-up at Christchurch Hospital at 2pm.

At 12.50 they were wandering through City Mall hand-in-hand looking for somewhere to have lunch.

A minute later, the magnitude-6.3 quake tore the mall to pieces. It ripped up paving, smashed glass windows and shook buildings to the ground.

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Debris and rubble rained down on the mother and daughter, hurling them to the pavement.

As the dust began to settle, people started to comb through the ruins for any signs of life.

Joe Roy, 29, one of the first to find the pair, has remained a close family friend ever since and he has helped to fill in the blanks.

Roy recalls seeing Cruickshank's legs coming out from beneath a colossal brick and concrete column.

A group of 10 men, some in work suits, tried to lift the column, which was the "size of a two-seater couch", he says.

It was too heavy to lift and they resorted to a steel rod to lever it up.

As they pulled Cruickshank's "twisted and bent" body out from beneath the column, Roy saw her arm was draped protectively over a small child, hidden beneath the debris.

Both mother and daughter were bloodied and purple, starved of oxygen.

"Once we lifted that thing it looked like they were gone. They were purple, their eyes were open, they weren't breathing at all. They didn't look alive," Roy says.

Abbie's tiny, limp body was quickly plucked from the carnage.

Roy and an Ashburton farmer put their hands together to form a human stretcher and ran to Christchurch Hospital.

Two young boys cleared a path for the men, using their skateboards to separate the gathering crowds and stop traffic.

Abbie was the first person with earthquake injuries to reach the hospital.

The Ashburton farmer sat in the carpark for hours waiting to hear if she had survived, while Roy ran back to City Mall to try and help her mother.

By the time he returned, Cruickshank was covered by a blanket, already pronounced dead by a dentist and a St John medic.

Believing she had passed away, Roy was helping someone else when he saw her blanket move.

He ripped it off, tried to clear her airway and yelled for help.

Another St John medic checked for a pulse and placed the blanket back over her body, telling Roy she was dead and her body was only twitching from the trauma.

Again, Cruickshank was left to die.

She lay in the rubble for two hours and it wasn't until a young construction worker saw her uncovered foot twitch that she was finally given the help she desperately needed.

A territorial army medic found a faint pulse and together they lifted her out of the rubble.

She arrived at Christchurch Hospital almost three hours after the quake, despite being injured less than one kilometre away.

According to hospital reports, neither mother nor daughter were opening their eyes, verbally responding or moving any of their limbs when they arrived.

Abbie had suffered crush injuries, a traumatic brain injury, liver lacerations, a broken jaw, cuts to her face and scalp and had a limited response to resuscitation.

Cruickshank had a collapsed lung, broken neck, shattered jaw, ripped ear lobe and a severe traumatic brain injury.

Reinforcing the miracle of their survival, Cruickshank says: "At one point the doctors considered stopping treatment on Abbie and I have been told that I would have died if I arrived at the hospital 20 minutes later."

Shortly after 5pm that day, her partner of 13 years, Tristan Walls received the worst phone call of his life.

Walls, who had been trying to get hold of Cruickshank for hours, was ecstatic to see a call come through from her cellphone.

But nothing could have prepared him for what the stranger's voice said when he answered the phone.

She told him his partner and daughter had been critically injured and that he needed to hurry because "things weren't looking good".

Up to that point, Walls had been feeling lucky as earlier in the day he had been working in the CTV building (later to collapse, killing 115) and he had also stopped by Joe's Garage on Hereford St, which also crumbled, claiming a life.

He recalls nearly falling over when he first saw his daughter and partner.

"I couldn't breathe. Abbie was all purple and Liv was just so bashed up. It was like somebody had just ripped my heart out," he says.

Abbie flew to Auckland's Starship Hospital the following morning and Cruickshank was flown to Auckland Hospital later that same night.

Abbie is now known as Starship Hospital's 'miracle kid'.

Doctors initially warned Walls that if Abbie survived it was unlikely she would ever fully recover or be the child she used to be.

When she woke for the first time three days after the quake, he was there.

She told her father her birthday, her cat's name and that she loved him before slipping back into unconsciousness.

She did not fully wake from her coma for another two days.

The six-year-old was disoriented and extremely distressed when she came to and Walls was woken at 4am and came running.

Doctors pulled a chair up to Abbie's bed, carefully picked the child up to avoid further damage to her spine and placed her on Wall's lap for comfort.

It was the first time he had been able to hold her.

"It was the most amazing feeling. It was the first time I felt like we were going to make it out of all this," he says.

The extent of her crush injuries left Abbie with blood-red eyes for weeks after the quake and initially she spoke like a baby and couldn't walk at all.

Occupational therapists used an array of different methods to help her recover, including fingerpaint, play dough and whiteboards.

But true to her 'miracle' title, the six-year-old was discharged from hospital after only three weeks and has since made a full recovery.

Now, aged eight, she is one of the top pupils in her Cotswold Primary School class and her weeks are full of dancing lessons, swimming classes and touch rugby games.

Her mother's road to recovery has not been as smooth.

Cruickshank underwent a nine-and-a-half hour surgery for her injuries and can only recall bizarre fragments of her stay at Auckland Hospital.

She remembers vivid hallucinations in which she felt she was being held captive in a foreign country and had to be restrained.

Every time she regained consciousness someone would tell her she had been injured in the quake, but her mind was unable to process the trauma.

After three-and-a-half weeks, she was transferred down to Burwood Hospital's brain injury rehabilitation unit.

In late March, when her neurologist told her Prime Minister John Key was coming to the hospital to meet quake survivors, Cruickshank panicked.

"I was upset all day because I thought they were going to ask me to lie to the Prime Minister and say I was hurt in the earthquake, when I actually believed I had been hit by a bus."

It took weeks before she began to understand she had been injured in a second quake and her family did not tell her how close to death she had come until the end of her five-week stay.

"Everyone told me and I understood what they said, but I still thought it was so unbelievable."

It wasn't until she watched The Press quake DVD in April, which includes graphic footage from City Mall, that it finally sunk in.

"I remember watching the DVD thinking I must have been somewhere in the area and then I saw my foot. I recognised my shoe. I rewinded it, paused it on my body and just went into absolute shock," she says.

"It cemented everything I had been told. I believed what people had said but didn't think it had actually happened. It was just utter disbelief, there were so many people around me and yet there I was."

Cruickshank does not feel any bitterness toward the people who mistakenly left her for dead.

If anything, she feels empathy for the rescuers and wants to tell them how "bloody grateful" she is.

"I feel for them because of the trauma they have gone through and the guilt they have felt knowing that I was alive and that I am alive. The guilt people feel is huge," she says, crying for the only time in the interview.

"They need to know that Abbie and I wouldn't be here if they hadn't lifted that stuff off us. She would have suffocated and the weight would have been too heavy for me."

It has taken two years for Cruickshank to share her incredible story and even now the after-effects of her injuries still linger.

She suffers from extreme fatigue, severe headaches and her memory is still hazy at times, but she has returned to part-time work and life is slowly easing into normality.

A few positives include an unshakeable bond with her daughter and a strengthened relationship with her partner.

"If we can get through what we got through, nothing can stop us," she says.

"I think we are the luckiest people alive," Walls says, looking at his partner.

The battered city of Christchurch remains home for the family, perhaps because of Cruickshank's "pig-headed stubbornness" or because the city's recovery is linked to her own. She still does not know.

"I believe it is a miracle that we both survived that day. We have been given a second chance and I want to make the most of it.

- The Press

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