The moment the earth shuddered

EWAN SARGENT
Last updated 16:32 17/02/2012
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YouTube footage from ypud showed this bank collapsing in Sumner.

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That Day

'I remember I hugged my tiger close' Making contact - first text messages Her body's numb but her spirit is strong Capturing history - journalists at work The moment the earth shuddered The moment that changed our nation forever He didn't come home MPs recall moment of February 22 quake Key's own darkest hour after quake 'Clear heads on strong shoulders'

A year's a long time, but not when it comes to memories of killer quakes. Ewan Sargent goes back to the moment the earth shuddered.

Did you feel this earthquake, asks the standard form on the Geonet website - Cantabrians' second home(page).

Feel it! The shallow Port Hills 6.3 jolt at 12.51pm on February 22, 2011, that ended any hopes of a back-to-normal Christchurch?

Fifty thousand people in the CBD and many thousands more in surrounding areas will remember that feeling to their dying day.

The story will become a family tale of living through a killer earthquake.

There will also be a longer story of rebuilding a life in a city that rebuilt itself over decades, but, yawn, I'm afraid that will be boring unless you are talking to another Cantab.

What the young reporter beside your bed in the retirement home - writing the story of your 105th birthday - will want to hear about is this: what it was like when the February 22 quake hit? What were those 20 seconds really like? Have you got that story ready?

***

I sent my last email at 12.34pm and walked quickly from the Press building, across Cathedral Square, along the alleyway under the Grand Chancellor, across to, then down Manchester St. I wanted a last look at a motorcycle in the window of a shop that I planned to bid on at an auction.

It looked wonderful. I turned away happily and started walking across the car park when suddenly my right knee buckled.

It was as though the asphalt was a carpet and a giant had grabbed the edge and given it a good tug. Then it jerked it the other way.

There was a strange rumbling like a big goods train going past as the ground tried to throw me down. For some reason I decided I needed to stay upright, so I stood legs wide apart and arms apart as you would on a surfboard. Back and forwards, up and down, the ground bucked, while I shuffled crab-like. Cracks opened in the concrete around me.

When it finally stopped, I looked down Manchester St. Over the footpaths I'd just walked along lay huge mounds of bricks and billowing red dust. It was eerily silent and it seemed too much to understand. But one thought got through: You've just escaped something incredibly bad.

While comparatively gentle, my experience mirrors a few things that many thousands of Cantabrians went through  those of us who can call ourselves a 12:51 veteran (and we will as the years pass). We were off guard to some extent  it was noon, lunch time, a pause to ready for the second half of the day.

We knew about shakes and "that frozen pause" we took to rate them. We had been rattled by the Boxing Day quake, but deep down it still didn't feel like the Christchurch problem would get big enough to kill.

But those 20 seconds on February 22 changed all that.

The loss of trust this quake brought is significant. So much that was supposed to be solid, heavy and immovable around you in the city was revealed to be just eggshell. The shaking showed violence "down there" beyond anything before imagined. We suddenly seemed very small and weak  our buildings, too.

In the elaboration of many stories, there's a lucky-to-be-alive thread, especially among the inner-city workers. "One minute later I would have been ... strangely, this day I decided to ... if I hadn't stopped to" and so on.

But this is about those first 20 seconds. Some have tried to forget them, while many others have spoken and written about them. Here are a few of the recollections recorded in newspapers and online on what people felt and saw at 12.51 that afternoon. 

***

Mike Williams was in the IRD building. "I'd been in the building during plenty of aftershocks  but had never once been inclined to head under my desk. But this was different. Almost immediately it was violent  and I don't recall deciding that I needed to  but I was under my desk. It was difficult to stay there ... I kept on getting bounced away from my desk and back under it. I stood up and told my team it was OK  it had come and gone and we were OK. Then I looked out the window and watched the CTV building fall down."

Jane Bowron got up from her table at the Herb Centre Cafe in Kilmore St and staggered outside. "I saw the picture framer's. The whole building just went to the ground." Other buildings were piles of bricks. "People were very much in shock in the middle of the road. I was talking to the picture framer who had just seen his whole life go down the toilet. He had nipped out the side. You knew that things would be really bad in town, and that there would be deaths."

Joanna Bennett, a Hereford St cafe worker, tried to run into the street. Her boss pulled her back, away from broken, crashing glass. She saw a customer fall into the mess. "All these people were looking in from the outside, screaming."

Katri-Maria Koivumaki was at the corner of Cashel and High streets. "I was shopping, trying to find a present for my month-old nephew. I ran into the middle of the street, as far away from the buildings as I could, but the street is not very wide. I was holding my hands above my head, covering my head."

Nilgun Kulpe was on the fifth floor of the CTV building. "Suddenly there was a shock and everything collapsed and fell. We dropped like we were in an elevator. The noise was huge. Everything smashing, cracking, falling." Looking up, they saw the roof was open. "I knew then we were safe. I looked out and saw we were only a few metres from the ground."

Clemency Mutze was waiting for a 1pm appointment on the fifth floor of the CTV building. The shaking started, glass windows shattered and everything fell downwards. "I held on to my chair. It was so violent ... I do remember thinking this is it. I saw everything in a slow-motion blur." She found herself covered by rubble and her legs twisted around her chair.

Amber Hutson was sitting in her class at Christchurch Girls' High School. "It just hit out of the blue. We jumped under our desks. Everyone was screaming and crying. One girl saw the maths block swaying. It was frightening."

Joe Bennett was at home in Lyttelton. "I'm sitting in an armchair and eating a cheese and tomato sandwich for lunch. As I eat, I idly watch the goats in the sanctuary on the other side of the valley. Suddenly, my house is thrown about, flung side to side like a rabbit in a dog's jaws. The chair is bouncing. I grip the arms. A painting flies from the wall and cartwheels along the sofa. Twenty-four fat volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica crash from a top shelf ... Ten violent seconds, perhaps 15, and it's over. When it stops, I sit for a few more, adjusting to a changed world."

Anja Hansen was driving a Red Bus in Gloucester St after delivering schoolchildren to the gallery and art museum. "Buildings were falling left, right and centre. People were running around in shock and horror. I'll never forget the looks on their faces, the screaming and the dust. My automatic thought was the kids. I didn't know how I was going to get to them, but I knew I couldn't leave them there."

Liz Prebble was at a union meeting at the Christchurch Town Hall. "Glass was smashing everywhere, and it just seemed to grow and grow ... I was in such a state of shock; it was horrific."

John McCrone was in the Press building, Cathedral Square, and talking on the phone to city councillor Sue Wells. "There was a yelp from the other end of the line. A split-second later the Press building was shaking like merry hell. Bricks rained past the window. The ceiling fittings and beams began giving way. For around 20 seconds, it was a disaster movie special effects team working overtime, the end of the world was that convincing. It was followed by sudden silence and a rising pall of dust."

Vanessa Hardy was at the corner of Victoria and Kilmore streets. "I was going to the accountant across from the Copthorne. Then it hit. I fell. A lady on the corner fell." She lay in the street a short distance from the other woman and the air filled with choking clouds of dust as buildings collapsed. "I let out a scream; I can't believe it was even coming out of my body," she said when she saw a crack opening in the ground in front of her.

Andy Kemp was in the kitchen of his two-storey house on Taupata St, Redcliffs. "I had a 1-year-old in a high chair. I grabbed her in one hand and I had my 4-year-old in the other arm. And then we basically just bounced down the stairs."

Tim Cronshaw was in the Press building, Cathedral Square. "The walls started shaking furiously and the floor was heaving and buckling. I reached for a thick metal pole, thinking it would be strong enough, when the earthquake reached fever pitch. Behind me Lyn Reid had grabbed my shirt tail and we hung on tightly, thinking we had made the right decision. The pole sheared off and the concrete roof and steel beams came down on us ... I was thrown forward, pieces of concrete glancing off my head and a beam hitting me hard on the shoulder. I thought I could make it to the stairwell and dived forwards. I was wrong. Looking up as the roof came down, I honestly believed I was dead. Then I was in darkness in an area no larger than a coffin."

Sarah McCarthy was driving her car inside the Lichfield car park building. "It was like four strong men were on either side of the car and were shaking it up and down with murderous intent. It was swift and violent. I was thrown around in my seat as I gripped the steering wheel. My vision narrowed, there was only the windshield and the bucking concrete ahead of me. The lights went out and it was dark. I turned on the headlights."

James Askew was on a platform on top of a scissor lift alongside the CTV building at the corner of Cashel and Madras streets. He and Lenny Fortune were putting paper on the building in preparation for re-cladding. "We'd just started the last bit of paper, just started going up again, when everything started shaking. I looked at Lenny. He looked at me. We were like 'What the hell's going on?' We just jumped off the side ... It was a fairly soft landing and we just kept on running. I turned around and saw Lenny on his hands and knees. He'd been hit by some rubble as we jumped." Then Askew saw the building flat on the ground. "There was just complete silence."

Charles Woollin was in Manchester St. "At first I thought it was another aftershock ... but then the sound and force hit the city ... It felt like an incredible blast from under the earth. The building in front of me collapsed metres from where I was standing. But I was no longer standing  my instincts had luckily taken over and I'd moved into the middle of the street. All around me was noise as buildings smashed to the ground. I saw buildings collapsing and it played in my mind like a film, as though I wasn't even there. Strange to say, but I wasn't scared at all while the earthquake was raging for 10-15 seconds. I seemed only to be observing the destruction. Then there was silence for a second. And then the screaming started."

Paul Counsell was driving a truck and was halfway through Lyttelton Tunnel. "Violent" shaking started. The lights went out. Debris was falling. "It was pitch black and we were going sideways and up and down. I've been in all sorts of situations, black ice, you name it, but it was nothing like this. I just carried on through as fast as I could. There was no damage to the truck, I just tried to hold on to it."

Claire Horncastle was just entering the Christchurch Town Hall for a union meeting. "I was thrown into a pillar, all of us were thrown off our feet ... We had to wait about 20 seconds until it stopped shaking, then we got out."

Briony O'Farrell was in a shop on corner of Colombo and Lichfield streets. "My Dad was over from the UK at the time and I was talking to him when the shaking started. I instinctively shoved him into the nearest doorway and held on until it stopped ... The whole room was filled with dust and there were deafening noises of alarms, evacuation recordings and, worst of all, shouting and screaming.We all rushed out of the building on to Colombo St to be met by more horrific scenes. I remember the feeling of sheer terror, panic and confusion."

Mark Cornell was shopping at R and R Sport at the corner of Colombo & Lichfield Sts. The building shook violently but he initially felt safe enough standing next to a solid steel floor support "The strength grew rapidly and I too rushed out to the street. I stopped in the centre of the road. The ground was shuddering violently. I looked down Colombo St towards the Port Hills and buildings were falling from both sides on the road on to people and cars. Everything went silent apart from car alarms and debris settling. People began screaming and others were scrambling to uncover bodies in the rubble."

Barnaby Luck was at Around the World Backpackers in Barbadoes St. "I went back to my room to sort some of my stuff out, to sort out papers because I was going to go to immigration centre in Cathedral Square. There were some aftershocks and you felt the building begin to shake a bit.

Then it started getting worse and worse and I realised it felt bigger and stronger than anything I had felt before. I jumped back on my bunk bed to protect myself from anything that might be falling. It was quite surprising ... I thought it would be a vibration, but it felt like the building was being thrown back and forward a good couple of metres.

Denise Biddick was at home in Mt Pleasant. "It was absolutely terrifying. We sheltered under the table which moved around a lot. Everything in every cupboard fell out, the drawers, the wardrobe, the shower door, fell off and over. Two windows broke, french doors flew open with broken windows. I had experienced the previous earthquake. This one was much more extreme. I knew immediately that there would be deaths."

Tim Ireland was playing tennis at Wilding Park. "The ground started to shake very aggressively, cracks appeared and the main tennis centre building, which has got eight or nine courts, just started to shake like a paper building. It was pretty scary stuff."

Rachel Campbell was waiting at a bus stop in Peverel St, Riccarton. "I felt my feet start to move, and then all of a sudden I couldn't stand up. I clung to the power pole beside me and watched as all the power poles in the street swayed violently. A truck was coming towards me down the street and it was having difficulties keeping straight and I had a fear of being hit accidentally. I clung on tighter."

Kelly Boswell was working in South City Mall in Columbo St. "As I was serving a customer, there was a quick swaying sensation, which I took as another aftershock, but then it exploded. I grabbed on to the counter to try to keep on my feet and ducked down as the tiles around me starting to fall. The floor underneath me cracked, and the ventilation shaft fell from above and people screamed."

Kath Burt was attending a workshop at the Camelot Hotel in Cathedral Square. "There were three of us in the meeting room on the sixth floor of the hotel. The large windows offered an amazing view of the Cathedral ... a couple of us were chatting when the shaking started.

At first I thought it was just another aftershock, but as the shaking became instantly more violent I dropped to the floor and struggled toward the doorway. I had to almost crawl and drag myself across the floor and it felt like I was being shunted backwards away from safety.

All I could hear was the sound of things crashing and breaking. I reached the doorframe and grabbed on with one hand holding on for dear life.

I turned to look back at the window in time to see the spire of the Cathedral fall. That was when I knew this was really bad. I screamed."

Ben King was in the Lotus Heart restaurant above Starbucks in Cathedral Square.

"I hop from side to side, as the floor shakes violently under me, every item in the entire restaurant is in motion, plates clatter and crash, plants tip and shelves fall, nothing remains in position.

I feel like I am in a salt shaker, being shaken back and forth, just waiting to fall through a hole ... An incredible noise fills the air, the sounds of falling rock, right in front of my eyes, the spire of the Cathedral collapses into a heap of stone and twisted metal ... A dense cloud of dust, almost yellow in colour, fills the air. I can taste it."

Nathanael Boehm was walking down Cashel St. "A rumbling sound started up and within a second the entire street was flexing and heaving. The overhangs on all the shops along Cashel St immediately snapped off and dropped to the ground and as the facades started to crumble and collapse, bricks, glass and chunks of concrete were hurled into the street. I couldn't run, there was nowhere to run and just trying to stay upright was like trying to stand on the back of a rodeo bull ... I was convinced I was going to die. The city was collapsing around me, people were being buried in rubble and others being struck in the head by debris.

It was surreal, both horrific yet somehow impossible, and unbelievable, like a nightmare."