Our Christchurch Quake Experience

Karen and I had been staying with our friends, Mark and Dana of s/v Northfork, in an apartment near Hagley park on the west side of downtown Christchurch. On the morning of the quake, we had left the apartment to walk downtown and get new passport photos taken as required for our New Zealand visa extension paperwork. It was a partly cloudy day, and we enjoyed the walk through the city on our way to Cathedral Square, which is close to the immigration building.


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As we walked past the beautiful landmark Christchurch Cathedral, we considered going there after finishing our paperwork as we had yet to go inside. We crossed the square and got our photos taken – it only took a few minutes. As we walked out of the building, Karen suggested I review the paperwork she had filled out. We sat down on a bench seat – about 50-70 meters from the Cathedral. I got to the second page when I noticed we had to make a correction and asked Karen to get a pen. She was searching for one in her purse when it happened…

First, a violent shake and rumble, which then grew, and grew. It’s a BIG quake! OMG it was so loud! We held on to each other as we watched other people fall to the ground or grab each other. The buildings started shaking and a quick look to the right and I could see a modern building swaying back and forth (as they are designed to do in a quake). People were screaming and crying. We could hear glass breaking and building parts crashing. Suddenly I looked to the left and saw the tall beautiful cathedral steeple collapse as if it was made of water. The steeple top just sunk at first, as if the stone had turned to water, then the main body of stone and the steeple top fell forward. I could see people running away as it was falling! I was hoping everyone made it clear – but, was worried how many people might have been inside the steeple. And, to think we had been planning to go there just a few minutes later!

Dust was flying everywhere from the steeple – all that stone just crushed like powder. The entire square filled with a pinkish cloud of dust – about the color of the stone.

Finally, the main quake finished. It seemed like minutes – but, I think it was about 30 seconds. I asked Karen if she was ok, and hugged her. A quick look around us, and we couldn’t see anyone injured. People were clearly terrified, but in the square itself were ok. I saw other people taking pictures, and quickly pulled out my phone and took a few pictures as well.

We looked around us. We realized this was a major disaster. The dome on the building across the square looked half collapsed. We saw a flagpole had fallen off the building in front of us. Then we saw a building a block away looked totally collapsed! We could hear people yelling. Glass was still crashing.

I think a tremor happened a few moments later. We quickly decided we needed to get out of the city before things got worse. We needed to get back to the apartment and find Mark and Dana. We walked over to the cathedral. We couldn’t see anyone injured, or anyone investigating. But, a girl suddenly climbed on top of the rubble to look for something. But, she was encouraged to get away. I took several pictures in front of the church as we made our way out of the square, including the steeple top with the cross on the top.

I tried calling Mark and Dana…no connection. I tried sending a text. At some point, I sent out an E-mail to them. It wasn’t until later I managed to put up a Facebook status saying we were ok.

As we got out of the square, we looked down the street. It was chaos! Broken glass shop windows. Facades had fallen into the streets. Cars were crushed by falling brick or other obstacles off buildings. People were looking, pointing, and taking pictures. Other people were running out of buildings. Some were running into them. The streets had huge cracks, or places where the water mains had ripped upwards. Muddy water was running down the streets. We slowly walked down the blocks with the least tallest buildings. We tried to stay in the middle of the streets. Hundreds of other people were doing the same.

We saw more and more seriously damaged buildings. Entire sides of buildings collapsed. Or worse, entire multi-story buildings collapsed or turned sideways. Most of the older buildings looked at least half destroyed. We saw three men pull out an unconscious young man who was seriously wounded. We turned down the street and saw a row of cars crushed by falling building parts. A group of people were trying to pry open a car and were using a hack saw. Clearly someone was trapped inside. I got some pictures of that.

We finally got out of the central city into the housing areas on the north side. The muddy water was filling some of the streets. At one point we rolled up our pants and went through shin-deep sludge. People were everywhere. Either leaving the city in mass droves, or standing by their houses or hotels. Everyone was staying out. We felt other tremors as we continued out of town. I was apparently pretty disturbed because I got a bit disoriented at one point and had to use my phone to look at the map. I rarely lose my sense of direction.

Suddenly we were at the apartment complex. We approached it from a different block than usual. The two 10 story buildings were still standing fine. They still had scaffolding up – which had been used during the past several weeks to re-paint the building. We saw someone go between the two buildings to the parking lot on the other side. We decided to do the same and were soon in the parking lot where several other apartment residents were waiting at a safe distance. No sign of Mark and Dana. The apartment manager said everyone was asked to stay out of the building as a precaution. Some of the residents said there was mostly superficial damage in the building, although some ceiling tiles had fallen. I checked and Mark and Dana’s car was still in the underground garage. Ours was fine in the parking lot above.

We decided they Mark and Dana must be in the nearby park field. We walked around the block to the street. We saw one of the big trees had a branch fall into the street. Then we saw the bridge across the river to the park had some damage on both ends, but other people were going across. We were soon in the rugby fields and I spotted Mark laying on the ground. He was checking the news on his computer. Dana had walked to the nearby park restroom. Mark saw us arriving. Mark and Dana lived in California and have been through many quakes – including the 1989 San Francisco quake. And, the apartment was on the west side of town, so it wasn’t as strong. To them, the quake didn’t seem not too bad. But, we started telling them about our experience downtown – and they started realizing it was more serious.

The park was filling up with displaced people from the city. Cars were moving very slowly out of the city. There were several smaller aftershocks. We went to the apartment to see if we could get our belongings. Karen and I could probably get all of our remaining stuff out of the apartment in one go if we could get in. A couple of other residents went in, but the manager was advising against it. More tremors happened. Mark went to get his car out of the underground lot. A tremor happened while he was under, but he got out ok. Meanwhile, the manager suggested moving our car off the top lot would be a good idea – so I moved our car down the street.

Mark and Dana thought maybe we could go to one of their favorite cafe’s down the street. We told them it was unlikely, but we could try. As we were walking down the street, a girl in business clothes was looking desperately at her car that was partly submerged by the waters. I offered to back it out for her. First she moved several bags out from behind her car. She said some of the bags weren’t hers. I got the car into the dry area of the street and she gave me a big hug. We continued walking towards the cafes. When Mark and Dana saw how much damage there was just one street away, I think it really dawned on them this was a bad quake. All the cafe’s were closed and showed damage, and a building across the street was partially collapsed.

We turned around back towards the apartment. We noticed the bags the woman had moved from the car were still sitting on the ground! Apparently she was so flustered she left them. We looked for some identification so we could try to call her. Suddenly, a really big aftershock happened! We all grabbed each other. If it wasn’t for our years of sailing experience, we might not have stayed standing. It lasted only a few seconds. This only reinforced our desire to get away from Christchurch.

After the big aftershock, the managers were advising against going in. Mark and Dana wanted to just get out of town. They put the bags we found in their car, and we followed them with our car. Before we had gone a block, the cars were backed up waiting to get out of town. I realized we might not be able to drive back into town. I told Mark we were going to stay near the apartment. We tried to turn around, but the police wouldn’t let us go that direction. Fortunately, after about 30 minutes, we were able to get back to the apartment the other direction.

As soon as we got to the apartment complex, we saw other residents going down the stairs with belongings. We walked straight to our building. We went through the lobby to the stairway. Ceiling tiles were fallen on the first floor. We used our key to enter the stairway and go up one floor to the apartment. Then we entered the apartment. Everything from the fridge and some cabinets were on the floor. There was dust covering our bed. We quickly grabbed our bags and filled them with our stuff. I threw a couple of bags with just clothes out the balcony window. We had to make 3 trips or so down the stairs to the lobby with our stuff. Then we got them out of the building. It took us maybe 8-10 minutes to do everything. Thank god there were no tremors or aftershocks! I ran back and got the remaining two bags I had thrown out the window.

Finally, we had our stuff and we loaded it all in the car. By this time, the traffic out of town had eased some. We started driving out of town. Since power was out, the lights weren’t working. But, police, construction workers, or other volunteers were directing at most major intersections. We got out past Riccarton and started looking for gas stations. We had less than 1/4 tank. Finally, about 10 kms out, we found a big station with a relatively short line (only about 5 cars in each pump line). We got a full tank. We called Mark and Dana to let them know we got out, but we had forgotten to leave their apartment key. Suddenly, Karen remembered she never saw her wallet. We stopped the car and looked and couldn’t find it. We realized it was on the floor where she was filling out the visa paperwork earlier. It was still in the apartment. We really needed that wallet.

So, we drove back into town. The traffic the other direction was light. We couldn’t get closer than Hagley Park because they weren’t letting people into town. I parked us on the curb near the park and told Karen to wait, with instructions on how to rendezvous if she had to move. I walked back to the apartment (about 15 minutes). Right as I arrived, we had a brief tremor. But, that was the only one. I ran into the apartment, and found the wallet immediately. I left the keys and ran out. Whew! What a relief!

As I walked back, I took some pictures of the damage in Hagley park. When we got back to the car, I decided to write a quick blog post while we had good Internet. Then we finally left. It had taken 90 minutes by the time we got back to the gas station we had filled our tank at earlier. We stopped at a McDonald’s a few minutes later and I uploaded the photos from the phone, while we watched the TV news on the quake. I sent E-mail to our friends Norm and Colleen to make sure they were ok (we later heard they were safe, although their house took some damage). Several friends and family had already tried to contact us or seen our post and wished us well. We drove well away from town and stopped in Ashburton at a campground for the night. Our main quake experience was over.

Our hearts go out to all the people effected by the quake. We are so sorry that so many lives were lost. But, we are glad the fatalities weren’t higher. There were thousands and thousands of people in the city when it happened. We feel very, very fortunate that we came out of this disaster without injury and with our belongings. Our condolences to all those who were effected – to those who lost their lives, to their friends and families, and to all those whose homes or businesses were destroyed or damaged. God bless them all.

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3 Responses to Our Christchurch Quake Experience

  1. Mathias says:

    A very moving post! Glad you are safe!
    Mathias from Germany

  2. A local says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. So glad you came through it all ok.

  3. Mike Smith says:

    Thanks for sharing this story. As you see, I’m a year after this event in reading this. I’ll catch up on your travels. As you said, God bless to all those affected by that horrible event. Sorry this happened to such a beautiful place.

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