Dec 24

Christchurch earthquake

by in Drawing & Writing


At around 2:45, more than two hours into bus ride, our driver flipped on the radio. Tick-by-tick, he increased the volume. ‘Mr. Jones” was playing, and I thought, ‘Funny bus driver. Must be a Counting Crows fan.’ When the song ended, the news cut in:

“Still getting reports from an earthquake in Christchurch at around five minutes to two this afternoon. Looks like around 5.8, and at least four aftershocks since then.”

A few minutes later I was able to change seats and sit next to Antje. “Did you hear that?”

“Yeah. Scary.”

As we cruised into Christchurch, passengers stopped reading and started watching. It was 3:15, and, due to the surge of traffic, our 3:25 arrival time seemed doubtful.

“There’s the Northland Shopping Centre, on your right,” the driver announced. “Normally some good shopping. Unfortunately the stores are closed.”

In the mall’s parking lot, dozens of groups of high-school-aged kids sat in circles. It looked like a field trip. As bus pulled over to drop off an elderly passenger, I thought, ‘That must be hot, sitting on the asphalt.’

The woman exited, the driver walked her to the undercarriage of the bus to unload her bags, and standing on the corner–I thought she’d hop on–was a teenaged girl with earphones in.

The bus started to vibrate. First gently, then forcefully, it rocked to the left and the right. The top was swinging, and at some point Antje and I grabbed hands. It was still swinging when the last hit came. It was powerful and violent, like that last good WHIP when you’re cleaning a rug, and afterwards everything shuddered to a stop.

The girl with earphones re-steadied herself with both arms out. Above her, an electric pole danced back and forth, tugging at the wires. Outside the mall, friends and strangers hugged each other atop the asphalt. I finally understood: they’d been sitting there because of the first earthquake, duh. One was waving her hands at her eyes to blow back the tears.

The driver ran back on. “Is everyone alright?” Everyone was. “Everyone alright?” We still were, and he nodded. Another day in Christchurch, his tone had implied. When he slipped into his seat I asked, “Hey, was that you? Stepping off the bus?” It took him a second, but he smiled, grabbed the wheel, and pulled back into traffic.

Half the city was outside. In front of office buildings, on lawns, standing around and talking rapidly–everyone wanted reassurance, both from people and from the earth. When our bus rolled by they watched it nervously.

Once outside, we, the passengers, grinned at each other with relief. We’d made it! A few re-hashings were laughed about before the anxiety set in again. When was the next one coming? Would it be stronger? Were we safe there, next to the concrete lamp-posts?

The walk to the hostel was shocking. Since February’s earthquake, little looks to have been repaired. Most streets are checkered with vacant lots, cracked foundations poke up from scraped buildings, and piles of bricks and rubble are fenced in… wherever there’s fencing left. Something like 8 square blocks of the city center are fenced in. Every business within that fence is closed. We were nervous about our hostel.

The map showed Foley Towers as being very, very close to the fence. Second, its name implied, well, towers. Is there anything worse than a tower in an earthquake? We decided to demand a first-floor room or find an alternative–if there were alternatives. Half the places I’d tried to book had sent back auto-email replies that read, more or less, “Closed until further notice.”

The hostel staff opened the door. “You alright?” Their faces were pale. Both were Europeans doing the work-travel thing. This was their first earthquake. “So the water’s still running, but we don’t know if the supply is OK. We’re asking people not to use the shower or faucet, and if you have to use the toilet, don’t flush.” The sign-in sheet lay on a table covered in gypsum dust; above, a crack ran through the the ceiling. Hm. Our room, however, was a dream: ground floor, no rooms above, light ceiling/roof, a bed that could be crawled under. Only the framed paintings were off kilter. As we tested the mattress, a 4.6 aftershock rumbled the room.

Our only order of business in Christchurch was to buy two sleeping bags. Our only option to take a taxi. The store, Kathmandu, used to reside on what is now the wrong side of the fence. As one of the hostel staff dialed, another aftershock hit, this one 4.4

On the way out, our Ethiopian cab-driver, Gasha, told us how he had gone home that day for lunch with his wife and kids. When the first quake hit, he screamed at his boys to get under the kitchen table. For the next hour, his youngest trembled, speechless.

We later found out that, as he told that story,a 5.0 earthquake rippled beneath the wheels. None of us noticed.

Kathmandu, it appeared, had sent its employees home. Smart, actually.

We had him drop us off at a restaurant recommended in the guidebook. We were famishedd. Lunch had passed us by on the bus ride, and the adrenaline kick had worn off. It was time for some pan-Asian…

…gravel. Not even a stone remained of the former building. On the map it’s right there, but in real life? Not even an errant spot of soy left.

At a former Thai restaurant nearby (again on the wrong side of the fence) a water main had burst and water gushed out from under the entry. A few spectators had gathered. The street they were standing on had a hole that had appeared in the last few hours, had spewed silt onto the road in what is known as “liquefaction”. You hear this word often around Christchurch at the moment; there seems to be some satisfaction just in saying it aloud, “liquefaction.”

As the fence was between us and our hostel, we walked 6 blocks around to get close to home. No restaurants. No anything, for that matter. Everything was closed. Nothing was open for business. Our hostel could only think of one possibility: a brewery 4 blocks down. When the beautiful brick brewery came into view, we cheered. Inside the building, however, nothing moved. Its owner found us peering hopefully through the windows.

“Should be open in a few hours, guys. Engineer’s gotta come round, take a look at it, give it the ol’ thumbs up.” We told him we were ravenous and needed something, anything, it didn’t matter what, to eat. “There’s a place down this way called ‘Tui’. They’ll fill you up.” As we thanked him, he turned to admire his building. “Built in 1866,” he said.

Three more hundred-year-old brick buildings popped up one block later. Huge cracks had pulled them apart at the corners. On the next block the sidewalk was was covered in brittle glass from broken windows, and next to that was a single-story shop that sold stained-glass light fixtures. More than a few had fallen, and one was smashed. A pity, but no sympathy here. If you sell glass in Christchurch, well, that’s your call. What was sad, though, was a printed sign that had just been taped to a lamppost: Missing since last quake – Mailee [a Scottish Terrier]. Please call…. It’s hard to say which earthquake was being referenced.

Tui came into view.

Tui… was… OPEN!

We decided on the beer garden–no roof–and filled ourselves with fatty food and hoppy beer. A current of post-earthquake camaraderie ran through the place. Everyone was chatty, everyone drank an extra beer or two, everyone felt temporarily immortal. Had another aftershock torn through, it would have been met with a roar of approval.

Two of those revelers were a Maori named Gavin and a Fijian named Manassa. Both worked in what is, these days, a lucrative field in Christchurch: demolition. “If you want to know what dirty girls do,” Massan said, “I can tell you.” After a few rounds of clarification I understood that they’d recently demolished a building that had served as a brothel. “Everything they say about dirty girls is true,” he promised. “If you want to know something, just ask.” I took the bait. He leaned in close and said, “Needles.”

Gavin waived him off. “It’s dangerous, demolition. Every day you go home is a good day. If it shakes when you’re in there? Two buildings fell today.” [fact check: true, and no one hurt.]

In bed that night, still unshowered, a new round of anxiety took hold. Surely there’d be more aftershocks throughout the night? Or maybe a serious earthquake? Amazing that we can’t predict these things yet. Future generations will surely look at 3D earthquake maps the way we do hurricanes.

A few did hit throughout the night. Some buzzed the bed, another turned it into a massage mattress, and many, many, many more turned out to be my lovely wife, Antje, stirring next to me.

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4 Responses to “Christchurch earthquake”

  1. From Gavin:

    Must be a bizarre feeling. Something many females experience when I enter a room… “girls, just try and stay on your feet”.

    Posted on December 24, 2011 at 15:29 #
  2. From Mom:

    Awesome story, Conor–the details made it feel so real. Scared us to death hearing it announced on NPR, and were so relieved to hear that you were okay.

    Loved the illustration, Antje–the tilted frames say it all.

    Posted on December 24, 2011 at 18:15 #
  3. From Andrea Sawchuk:

    I have enjoyed reading about your travels. So sorry for the people of Christchurch- Corey was just in New Zealand and actually left for Drake’s wedding the day you arrived in Auckland. Merry Christmas and may God bless and keep you both safe.

    The Sawchuk family.

    Posted on December 24, 2011 at 20:04 #
  4. From Emmeke:

    … Conor, your great storytelling and Antjes beautifull drawings eat all my time – my eyesliquefacted after reading this one.

    Posted on December 28, 2011 at 10:35 #