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Christchurch earthquake: a first-hand account


February 23, 2011/10.39

This is a war zone; but no sign of the enemy. People crushed to death; people trapped; people missing. Friends are missing. People’s lives shattered forever.
   Christchurch’s latest earthquake just before 1 p.m. yesterday is New Zealand’s worst natural disaster.
   The mood and atmosphere around the streets and suburbs of Christchurch is one of anxiety, fear and shock.
   The first I knew about what was to come was an ascending and violent rumbling noise. A 1·8 m-high wall to wall bookcase behind my desk tumbled down on me. Books flew right across the room like paper darts. I was trapped for a time but, in between the jolts, managed to squeeze under a desk before being thrown to the other side of the room.
   My big heavy bookcase was down, but I was lucky; so many were not so lucky. I feared for my family and rushed to my ex-wife’s work: she is an executive officer at a disabled school. The roads were leaking sand and liquefaction. Some cars had fallen into holes as the ground had opened up. The power was down, traffic lights were out and there was mayhem at intersections. A big dog, spooked, was hit by two cars but didn’t survive the third hit.
   At her school, Chrissy was out in the field with the students and their biggest issues was how to ferry disabled ones home: no buses, taxis under pressure, no phone or text contact with parents. No way of contacting parents. They had no idea of the catastrophe around them, especially in the city.
   As I drive to our house, there is another after-shock and the ground, the power poles, walls and earth wobble around violently, liked fiercely shaken jelly. At home, like everyone else’s, our contents and so many of our treasures and worldly possessions shatter in front of my eyes. It’s is no different to any other home in Christchurch—windows, mirrors, glasses, crockery. All broken. But we are alive and will rebuild.
   The streets are gridlocked with those that can leave the central business district. People abandon cars and start running or walk away from danger, desperate to get home to check on family.
   For hours the phones are out, and texting or calls are out. I have a half-hour’s walk to my office but I come across an 87-year-old pensioner, Irene Grenfel. The buses are out, and she is walking 8–9 km to her home. She is frail and cold, pushing a supermarket trolley with two bags. I help her on her way home. We can’t push the trolley through the liquefaction as it’s like soft, wet sand. I lift and carry and help her over intersections where water from the liquefaction is flooding the roads. St Andrew’s College’s playing fields are awash. Hundreds of students are stranded, not knowing how to get home or exactly what to do. Irene despairs as she looks at some of Christchurch’s grandest old homes gapping, collapsed, totally “bombed out”-looking.
   I have not heard if my children are safe and Irene edges closer to home. I flag down a police car and tell her of Irene’s plight and they go to her rescue.
   Power still out, no phones working, and no water. I feel the bruising coming out in my back from the bookcase and feel a little dazed and disorientated. Everything is closed, more buildings collapse in front of my eyes.
   By nightfall, texting is restored. All my family are fine but we have not heard from one of my daughter’s friends in the CBD. We prepare for a long night.
   People are trying to be positive; so many help each other. This is a special and strong community. But a lot of tears to be shed yet. I am still shaking and in shock.—Kip Brook, Word of Mouth Media NZ

Kip Brook is an occasional contributor to Lucire, and a London bureau chief correspondent.

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journalism / New Zealand
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