Last night, I flew down from Wellington to Christchurch, driven by the need to be here today, where I was a year ago.
I sit in the house that sheltered me when I couldn’t face going back to an empty home. Soon I’ll join my colleagues from my old job, the people I was with that day, the ones who cried with me and beside me.
I find it just as hard to articulate how I feel on this day as I did, and still do, find it hard to explain what February 22, 2011, was like to those people who weren’t in Christchurch at the time. There are no words to describe how I felt, sitting on the grass outside my work, when I first heard the words, “There are people dead in the city.” There are no words for the level of terror when you begin to realise that not only are you unable to trust the ground beneath your feet, but that that same solid surface has killed people. Some aspects of that day I remember in vivid technicolor, while others I can barely seem to recall at all.
I remember breaking at least six different road rules (and technically stealing a car—I did have a key, but the owner was back inside the building helping out, and I didn’t entirely tell her what I was doing) to pick up my ex’s six-year-old brother from school, as his parents were out of the country. That drive took me along Barrington Street, and I remember the bile rising up in my throat as I saw (and felt) the damage to the roads. I remember thinking, if it’s this bad here… and being unable to complete the thought without being sick.
I remember swapping phones constantly with friends and colleagues on other networks, all of us trying to get through to others in Christchurch, and to anyone outside of the city to tell them we were okay and to pass the message on to the rest of the family. I remember trying to text a colleague at a meeting down in Ashburton, the message basically saying Don’t panic, but you probably felt that, and it’s bad up here. Ring your wife. I don’t know if that ever got through; I don’t think I ever asked.
I remember being utterly, unbelievably thankful that I’d enabled text alerts for Twitter. Those were, surprisingly, working, and that was how I got all my information in those first few hours. I will forever be thankful to the likes of Rhys Darby, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Telecom, Vodafone, and most of the major banks for their slew of information and updates when I had no other way of knowing what was going on around me.
I remember the attempted rescue mission to try and find my 86-year-old auntie, who lived in Hereford Street—a mission that got us trapped in a gridlock on the motorway for over two hours. That part’s blurry, but I know we couldn’t get in to see her, and I know I chain-smoked my way through most of that trip. I think a lot of non-smokers suddenly picked up a habit that day, to be honest.
I remember a friend tweeting to say she was stuck at Christchurch Airport, having been moving from Dunedin to Sydney that day. We went to get her, and the sheer volume of people just milling around was overwhelming.
I remember my dad’s ex-wife being the first person to get a phone call through to me, from Perth. That phone call, brief as it was, still sticks with me—the way it was being reported there, Christchurch was flattened and gone.
It wasn’t long after this that I finally managed to get a hold of my mother (who lives about half an hour south of Ashburton), having been trying every five minutes since the quake. More than three hours had probably passed by this point. She picked up the phone, heard my voice, and just burst into tears.
That was the first time I cried. It wasn’t the last.
By the time I got back to my place, our living room was packed to the brim. Our flatmates were students, and they’d brought anyone back to our house who couldn’t go back to their own place for whatever reason (whether transport or damage). So here we are, 30-odd people packed around a 14-inch television in varying degrees of shock, watching the footage, hearing the stories.
My heart broke for my city then, and it still aches today.
Mā te Atua koe e tiaki, Christchurch. Kia kaha.
Me te whakaaro nui atu,