Sunday, February 27, 2011

How I survived the Christchurch Earthquake

Luck, pure and simple. I was in the right place accidentally.

  I have reread my earlier post many times and cannot believe I wrote it. I did it in one sitting without pausing. I didn't forget anything except Angela's last name which still haunts me. Her name nor photo has appeared on any of the missing or deceased lists so there is that. All of our Embassy crew are safe and accounted for but I guess everyone knows that by now.
  The rest of my story immediately after the quake is not as dramatic as the beginning so if you are thinking of reading more of the same, you will be disappointed. Adrian and I found each other at the Botanical Gardens almost 3 hours after the quake hit. We were asked to make our way to the US Antarctic Center near the airport 7 km away (Adian had already run 6 km to find me). But first, we needed to pee. Ah, the practical things you don't think about. Sadly, we had to be outside in the beautiful Botanical Gardens of Christchurch. There were no safe buildings to go into.
  We started walking down a tree lined path hopefully in the right direction when the earth shook again. Ahead of me I saw an old lady fall down while young people were crouching low. First, we ran to get out from under the trees, then we crouched. The gardens have beautiful, large trees lining the paths. I wasn't so much afraid that the trees would fall over, (though many did) heck-I had just spent the better part of an hour hugging one, I was more concerned with those enormous branches breaking off and hitting us. So, we ran, again. I dropped my purse and didn't care (Adrian picked it up).
  Our long walk across the park and then the golf course was eerily quiet. While we never heard the first quake coming, some of the aftershocks came after a slight rumbling that gave you a split second to evaluate your immediate surroundings and get to a safer place. Consequently, nobody made a sound. We didn't want to jeopardize not hearing the next one. And, there were dozens of next ones.
  Luckily, we asked for directions to the airport because we were slightly headed in the wrong direction. We did in fact have to cross the Golf Course. I remember walking and thinking that this particular course has an unusually large number of water hazards. Then, Adrian informed me that they were not water hazards, it was the liquefaction rising up through the earth.

This was a smaller one I was brave enough to photograph.

  We'd made it to the main road that would take us to the airport and were amazed at the peacefulness. Hundreds of cars were trying to exit the city and all of the street lights were out but nobody was honking or freaking out. By this time I was really sore and very thirsty. We found a BP Station still standing and asked if we could buy some water but they couldn't give us any, they had to save it for the rescue crews. Understandable.  I was regretting having worn my cute sandals that day instead of practical running shoes. However, that would be the only decision I made that day that turned out to be a bad one. I reread my last entry and followed my progression and decisions one by one and every single one of them led me to the safest place in Cathedral Square at that exact moment.  A ten second difference in anything I did would have killed me. If I had stopped for that drink in the bar, dead. Not stopped to buy a shirt, dead. Not stopped to look at hackey sac players, dead. Taken a cab instead of a shuttle, dead. I do realize how incredible lucky I am.
  After walking for about an hour and a half, Adrian and I were picked up by two Kiwi coworkers and another Kiwi who was in Christchurch on business as well. We were very happy to see them. I had blisters on my blisters and I was tired. They took us to the Antarctic center to rejoin the other delegates and hopefully, get evacuated. The airport was closed since it had incurred some damage so we had to stay put until we got more info. The first building we stopped at was a 2 story one that I wasn't crazy about entering. It looked like some of the plaster had fallen off and didn't look 100% safe. While everyone else went in to get a drink and retrieve bags, Adrian and I chose to wait outside.
  We then headed to a safer building where we did relax a bit and I had a cup of coffee. Unfortunately there wasn't any food but that could wait. We had power and water and the NZ air force  and US Embassy staff making a plan for us. I was able to get calls through to my children back in Wellington to reassure them that we were safe.
  I was amazed at the composure of the people in charge. They never skipped a beat. One of our diplomats worked with tears still staining her face. She has been thrown from one end of the stadium box to the other and still took control and got all of the Fulbright students to safety. There was not a person there who did not impress me.
  I was able to get a seat on a NZ C-130 @ 6:45pm but sadly had to leave Adrian behind. That was the hardest part of the entire day. But, he had a job to do. Many people don't realize what foreign service officers do. In a nut shell, they take care of Americans abroad- All Americans, even housewives. And, they stay until every single person is accounted for. So, if you travel to a foreign country, no matter how benign you think the circumstances, register with the US Embassy when you get there. Anything can happen and believe me, you want these people working for you.

  Me and my new friend for life, Laura Geller on the aircraft after landing in Wellington


  1. Very well written.
    Thank you for the photo in your "first class" seat (side-ways) with your new friend Laura. My wife and I sat there on the 5:00am 23/2/2011 flight ex Chch for Wellington. Our C130 had a huge "02" painted below the pilot's windscreen.
    We were routed through Burnside High via Hagley Park, all during the night of the 22nd.

  2. I've included you in the 2011 roundup here:

    Please let me know if you'd rather I omit your blog.