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

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Aftermath of the earthquake in Christchurch Part One

I am a reluctant blogger today. My heart is breaking for the people of the city of Christchurch, some of whom I feel a stronger connection to than people I've known my whole life. We became family at 12:51pm on Tuesday, the 22 of February, 2011  (2/22/11). My life was certainly changed in many ways, not all for the better. I did not want to write about my day in Christchurch, for it wasn't even actually a day but a mere hour that I was there before the quake hit, but my husband encouraged me to "get it out" and write it down.  I am not a writer and my grammar and punctuation are abysmal but if you are interested, here it is:
On Sunday I quarreled with my husband.  It was stupid, but I was angry. I considered cancelling my plan to meet him in Christchurch for the last day of his week long conference there. We decided to spend Valentine's day there a week late so we could have some "alone time" away from the kids.  My friend, Gina was going to look after the boys for me back in Wellington and Adrian and I would spend Tuesday night in Christchurch eating, playing and enjoying being together. But now, I was mad and thought about not going just to show him how hurt I was. I decided to go anyway.
  I woke up early Tuesday morning and got the boys ready for school. I yelled at my son, Ewan, for not cleaning up after himself the night before. He is a sensitive child and his feelings are hurt very easily so he was sulking.  I gathered him up in my arms and told him I loved him but he'd have to do better. I was tired, felt unappreciated, on edge all of the time and needed him to be responsible, etc.  He shrugged and didn't say anything.  "Come on Ewan", I said, "tell me you love me and wish me a good time in Christchurch with Daddy. You don't want a shrug to be the last thing you said to me , God forbid my plane should crash".  He told me he loved me. I was not thinking of earthquakes then.
  I decided to drive the kids the 22 kilometers into school that morning since the airport was close to the school so we had a good 45 minutes to chat before I had to leave them. Still thinking of planes and all that could go wrong, I quickly scribbled down the investment account number for their college fund and the password.  "You never know" I said, "I will give you the password, just in case.  Daddy is clueless about these things".  I was not thinking about earthquakes then.
  I dropped them off, said I love you and started to get excited about seeing Adrian again. It had been two days since our argument and to be honest, I was feeling bad about my overreaction. Just to show him how sorry I was I packed the gorgeous black negligee that I wore in Italy.  It truly is beautiful and I look good in it.  I was going to go to the hotel then hop downtown to buy him a Valentine's gift then go back, bathe, put on the little black piece of fabric and wait for him. He said he would be back at 5pm or maybe earlier if all went well. I'd wait.  I was giddy. I am a very fortunate woman in that I still adore my husband. We have been married for 17 years and he still makes me weak in the knees. He stands when I enter a room, gives me his chair even if there is one available that I could get for myself, he opens doors, makes coffee and a hundred other little things that make me so very glad that I had met him when I did and married him. Yes, we have bad times, every marriage does.
  My plane landed and I headed for the shuttle bus. It would take longer but it was cheaper (10 minutes delayed). I settled next to a sweet older couple headed to the Crowne Plaza. I remember thinking that Adrian had stayed at the Crowne Plaza last time he was in Christchurch and wondering why he wasn't there today ( I had heard that the Crowne Plaza was ruined). I remember thinking that the budget must be tight in the Wellington office so they were trying to save money by sending staff to the Marque hotel on Gloucester Street (absolutely shattered-the whole street).  We arrived at the Marque Hotel (11:45am) and I rode the elevator to the 6th floor to our room and dropped my bag, used the bathroom and left to explore the city.
Adrian promised me a night out at a fancy restaurant and blackjack at a casino in town and I wanted to see if I could scope out the casino beforehand. I walked down Gloucester Street, crossed another street and couldn't see anything that looked like a casino so I walked back. (5 minutes delayed). I did not have a plan, I just walked where I saw interesting things to look at. I remember seeing the Iconic Bar and thought I'd stop for a mid day glass of wine. I went in and looked around. There weren't any other patrons around so I looked upstairs to the "observatory deck" and nobody was there either so I decided to skip the drink and go downtown (5minutes delayed).  The observation deck is now on the street and the whole bar collapsed. I read in the newspaper that the cute bartender I spoke with was killed while running out of the building. His name is Jamie Gilbert. His sister was with him, holding his hand until the end. She survived.
  I thought it was going to be warm and sunny in Christchurch so I only wore a light tank top and cute lightweight sweatery thing that is sleeveless and offers very little warmth and Christchurch was cold. Not freezing, but windy and cool and I needed something warmer. Just then I spotted a Farmers (clothing shop)across the street and thought I'd pop in and buy a jacket or something.   I was at the cashier when I ran back to the rack and picked up shirts  for my sister in law and mother in law.(15 minutes delayed)
  I called Adrian. It was just around lunchtime when I called him. I told him I was downtown having fun shopping, etc. I said I was going to skip lunch to be really hungry at dinner at our fancy restaurant. I was already hungry since the last time I ate was @ 8am at the airport.  I told him I loved him, couldn't wait to see him and I would be waiting for him at the hotel (nudge nudge wink wink). 
  I walked on to a couple of souvenir shops and bought the boys and Adrian some Kiwi T Shirts and chocolates. I didn't by myself a much needed bottle of water because I didn't want to carry it. I was hungry, thirsty, cold and happier than I had been in weeks (10 miinutes delayed).
  I somehow ended up in Cathedral square. I hadn't planned on visiting the Cathedral but was delighted to have stumbled upon it. What a lucky break, I thought. I thought I was lost but here I am in the square and there is a magnificent church I can go take pictures of.  I made a beeline for it.  On my way I got distracted by a few boys playing hackey sac in front of a statue. Wow, they were good. I don't usually care about watching kids play hackey sac but they were really good. I watched for perhaps 15 to 20 seconds then walked toward the Cathedral that was maybe 60 feet in front of me.
  I lost my balance. Strange, I hadn't been drinking. I felt like I was on a piece of plywood on top of the ocean. I heard people screaming and loud crashing noises.  I knew it was an earthquake then. I ran to the small elevated garden nearby and jumped up to hug it's tree for support. I heard  more screaming and then more crashing. I saw the top of the church fall off and crush a car.  People were running toward me, the safest place seemed to be on my little island. I could see the gift shop and people trying to get out of it's doors.

 Later, a girl I had clung to during the aftershocks, told me how the doors of the church gift shop wouldn't open at first and they thought they were going to die. They got out.  Behind me the statue fell. I looked at the boys who were playing hackeysac next to it and they were in shock.  Everything was covered in dust, clouds of it were everywhere. My phone did not work. Where the hell is Adrian? I had no idea where he was. I stood on my island by my tree with my new friend, a Canadian named Angela and hoped that I could get a call through. Then the ground shook again.

The boy on the right was playing hackey sac. The blonde woman later stood with me near my tree.

Angela and I grabbed the tree. The rest of the church tower fell. I looked up and around to be sure I wasn't in the path of other falling debris when I saw the skyscraper just behind me to the left start to sway. The windows blew out. It's coming down, I thought. I'm not far enough away. I am going to be killed. There was nowhere to run now. Buildings were falling in every direction. Another aftershock.
  I quickly pulled out my camera and began filming and snapping pictures. At least they will be able to find my body, I thought. I will document where I was and upload it to somewhere and they can geo track my location and have a funeral.  My kids will not have to wonder what happened to me.  It did not occur to me that my phone did not have Internet access or that it would actually be with me so nobody would, in fact, ever receive the photographs.
  I tried Adrian again. I texted 5 different people. I tried calling my dad in Florida. Nothing. I borrowed a phone from the man next to me. He just moved to Christchurch from Afghanistan from a war zone to ground zero. His phone couldn't get through either. I decided that I was now going to live under that tree forever and only a helicopter with Bear Grylls hanging out of it with a rope ladder was going to get me out of there.  Then the police came and told the crowd that they needed us to leave the square, that it was safer in the Botanical Gardens. I looked down the road we were to take. No. I'm not going. I am staying by my tree.
  Angela convinced me to go with her.  We have to stay together I told her, the US Embassy staff will connect you with your Canadian consulate and they will look after you and get you out. She had to stop at the hostel first and collect her backpack. Ok, I'll go with you. I couldn't go with her. I was incapable of walking down that street. I turned back and told her I would wait by the tree. She had been in NZ for 3 weeks with her father. He flew out that morning to Auckland to head home and she was going to spend another week in NZ and maybe head up to the north island. "What is your last name", I asked, "just in case.  I will get word to your family. I am Amy Pratt, my husband can be reached at the US Embassy in Wellington". I have forgotten her last name. She did not come back. The hostel is levelled. I don't know if it fell before she reached it or after. I am hopeful that it was already flattened before she went there.

Angela from British Columbia

  I went back to my tree which was now occupied by an old man and his wife. He had a radio and nothing else. He was shivering. I gave him the shirt I had bought earlier for Adrian and he accepted it with thanks. Owen and Pat, his wife, and I exchanged stories.  They let me use their phone but I still could not reach Adrian and I still had no idea what part of town he had been in. They lived in the building behind us to the left that had been swaying minutes before. They got out but many more were stuck inside as the stairwell had collapsed. 
  We were finally told we really had to leave and if not by choice, then by force so we headed out. I had no idea where the Botanical Gardens were but Owen assured me that he knew the town inside out and he would keep me safe. I looked at this man who looked to be 85 years old and thought, R-I-G-H-T.  They walked painfully slowly. More aftershocks. The buildings to the left and right of us started crumbling again. We were in the middle of a two lane street with not much distance between us and the falling debris so I looked at Owen and Pat and they said to run, they would catch up to me at the corner. I felt so bad. My instinct was to help these two elderly people to safety but I couldn't imagine how I was going to do that so I thought of my boys and my husband and ran. 

I made it to the corner where there were no buildings. Safe for now. Owen and Pat caught up and we walked toward the Gardens past fallen churches, brick walls, street signs, and yes, a few bloody bodies, all alive, I hoped. I tried not to look when we were in the square at the blood soaked bandages on those less fortunate than I. I knew those images would stay with me forever and I didn't want to see them.
We made it to the Gardens and tried to call Adrian again. Nothing. Another aftershock. This one was bigger than the last one and I thought the whole thing was starting again. I was envious of the people with blankets and water and loved ones to embrace.  Finally, a text from my friend Brandy Herren who was in Wellington. My phone says it came through at 1:53pm but texts were delayed somewhat so I have no idea what time it really was.  I had heard it was 3:00 before anyone knew I was ok but I don't know.  I could only text and receive texts from Brandy. I tried everyone I knew but only hers would make it. She was going to try to reach Adrian.  Her husband who works at the Embassy was able to reach Adrian to tell him where I was. If you have read his blog, you know he was running through downtown looking for me. He was going the wrong direction. He thought I would go to the hotel.
  The Embassy folks told me to stay put and they would find me. It took forever.  My eyes never left the street in front of the Gardens. I had to spot Adrian as soon as he came down the street or he would never find me in this sea of people. I assumed that there was only one entrance to the Gardens. Wrong.
  Another aftershock and Pat and I are hugging each other. Then I saw him. My best friend and hero. I spotted him through the fence coming down the sidewalk. I ran up, threw my arms through the wrought iron bars and hugged him.  We had to walk separated from each other the length of the fence and I was too afraid to go near the entrance because there was a large church near it but when he came into the clearing I leaped into his arms. Then, I cried.  It was now ok for me to break down because my "strength" had arrived in the form of Adrian. I would be ok.  We were going to be ok.
I introduced him to Owen and Pat and we headed toward the US Antarctic Center at the airport, on foot.  When I got home to Wellington and searched the news for information, I saw a picture of Owen and Pat hand in hand, carrying blankets down the street and he was still wearing Adrian's shirt. 


Owen & Pat

  There is much more to the story but I am safe, Adrian is safe and I am tired. Today I have to deal with practical things like replacing the stuff we left behind in Christchurch at the hotel and figuring out how to get Adrian's car from the Airport here where I left it when his keys are in my luggage in the hotel. Things can be replaced.

Everything I did that day got me to the safest part of Cathedral Square. The slightest delay or lack of delay would have put me under rubble. I am truly lucky and know it.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Earthquake in Christchurch

Well, so much for my big day out in Christchurch.  Will post more detail later but for now, you can get the idea from my video. I am standing under a tree just in front of the Cathedral I was photographing  a minute earlier. Freaky crap.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Things that make you go hmmm

Wow, I cannot believe it's been over a month since I've written a blog entry.  I could say that I've been busy but the real reason is because I read my husband's blog every day ( ) and I feel a bit unworthy in my writing skills. Of course I would be letting down my 2 friends who read my blog so I decided to throw caution to the wind (and grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, etc) and continue on.
Anyway, we've been settling into a rhythm here and have passed the dreaded 6 month hump when homesickness usually sets in. For me, the start of soccer season cures most of my ailments. There is something magical about seeing your kid excel at something he loves.  Soccer season brings a sense of normalcy to our lives ever since Morgan joined his first team 10 years ago. Morgan however, has decided to forgo soccer this year for Rugby so it is up to Ewan to keep this tradition going. I think he would actually prefer to play Cricket but is doing this for me. I don't have the willpower to let him off the hook. I would really miss it. 
Along with soccer and Rugby, we now have break dancing.  That's right, we moved to NZ and Morgan joined a crew and practices one or two times a week and has even performed at a local community fair. Who'd a thunk?  To top it off, he's not bad.
I had accidentally gone to a psychiatrist last week (really) who told me that after a few months in a new place this sort of transformation takes place. you start to feel at home and enjoy the differences and culture.  I am beginning to agree with her. Let me explain.  Every couple of months or so a State Department doctor visits our Embassy to check on the employees and family members.  We are encouraged to make appointment to deal with any medical issues we may have and it is free!  Well, my dear sweet husband made an appointment for me since I had a nasty spider bite that would not go away. We were afraid that it may have been one of the dreaded "White Tailed" spiders and that i would need further medical treatment.  Neither of us knew that the doctors that made the rounds at the Embassies were shrinks. Oh well, I love a bargain and hate to waste anything, including a doctors appointment, so I started telling her about how I was adjusting and what my expectations were.  Funny how quickly an hour passes when you have someone to listen to your boring issues.  Not as funny was my husband's reaction to me spending an unexpected hour with a psychiatrist.  All in all, we are all adjusting well and though we miss our favorite treats from home, we have discovered some new ones.
Yeah, that's orange flavored ice cream with chocolate chips. Surprisingly good.