The 22nd

This time of year creeps up on me. One moment I’m enjoying the hot, dry days of summer, the next it’s triggering memories and disturbing thoughts. In early February 2011, my aunt and uncle arrived from the US, and so those weeks before the quake were a family time. The day my aunt and uncle arrived, my mother, my husband and I took them into the city. We parked on Cambridge Terrace by the PGC Building that wouldn’t be standing at the end of that month and walked along the river to Victoria Square. It was natural to talk about The Quake, they were curious. The city was quiet that day, there weren’t many people around. I remember the hot, dry emptiness of Victoria Square and thinking about The Quake that could have been so much worse.

We spent the weekend before the quake in Murchison. My uncle, who spent his life in Texas and Arizona, couldn’t understand how it could be so hot in the mountains. That weekend coincided with the local A&P show. We ate venison, watched sheep shearing and fed the eels in a nearby creek.

All those memories. And then the bad ones.

The 22nd of February. That day, my mum, auntie and uncle did the tourist thing, going around the city together. I was working.

Where I still live (and work) is north of the epicentre of the February quake, and between September 2010 and February 2011, I became used to the regular rumbles, the house shaking, those small quakes passing through. The morning of the 22nd, there was a little jink at around 9.30 or 10 o’clock. Background noise. Soon after, I received a text message from my mother: they were going to do the cathedral, then have lunch. I’d meet them later in the city.

By 12.30, I had managed to get a big chunk of work out of the way. I’d had a shower and lunch and settled back at my desk for another couple of hours before going into the city. The quake started quickly and was more violent than any quake I had experienced before. I had no time to do anything except be afraid. When the worst of the shaking eased, I thought about the city and where my family might be. All those months of thinking how lucky Christchurch had been with the 7.1 were replaced with the horror over what was likely happening in the city. Mum had said they were going into the cathedral, a vulnerable stone building. They could be dead, I might never see them again. I started to shake and cry while at the same time trying to get past the debris between my office and my cellphone charging in the adjacent room. My phone rang. I just managed to get to it and have a few words with my husband, who worked out by the airport. We were both okay, he would come home, but it might take a while. I was going into the city, I said, to get Mum and my aunt and uncle. Later he said he thought of trying to talk me out of it but could tell from my voice that that wasn’t going to happen.

Just after 1pm, I received a scrambled text message from Mum. Enough to know she was alive and ok, enough for me to head in to the city and pick them up. I was lucky. I heard quickly. Some waited the rest of the day, and far too many never heard back at all.

I left my car in Moorhouse Ave, there was just too much traffic to try and drive in to the city. I walked in to the city and found them just after 3 o’clock in the Botanic Gardens. I’ve never seen these people who loomed so large in my life look so small and frail. We walked back out to Moorhouse Ave, crossing the river at the Antigua boatsheds, the water roiling with the silt stirred up by the liquefaction process. We quickly reached the car and finally reached home over an hour after that, following what would normally be a ten minute drive up Brougham Street. After my husband arrived home, we packed up the cars and left the city, staying at a cousin’s house north of the Waimak for the next couple of nights.

I’ve never been as terrified as I was that day, not just of the force of the quake but at the thought I might have lost the people I love. The memory of that day is sharp for me, but I’ve been able to move on, my family were okay. But there are 185 families that will never be the same again, and it’s them I think of every February, as the weather heats up and dries out, reminding me of those hot summer blue-sky days before the world changed for them.