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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Vicki Anderson - Living Through the Quake

Living through the quake

Living through the quake

Last updated 15:39 23/02/2011
I was singing nursery rhymes to my Little Miss as I approached the bridge to head back into town. The car suddenly started shaking and jerked violently to the left. I slammed on the brakes but the vehicle took on a life of its own and swayed with tremendous force.

At first I thought I had a puncture, but as I looked at the road in front of me, I could see the cracks creep like spider legs through the black tarmac. Small peaks of asphalt started to form as the road pushed up from the force below.

The car finally came to a crawl, but I had to keep moving to navigate around the crevasses appearing before my eyes. I was 10 metres from the edge of the bridge that crossed the Avon River, which separated me from the city - and my home.

I then realised we were in the midst of another violent earthquake. What seemed to last for an eternity was over within seconds. I came to a halt, but the bridge in front of me literally dropped a metre away from the road and down towards the water. This is when I freaked.

I looked into the back of the car to see my 15-month-old happily reading her book, oblivious to what was unfolding around her. I reached down to hold my 37-week-pregnant belly - the baby was kicking hard.

I threw the car into reverse and into the path of cars speeding towards the bridge. I stopped and waved frantically for them to slow down - there was no way people were getting across. We were stuck.

A cop car sped towards us, siren blaring, heading for the bridge. I waved him down and told him not to go forward. Our talk was silenced as we heard his police-car radio blare out a message:

"Buildings have collapsed in the CBD. People are trapped. Urgent assistance required."

He looked at me with a knowing fear in his eyes. "This is bad. This is really bad. I have to go. Follow the river back as far as you can until you get to a bridge. But hurry. Take care."

As he hurtled off, I stalled. I felt a rush of adrenaline: I needed to get out of there, and quick. I was surrounded by water, near the sea, and the thought of a tsunami sprang to mind. I put my foot to the floor and took off.

Within minutes cars filled the streets, drivers blindly trying to navigate through silty grey water spewing from fresh holes in the ground. Sections of road had separated from the footpath, creating mini-cliffs under which small rivers flowed.

I was virtually crawling parallel to the Avon River and seeking a way to cross. I was stuck. With cars backed up both front and back, and water creeping up the riverbank towards the road, I felt real fear.

Within another few minutes, water levels were half way up my car. The engine started to make strange noises, and I prayed it would cope.

I was trapped, with my daughter in the back. Fortunately, at 15 months, she was oblivious to the chaos. She read her books and kicked her feet, and eventually dozed.

It truly felt as though we were in the middle of a war zone. Water and silt continued to spew out of the earth, the quake's power had created mini-mountains of asphalt, and people were running, scared.

The rest of the drive home was surreal. I saw houses with roofs caved in or fences smashed, and one that had fallen to the ground. A woman was on her knees, seemingly praying, in what was left of her front yard as the street's gutter-water overflowed to within metres of her.

Devastation was everywhere. Yet there was silence as people calmly allowed the traffic to flow. At one point, I was stuck in the centre of a four-way intersection. I was heading towards home, but someone waved me back, telling me the bridge ahead was out and that I needed to look for another route. Remarkably, the cars waited as I managed a five-point turn to change direction.

I continued in a tight queue of traffic. As we crawled towards our destinations, I made eye contact with other scared and bewildered drivers, though nobody spoke. Nothing could be said. What was happening around us was incomprehensible. Desperation kept people going, but with silent respect for each other's anxiety to get to loved ones.

At one point, I realised that my car was almost half submerged in water. My mind went into overdrive as I thought of how I'd escape if I drove into one of the crevasses hidden from view by rushing water.

I navigated back streets, weaving through torn roads and between silt-mounds. I finally got across the river and headed towards the CBD, which was en route home. I knew I was only a few blocks from the real devastation.

I suddenly became aware of the tension in my jaw, my clenched teeth, my tears, and my hands gripping the steering wheel. My legs shook, and the knot in my stomach started to ache.

I knew my partner was in the thick of it, as a professional firefighter. He would be in the CBD working to get people out - dead or alive. After an hour or so of trying, my phone connected for a brief and disjointed conversation. He assured me he was not in immediate danger. Despite this, I knew the aftershocks were coming and debris was falling from fragile buildings around him. I feared he would be in its path. I felt sick.

But I had to focus on staying calm and strong for my daughter in the back, and the baby inside. As it continued to kick, I knew I had to keep adrenaline under control. I took a few deep breaths and drove on.

When I finally got home, our neighbours were gathered on the street. No one was hurt, but everyone was shaken. I walked into the house, not knowing what to expect.

A bomb site. Food containers smashed on to the floor; glasses shattered; pictures strewn across the living room, photo frames down, and cupboards open and clothes and linen everywhere.

My Little Miss clung to me as she sensed the chaos. I tried to put her down, but she held on tight. We had power, but no running water. A bottle of olive oil had fallen from the cupboard and smashed on the kitchen floor. The oil mixed with shards of glass was not a good combination for a 15-month-old; I managed to distract her for a minute so I could wipe it up.

That's when the next big aftershock hit.

We ran towards each other and as I scooped her up, I tried to run to the doorway. Instead, I slammed against the fridge and bounced towards the floor. When the shaking stopped, I stumbled outside and stood in the yard - away from the house and anything that could fall.

I needed to plan. I went back into the house, stuffed nappies, wipes, clothes and some food into a bag and placed it by the door. I knew we needed to stockpile as much as possible in case the house collapsed and we needed to run.

I locked the house and went over to the neighbours'. I had not heard from my family and was trying to make contact. My two sisters were working in the CBD, and I was desperate to hear from them. I eventually made contact, briefly, and they were making their way by foot out of the city. My family were safe, and that was the main thing.

I again managed to get through to my partner. He described the situation, solemnly. He was working on one of the most damaged buildings in town and talking to people trapped under desks and pinned by beams. They were working hard, but knew the reality of the situation and the possibility of aftershocks. He was in the middle of talking when the phone went dead.

As darkness fell, clouds formed and the rain started. My daughter was in bed, and I was watching the television updates unfold. I felt helpless. I knew there were people out there who were in the dark and cold, and I wanted to help.

Unexpectedly, my partner then walked through the door. I held him tightly. He had seen a lot that day - the pain was evident on his face. We sat in silence, contemplating how lucky we were. I didn't want to let him go.

I knew of a friend at home alone with her two children, as her husband was away. I could not get in touch with her by telephone, and suspected she would be in darkness. I drove to her house and found the three of them huddled in the lounge, listening to a radio. They had no power, water or heating. Their 80-year-old neighbour had joined them. We all jumped in the car and they came back to my house.

The rest of the evening was long and shaky. With little to say, we sat and watched the news on television. It all became too much, and we shut everything down and retreated to our bedrooms.

I lay awake for hours as the day's events flashed before me. My partner also lay restless beside me. I knew his mind was replaying the horrors he had seen.

The kids woke early, and played happily. We forced ourselves to eat, and considered the bleak outlook.

The reality of the city's broken infrastructure has now hit home. We are still without running water, cannot flush the toilet, and cannot wash. We have limited wet-wipes and hand sanitiser and know we have to be vigilant with our hygiene.

Though the big shake has been (I hope), there is a strong sense that the real disaster is about to unfold. We just have to be strong, come together and offer as much support and love to each other as we can.

Wherever you are in the country, I would ask that you say your prayers, offer up your thoughts, and send out your love and positive vibes to those who have lost, or still fear for, their loved ones.

Take care of one another, and hold each other tight. Please pray for the people of Christchurch in this difficult hour.

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