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Friday, March 11, 2011

Vicki's girlie day out in Christchurch

Vicki's girlie day out in Christchurch

Last updated 12:00 02/03/2011
Vicki Mckeeman went to Christchurch to have a pedicure and a girlie day out. She came home in an air force Hercules, with earthquake liquefaction muck between her toes.

The Palmerston North City Council business support officer had grabbed a $12 seat through Air New Zealand, to spend some serious shopping time with her sister-in-law.

She was outside a cafe, Under the Red Verandah, eating the best eggs benedict and bacon she'd ever had and chatting about where to go for a pedicure when the earthquake struck, just before 1pm on February 22.

"It started rolling. Everything was breaking. Crockery, glasses, things falling on the floor."

Her sister-in-law stood up but the force of the 6.3, 5km-shallow earthquake pushed her to the ground. She grabbed the table, which felt like trying to hold on to a bus' steering wheel on a very bumpy road. Inside the cafe, people were screaming as parts of the ceiling fell in. Miraculously, nobody there was seriously hurt or trapped, just covered in dust.

The shaking lasted about 45 endless seconds. There were a few minutes' respite, then with a growling noise, deep in the Earth, came the aftershock. It was petrifying, paralysing. No human had any control whatsoever over what was happening.

"We were terrified. I texted my ex-husband – we're good friends still – that I was OK. He hadn't even heard there'd been an earthquake."

The cafe was in Linwood, at the corner of Worcester and Tancred streets, two blocks outside the Christchurch CBD area, bounded by the four avenues. They climbed in their car to try to drive to Riccarton, where her two nieces – aged 10 and 13 – were at school.

"We knew we had to get to the kids." So did every other parent in Christchurch. Cars immediately crammed the rubble-strewn roads. With broken buildings blocking streets buckled by the quake, with wrenched water and sewer pipes spurting, with patches of quicksand-like earthquake liquefaction bubbling out of the ground, with no trafficlights, progress was at first a crawl, then a dead stop in gridlock.

They began to walk. Ms Mckeeman doesn't know which streets they followed, but it was about 7km, and she grew to loathe liquefaction.

"It sucks on you. And you don't know how deep it is."

In the Palmerston North City Council building, on a break from helping staff the national call centre earthquake emergency phone lines, she looks at her black jandal-style shoes, and points out traces of mud still clinging to the side of one. "It sticks."

At one point they shimmied along a wire fence to get across a huge area of muck, jandalled toes poked into tiny gaps. Mixed with sewage from broken pipes, the sludge stank.

The nieces were found safe at the youngest's primary school. Their schools, on the west side of the city, had escaped major damage. A teacher took them home to Broomfield, near the airport. "No damage there either, incredibly lucky. We didn't have power or water, but other than that, you couldn't tell a quake had happened there."

They spent Tuesday night wracked by aftershocks, and at 10am on Wednesday she joined queues of hundreds of people needing help from the refugee centre set up at Burnside High School.

"Hundreds of people who had absolutely nothing. Just what they stood up in. Frantic about their families. Lots of tourists with nowhere to go. Students who had just arrived and didn't know the city or anyone."

The centre's staff were amazing: calm, orderly, well-organised, helpful. They booked her on to a noisy air force Hercules flight, which left Christchurch for Wellington on Wednesday night.

"It took off and we all started clapping. Our military guys, they're just amazing. So helpful and smiling and you felt safe with them.

"I was home tucked up in my own bed, having a little bit of a cry that night ... Only a little cry. I'm lucky. I wasn't hurt. I haven't lost somebody I love. My house and my life is fine and safe up here."

On Thursday, she went to work. Her job normally involves handling building permits, but she spent half her shift answering calls in the council and One 4 All call centres. They were turned into the national earthquake call centres, handling every sort of inquiry possible relating to the quake's aftermath.

"What else was I going to do? Sit home and feel sorry for myself, and do some housework? No, it's much better to do something to help people in Christchurch."

- Manawatu Standard

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