Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Bigger than anything human
At 12:45 a.m. on Tuesday I was in the AMI stadium in Christchurch. Built in 2008, it is a glorious monument to Canterbury Rugby. It was also designed to the most modern earthquake standards in the world.
I was sitting about 100 feet up, in a reception area that overlooks the Rugby field. My friend Mele and I were waiting for a group of 21 Fulbrighters and Kiwi future leaders to complete a presentation they were making to a large delegation of Americans and New Zealanders at the U.S.-NZ Partnership Forum. We were chatting idly and I was looking out of the windows to the city of Christchurch, about 9 miles beyond.
Amy had just flown into town. We had planned a delayed Valentine's Day night on the town after the conference was over: a fine dinner at Rotherams of Riccarton followed by some Black Jack at the casino. We both needed some good down time and were looking forward to it intensely.
When the earthquake hit, it roared with a violent brutality. The force and the noise were stunning. Mele either fell out of the couch or was looking for cover. I tried to help her up but we fell to the ground. Then we just held onto each other, just because we didn't want to be blown away. We were like the numbers balls in a lottery cage. I remember seeing the ceiling move 8 feet in one direction while I moved in the other. The noise was shocking, an angry, monstrous sound and there was glass shattering everywhere. Screams from inside the building added to the terrifying chorus.
A young man, his arms in the air trying to keep his balance, shouted, "You're in the safest building in Christchurch. It's alright." Glass was exploding all around him.
I just wanted it to stop.
But it wouldn't.
The floor was rising up. I slammed into it. Then it dropped and the ceiling was still moving and the noise, a grinding metallic thunder, grew. Mele and I, being tossed around from side to side, grabbed onto each other. "It's going to be OK," I kept saying.
But still it wouldn't stop. Everything was moving, violently spastic.
Then it stopped. "Get out, get out," shouted the young man. I stood and looked out of the long windows and saw a cloud of dust in the distance - where Amy was.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
I ran next door to where the students were. Some of them were already moving. "We've got to go," I said. I knew another quake was coming and I didn't know how much more the safest building in Christchurch could take. Everyone was calm in demeanor. But faces told different stories, and we moved quickly, but without running, down the long ramps to the outside, thinking nothing but seeking safety.
When we got outside we were safe, we thought. Mele took a head count. I was calling Amy. Then another quake hit and the ground moved again and water rose from it, turning everything to mud. We were not safe, even outside. There was no place to hide. When it was over, I kept trying to reach Amy.
No phone. No email. No texts.
My colleague, Shauna, appeared. I looked at her and said, "Amy."
She said, "Go."
"What about the students?" I asked. We were in charge of them. They were alone and away from home.
"Amy's your family," she said. "The students are my family now. Go."
There was a cabbie nearby. He was furiously smoking. "Can you take me to town? I've got to find my wife."
"Let's go," he said. He was covered in dust.
Buildings were down all around us and the streets were flooded. Water was coming out of the ground. Liquefaction.
We turned up a side street and the road ahead was buckled three feet in the air. There was water everywhere and dust in the air. Already traffic was backed up. "You want a smoke?" Paul, the cabbie, asked me.
I picked the wrong week to quit. We smoked. Almost immediately the traffic slowed down even more. There was a line 10 miles long - both ways. Traffic was moving slowly and the Kiwis - calm, controlled, polite - were chatting to each other, getting word-of-mouth updates because the radios were dead.
I was calling and texting Amy constantly. Nothing. Shit. She'd landed about an hour before and said she was going to do some exploring, maybe see the cathedral, ride the tram, do some shopping.
Paul was still shaking, and so was the earth. One aftershock after another. "Christchurch is fucked," he said. "I'm out, man. Off to Oz as soon as I can. She was a ripper, mate. Ten times worse than the big one in September."
We weren't moving but ten feet a minute. I'd been in traffic for 40 minutes. Paul wanted to get me to Amy. Then he'd check on his wife. Bridges were down, buildings lying in tatters. A stream of the wounded were heading out of town. "The cathedral's collapsed," one of them said as if this was the sign of the apocalypse.
"I've got to go," I said to Paul. I had to be moving. I had to find Amy.
"No worries, mate," he said. "Here's my card. When you find your wife you call me and come and stay. We got a spare bed. Now get out of here."
I paid him, though he didn't want the money. And then I ran. Still I had no way of getting in touch with Amy. The only point of contact we had was our hotel, so that's where I was heading.
The closer I got to town the more devastation there was. The aftershocks were knocking down more buildings. Glass and plaster was falling. It looked like a war zone. I came to a street where a bus was crushed and a policeman stood guard. I know there were dead people inside.
"You can't go this way," he said. "The city centre's shut down."
"I've got to," I said. "My wife is there and she's alone."
I told him. He gave me directions. Suddenly my phone vibrated. It had been two hours and more since I'd received a message. One of Amy's texts had gone out to a friend. Amy was at the botanical gardens. She was fine. Now I was sprinting. Passed the debris and the evacuated patients from the hospital who were roaming the streets in white blankets like escaped patients from the lunatic asylum. Passed the newly injured with the blood still flowing from their heads. I crossed a buckled bridge over the Avon, which was flowing gray from the liquefaction - another sign that things had changed fundamentally and deep within the earth.
When I came to the botanic gardens there were too many people. They were milling around, riding out the aftershocks. How would I find Amy?
Then, I heard it: "Adrian. Adrian."
And everything inside me quietened down. We held each other a long time. We were together again. And fine.
Amy had indeed been in Cathedral square when the quake hit. She had seen the spire come down on people. Twenty-two of them died there. She has images in her head that won't soon be shaken loose. She had it terrible and is rattled but indominable.