2 Years Ago Today, Our Lives Were Turned Upside Down… Again

Unit 8, Amuri Park, Christchurch, 13 June 2011I woke up in the middle of the night.  It was one of those half-awake, half-asleep moments, where you seem to be somewhere between dreaming and waking.  After the 22 February 2011 quake and subsequent aftershocks, I hadn’t been sleeping very well at night, so waking up several times a night was more normal than not waking up at all.

But at about 2 AM on 13 June 2011, waking up was something different.

For those of you who haven’t heard me tell these things before, I remember my dreams quite vividly.  Sometimes, these dreams come true, although they are slightly different in real life than they were in the dream.  (A man wearing a blue tie instead of a red one, things like that.)  I have also had visions, one of which was a dream of my brother’s best friend (who had died a year earlier) that transitioned to me waking up and him standing beside our bed.  No, it wasn’t an afterimage.  I kept rubbing my eyes, looking away, blinking, and he was still standing there.

In short, I see some pretty weird stuff.

At 2 AM on 13 June 2011, a whitish glow was coming from the door from the hallway into the bedroom.  I looked over, and there was a tall being standing there.  She (it struck me as a she) was tall, lithe, thin even.  Her face did not appear human but did have the standard two eyes, one nose, one mouth combination.  She had wings, and they were sitting neatly behind her.  Her attire was somewhat robe-like but somewhat alien and magnificent as well.

Again, I did the eye-blinking, rubbing eye thing, but she was still there.

I wasn’t scared.  She held her hand up, non-threateningly towards me, and said, “Don’t be afraid.”  Her voice was calm and soothing.  Her demeanor was quick but composed, as if she didn’t have much time and she needed something important to tell me.  “Today is going to be a very hard day.  You’re going to be upset.  For a while, you won’t know if you’ll make it through.  Have faith.  You’ll be fine.  Everything will turn out okay.”

My face did the “whatchatalkinaboutWillis?” look, but she repeated the last two lines, then raised a hand, and I felt the overwhelming urge to fall back asleep again.

In the morning, I remembered it and told Noel I had the strangest dream.   I glossed over what had happened and honestly didn’t think much more about it.

Work seemed pretty uneventful that day.  We were back in Unit 7 in Amuri Park and gearing up for the (delayed) final examinations for our senior students.  Noel was standing doing something in the board room, and Jacqui and I were sitting at our desks, across from one another, when a rolling, pitching, small-ish quake came through about 12:30 PM.  Jacqui and I laughed after an initial “whoa!” because it was such a strange-feeling quake, almost like the large pitching and rolling of a ship in moderate seas.  Noel didn’t feel it, and I commented that it felt like the small quake we had the morning on 22 February 2011 before the big one that afternoon, and I hoped it wasn’t a sign of things to come.

Me and my big mouth.

At 1 PM, Jacqui was helping a student who had just enrolled try on uniform tops to find her right size.  The student, her mother, and Jacqui were talking in the hallway, right off reception, with the file room door open.  Don and I were talking near my desk, him standing up, me sitting down.  Noel was in his office, chiming in on the conversation.

And then the earth started shaking.  Hard.

No boom, no warning sounds, just a really hard shaking.

I rose up from my desk, grabbed Don’s arm, leaned over and grabbed my backpack, then pushed us both into the door frame.

Noel held on to his desk as his office chair tried to take itself (and him in it) on a Contiki tour of his office.  We could hear others in the building screaming and startled, and the loud roaring noise of the earthquake.

The 5.9 quake subsided.  We all moved quickly towards the exits, and Noel sounded the general alarm.

As it was lunchtime at the school, most of the morning students had left already, and only a handful of students were around.  The evacuation was quick.  We stood in the carpark, shivering, looking at the building.  Some of the decorative concrete panels seemed to be slightly different than before, but the students, tutors and I talking about it weren’t sure if that was due to the February quake or this latest one.

Units 6, 8 and 9 — our sister units — had all been abandoned after the 22 February 2011 quake.  Unit 7 had been the only unit of its type that had been earthquake strengthened and suffered very little damage structurally in the damaging quake on 22 February.

Noel turned to the small, shivering group gathered there and wanted to say, “All right, everyone.  Back into the building and on with the day,” but the words, “Everyone go home” came out instead.

No one needed to be told twice, and everyone went on their way after gathering their belongings.  Jacqui asked me if I’d check on their house as she was going to check on her daughters, and I’d told her it was no problem.

We got home, and I called my Mom in the States quickly to let her know that we’d had another big quake but we were all okay.  Noel and I had checked the house, and besides a few things down here and there, everything seemed okay.  The pets were understandably upset though.

Around 2:15, after speaking to my Mom and feeling a little more comfortable about things, I went over to Jacqui and James’s house to check on things.  They had books off the bookshelf, a speaker had fallen and embedded itself in the living room door, and there was water from the pets’ water bowl all over the floor.  Clifford, their dog, was hiding in the closet, and their cats were nowhere to be found.  I texted Jacqui to let her know everything seemed okay.

Walking back across the street, for some reason, I picked up my stride.  By the time I got to our front door, I could hear why: a very loud rumbling heading very quickly our way.  My hands fumbled with the key, unlocked the door, slammed the door behind me, and like John Candy in the Great Outdoors, kept yelling, “Big quake!  Big quake!”

My back pressed against the nook wall and my arms braced against the doorframe, I felt the entire house lurch under me, and then go for it.  I could see the tree by the front door shaking wildly, my car bouncing up and down on the driveway.  The grandfather clock was chiming out of rhythm, my back cracked loudly, Noel was trying to talk to his Mum who was screaming so loudly on the phone I could hear her over the sound of the quake.

I couldn’t believe this was happening again.  Having experienced so many quakes by that point, I think I was in disbelief at another two large quakes, but my rational mind kicked in to say that I was in the safest place I could be, not to move, and it would be all over in a few seconds.

It was a 6.4, the largest magnitude quake I’d experienced to this day (although the 6.3 in February 2011 was far more forceful and had a higher Mercalli rating).

Once the shaking subsided, I ran to Noel to see if he was okay.  He was fine but needed to get out of the house.  We dashed outside — this seems to be a natural reaction after a quake — and our neighbours started pouring out as well.

It’s a strange atmosphere after a large quake like that.  Neighbours seem to check on one another, to talk to each other, like a block party with shaking.

A city council truck pulled up.  The driver got out and said, “That was a good one,” and then, “We’re here to flush out the sewers.  Do you have a beer?”

Very strange.

It did take our mind off things, though.  We had to help the council workers by making sure our toilets had the toilet seats down and something heavy on top of the lids, just in case.  Since James and Jacqui weren’t home, I ended up going in and putting large stones from their garden onto their toilet seats.  In between this all, the earth was having a great old time, throwing a wobbly every few minutes.

Fast forward to the evening.  I’d forgotten to take the stones of the JAndersons’ toilets, so imagine their confusion when they got home to find a little earthquake damage and two large stones on their toilet seats.

Shaun and Dave came over to be with us, and we were talking about the day.

The phone rang.  Our work alarm was going off, and it wasn’t stopping.

Dave volunteered to go with Noel to Unit 7, while Shaun and I stayed at home and made sure everything stayed okay just in case there was another big shake.

It took a while, but Dave and Noel came back after an hour or so.  Needless to say, Shaun and I were worried about them.

Noel was nervous and excited and uncertain all at the same time.  I think the excitement was more general anxiousness.  He reported that the concrete panels we didn’t seem so sure about were definitely detached from the building.  They had slid down the uprights and were now sitting on the ground.  On one side of the building, they’d taken the trees and shrubs with it, ripping them out of the ground and crushing them.

The inside of the building was a mess again.  There was water dripping and leaking from somewhere upstairs.  This was dripping through the ground floor towards the back of the building, possibly playing havoc with the security alarm (as the system was towards the back of the building).

While Unit 7 was a wreck (but still standing), Unit 8 (as pictured above) suffered a partial collapse.  The same panels that fell off Unit 7 also had fallen off Units 8 and 9.

After a rather sleepless and quake-filled night, Noel and I met Don and Soni at Unit 7 to see the full damage in the daylight.

Knowing full well what happened after the last quake, we started to grab all essential things out of the building: student files, records, computers, servers, that sort of thing.  The park manager and our builder came down while Noel, Soni, and Don were in the building to say Unit 7 was red stickered and the guys needed to get out.  I yelled up the stairs for them to come out, which they did, arms full of the things we needed to survive was a business.

After a rather terse conversation and a very showman-like placing of the red placard on the building by the park manager, the owners showed up.  There was a conversation, much like one where you find out a loved one or close friend is dying, between Noel and one of the owners.  She promised she would try everything in her power to get our things out of the building.

And that was that.  Everything felt so final.

It’s amazing how life can change so drastically with in a day, or an hour, or even a few moments.

Unit 7 was slated for demolition.  The building could be saved, she told us, but the cost of saving her was a lot more expensive than bulldozing her and rebuilding a new building.  Units 6, 8, and 9 were going, and that would also mean Unit 7 was in the way of redevelopment.  The park manager chimed in that the structural engineers said the way the building performed in a quake was altered once two of those big panels came off the building.

In a few moments on this day 2 years ago, we lost about 95% of our then-26 years’ worth of belongings, stuck in a salvageable but condemned building.

I woke up every morning after that very upset or crying.  We did everything in our power to move on, rebuild, restructure, anything we could do to save the school, our staff, and keep on going.

The angel was right, though; we did get through it.  It did appear rough at first, and it was a challenge, but we have emerged out the other side better and stronger for it.