Photo by EJ Mathers
Bernard Darnton was in the centre of Christchurch on Tuesday lunchtime. Here's his story.
“Guess the Magnitude” has become an office sport in Christchurch, with four thousand aftershocks over the last six months—hundreds big enough to feel. Many of us had got quite blasé about aftershocks. They just become a part of daily life. Wobble. Was that one? Maybe a three point eight. Rattle. Could have been a four point five.
On Tuesday lunchtime I was in Pak ‘n Save on the corner of Moorhouse Avenue and Manchester Street. There was a rattle and I looked at the pallets stacked metres into the air. I walked round to the end of the aisle without real urgency. We get a magnitude five aftershock about once a month and were due one after Boxing Day and January 20th. No big deal. The shaking intensified and produce cascaded off the shelves.
My one “flashbulb” memory of the September 4th earthquake is running into my daughter’s room, screaming her name, and hitting the light switch. The light was on for less than a second before we lost power. In that moment of light the door frame leapt into me and the books exploded off the bookshelf into the middle of her room.
In contrast, on Tuesday a lot of produce came off the shelves but it shook and tumbled like objects that still obey the laws of physics. The alarms wailed and we dutifully strolled out of the building.
Outside it became more obvious that this had been a bigger than normal aftershock. Earthquakes do strange things to soft ground. The ground turns to liquid and sloshes around and then it solidifies again and the waves remain frozen in place. The tarmac had been ripped up and the pieces shoved around. The tectonic forces unleashed were writ tiny in the car park.
Bewilderment struck me as I stepped into Manchester Street. I was on a movie set, in the Blitz, a dream. I walked down the centre line of the road to avoid falling masonry and still had to pick my way through rubble. Every single building—as far as my fallible, malleable memory can tell me—was destroyed. Awnings and façades spilled into an ocean of bricks, concrete, and timber. The only spaces free of rubble were the sites of buildings demolished since September.
Crowds gathered around crushed cars and used makeshift tools to shift tonnes of debris. I joined one group and ripped the windscreen out of a car. I grabbed a piece of collapsed veranda to help lever the roof off. After a few moments of spontaneous, undirected teamwork a dog climbed out of the tiny gap. Behind me cheers went up as a woman was pulled free from another car.
I think your mind protects you in times of shock by not working properly. The landscape and skyline had changed so dramatically in just a few seconds that things didn’t quite register. I looked down one street and thought it looked odd. It was like when my wife gets a new haircut. I know something’s different but I don’t know what. Then it struck me: Oh shit … no cathedral.
I crossed the Avon, swirling with water from burst mains and the grey liquefied earth we all now recognise. The pancaked Pyne Gould building made it obvious that it wasn’t just the pre-1931 buildings, so badly affected in September, that had suffered this time.
I trudged the length of Manchester Street home to St Albans through rubble and sewage, my awesome blue pimping shoes from Maher ruined.
My street was flooded, our garden was full of sand, and our conservatory had moved two centimetres away from the back of the house. A friend texted to check that I was OK and tell me that the quake was a 6.3. In my daze, I thought, “That’s not so bad then,” as if 6.3 being less than 7.1 somehow made up for the destroyed business district, the missing cathedral, and the unknown number of crushed bodies I had just walked past.
The mood after the September quake was strangely upbeat. Despite the massive property damage, the lack of casualties allowed us to think of it as a bit of a jape. Having gone through it marked the insiders from the outsiders. Surviving the disaster—as everyone did—was a badge of honour and gave bragging rights.
Today the mood is sombre. The heart of the city is gone and its spirit is flagging. The names of the dead are not yet known and terrible days beckon as temporary tombs reveal their secrets.
Bernard Darnton is not PJ O’Rourke, but he writes regularly for Not PC nonetheless.
Read his archives here.