Firsthand accounts of the February 2011 earthquake: ‘What the hell has happened to my city’

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Warning: This story contains first-hand accounts of the Christchurch 2011 earthquake that may be distressing for some readers.

Some have probably told their stories many times to friends and family. Their accounts are all fragments of the same story – the story of a broken city.

Sue Spigel

Artist and quilter Sue Spigel was working in a small room at the top of Christ Church Cathedral when the earthquake struck. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Those who were in Christchurch on 22 February 2011 all have a story to tell.

Some have probably told their stories many times to friends and family – they’ve got used to them and the stories have come to define the day for them.

They’re all talking about the same day, stories unfold simultaneously, they overlap – people cross paths and help each other.

Their accounts are all fragments of the same story – all little pieces of a bigger narrative – the story of a broken city.

RNZ marks 10 years since the major earthquake on 22 February 2011 with Fragments, produced and presented by Christchurch-based journalist Katy Gosset.

The series brings together an archive of first-hand accounts recorded in the months following the devastating earthquake, by locals Julie Hutton and Sandra Close.

Ten years on, RNZ checked in with some of the survivors to reflect on their experiences.

How has surviving the quake changed the way they live?

Episode 3: The Cathedral and the CBD

In this episode, the extent of the destruction wrought by the earthquake becomes apparent.

It covers what took place in the city centre and the thousands of people who were in buildings and streets as it all fell apart.

More than 700 commercial buildings ended up being red stickered after the quake.

The clean-up is still underway a decade later.

Office vacancies are finally back to pre-quake levels.

The Press journalist Olivia Carville was right in the midst of it – her office collapsed around her.

After spending the day covering the ensuing chaos, she started writing a story for the next day’s paper.

It opened like this: “The city of Christchurch looks like a war zone”.

But it all started when her phone line cut out.

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“I realised the building was moving and then the sirens started and then I just heard this almighty crash and everyone started screaming…

“I just thought, what the hell has happened to my city?”

Her day took her through the city centre, speaking to those affected, trying to gather information from officials.

“I remember I found one person who looked like they were in authority or an official who could give me a comment and … the only thing he said to me was, ‘Multiple casualties, tell the people that they’re alone for the next 24 hours’.”

Blair was one of the many people in the city who came to the aid of others.

It was his wife’s 50th birthday on 22 February, 2011.

“Everything just started collapsing. And there was some guy, I don’t know who he was but he grabbed me and says, ‘We’ve gotta get out of here’.

“And I said, ‘No, there may be people that need help’.”

One of those people who needed help was artist and quilter Sue Spigel, who was working from a small room at the top of the Christ Church Cathedral, up a spiral staircase.

She’d had concerns about working in the space after earlier quakes. But by 22 February things felt like they had calmed down.

Then, it hit.

“The roof of the room that I was in started to bounce around on top of the room. It’s almost as if it had completely lifted off and it was just bouncing around on the walls.

“And then boards from the ceiling began to fall down and the nails where they had been nailed and started falling on me and got these holes in my body, in my back.

“Everywhere was just covered with holes and bruises. But I couldn’t feel a thing, I just sort of looked at it with interest.”

Once the quake passed, Cathedral Square flooded with people who could see the damage wrought on the cathedral – and perched up high in the ruined building, they could see Sue.

Work to repair the cathedral is still ongoing – just before Christmas, a huge steel frame was installed as part of the stabilisation work.

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The cost has been massive – at the latest figures from October 2020, $154 million.

Sue says she decided it was time to ask those in the square for help. “I stood up and I waved my hand and I said, ‘Hello? Can anybody please help get me out of here?’.”

Sue did make it out in the end.

Ten years on the memories from that day may not be as sharp but they’ve left a mark. Sue needed a lot of time to come back from her experience.

She does volunteer work and gets on with living a good life. The quake is still with her, though, in subtle and not so subtle ways.

She has developed health problems. Her claustrophobia has got worse. But she’s happy she’s alive.

Among the people in Cathedral Square was urologist Stephen Mark – he’d been in the CBD at the time of the quake.

He sprang into action, treating those injured.

Stephen and two colleagues travelled all over the CBD in the back of a police ute – helping to check buildings for anyone who might be hurt.

He spent hours helping to free people trapped in The Press building – including one woman who eventually had to have both legs amputated.

It was a shaky night afterwards with little sleep.

Stephen is still in Christchurch – he loves the city.

A decade on, his strongest memories of the quake are clear in his mind.

Anniversaries can be tricky, but mostly Stephen tries to get on with his day and not think about 22 February. Being a doctor helps.

He feels for the builders, the contractors, who turned out to help but probably didn’t have the familiarity with crises that he and emergency services do.

There were little things on the day Stephen might do differently, but not his overall approach. There’s a basic medical principle he tries to follow; if there’s a problem and you have the skills to help fix it, then do so.

You can hear more about what life is like for quake survivors 10 years on by listening to Fragments Episode 3: The Cathedral and CBD.

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Fragments is written and presented by Katy Gosset and co-produced by Gosset and Justin Gregory. It’s engineered by Alex Harmer and Rangi Powick. Video content by Nathan McKinnon. Tim Watkin is the executive producer of Podcasts and Series.

Thanks to Julie Hutton and Sandra Close for their work in recording interviews and to those who agreed to be re-interviewed by RNZ.

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email [email protected]

What’s Up: online chat (3pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 helpline (12pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-11pm weekends)

Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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