Fragments: First-hand accounts of the February 2011 Earthquake

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

First Person – I still can’t remember why I was there.

But, on Tuesday 22 February 2011, some errand had me and my 10-month-old baby at the Palms Shopping Mall, about 4.5km north-east of the Christchurch CBD.

RNZ journalist and now Podcast producer Katy Gosset wasn't working on the day of the earthquake because at the time she was on maternity leave.

RNZ journalist and now Podcast producer Katy Gosset wasn’t working on the day of the earthquake because at the time she was on maternity leave. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

I was in a shoe shop when the lights went suddenly dim. I heard a slightly distant, low whistling sound and felt myself sway in a slow, lateral movement.

I looked at my baby to see her buggy tip up onto one wheel and then resettle back on the other.

Something fell around us, luckily nothing heavy. What I can only assume were shoes struck light, glancing blows and what may have been a display shelf scraped my sandaled heel.

I also recall a vague sense of dampness as if a sprinkler had been startled into action. I guess I’ll never really know what fell down.

I crouched down and peered into my baby’s buggy and saw what looked like horror on her face, something I’d never seen there before.

Days later people would tell me it was the noise that had scared her, or the movement of the pram.

I wondered if she was mirroring the look on my own face.

I headed out of the shop and joined everyone else streaming towards the nearest exit.

Debris had fallen within the mall and I felt a sudden panicky instinct to grab my baby from the pram and just run outside in case an aftershock brought the roof down upon us.

Luckily I didn’t abandon the buggy, instead a woman picked up the end of it and together we lifted it over the fallen debris.

Outside in the open carpark people were milling about everywhere. My memory is a little hazy but I recall a group of people clustered around a man who was bleeding. Someone had a first aid kit and was dispensing sticking plasters to others who were injured. I took one for my cut heel.

I sat in my car and fed my baby for about 20 minutes. The car park cleared out a bit but, on the road outside, the traffic began to back up.

I tried to call and text family but nothing got through and then my sister called me from the West Coast. She urged me to keep calm as I drove home to Sumner. Obviously something in my voice betrayed that I was more rattled than I realised.

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And then it was out into the water and liquefaction and mud of New Brighton Road. I wanted to turn right but couldn’t force my way into the traffic and ended up turning left instead.

That meant a long and circuitous route home, gripping the steering wheel and following every movement of the car in front of me. I couldn’t see if there were cracks and holes beneath the water but I could follow another car’s lines and hope for the best.

Eventually I got back in the right direction and, when I crossed the Stanmore Road Bridge, a flurry of texts reassured me that other members of my family were safe.

On Linwood Ave it was quieter and slightly eerie. I stopped and recorded a live cross into Checkpoint. I felt guilty not to do more. As a journalist, a major event always brings that instinct, the desire to contribute, and I felt conflicted but I was on maternity leave and my young children were my priority on the day.

There are certain blocks in my memory. Travelling home I know there were roads that were closed off because I heard it later but I can’t remember actually arriving at them and then taking a detour.

One thing I do recall: arriving at the large Ferrymead roundabout where a man in high vis told me the Ferrymead Bridge was closed and I had to go back into town. My heart absolutely sank after so long navigating the route home.

But as I travelled further around the roundabout, I could see others heading off through Heathcote and I decided to give that a shot. Soon I was part of the nose-to-tail line up.

In Heathcote a train was stopped on top of a rail bridge. Aftershocks had continued all afternoon and I was wary of being stuck underneath the train during another tremor. In the end I let the traffic move ahead and a gap lengthen until I could zip under the bridge in one swift motion. I was almost there.

I wended my way over the hills of Mt Pleasant and finally pulled up my driveway, relieved to be home.

But home was strange, as were the days that followed: no power or water but there were portaloos on corners, a long drop in the garden and helicopters flying overhead.

And there were funerals too. I had worked at CTV some 10 years earlier. Many people had come and gone at the station in that time but there were three victims I knew: Paul Wu, Andrew Bishop and Shawn Lucas. I had worked alongside them every day for three years. Although it had been a while, in Episode 4 of Fragments, when CTV’s receptionist, Maryanne Jackson, described the sociable, family atmosphere at the station, I knew just what she meant.

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I needn’t have worried about not doing my bit on the work front.

Within a week I was called up to cover Prince William’s visit to Sumner where a massive rock had fallen near the RSA building, killing a carpenter.

Then there would be months and years of reporting on bereavements, damage to people’s homes, bungled earthquake claims and the Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission.

It was a rough time for Christchurch, but people did help each other and, as we were endlessly told, we became ‘resilient’.

A month after the earthquake I was in South New Brighton to record a feature story about elderly people who were living in damaged flats and still without water.

I walked with one resident who was helping her older neighbours by collecting water from a nearby artesian well.

She filled household containers and then balanced them on the seat of her neighbour’s walker where they wobbled perilously as she shuffled slowly home.

And when I asked how she was coping she told me fiercely, ‘Nobody’s moaning. Everybody’s really angry with the people who do complain.”

Many of the stories I covered were moving, some impacted on my own life.

In September 2011 the Prime Minister, John Key, held a Cabinet Meeting in Christchurch, the first outside the Capital in 16 years. I joined a Wellington colleague who had come down to cover the story.

Key announced that almost 10,000 homes on the Christchurch Port Hills had been re-zoned from white to green, meaning there were no significant land issues and property owners could start to repair or rebuild.

Home owners could check their properties on a website, so, after filing stories for a couple of hours, I duly logged on and exclaimed “Oh, my house has gone green”.

I think my Wellington colleague may have been surprised to realise the issue we’d been covering was more than a story to me.

Years later, after endless to-ing and fro-ing with EQC and our insurer, work on our home was finally complete about five months before the 10th anniversary of the 22 February 2011 earthquake.

So everyone has an earthquake story and that’s what Fragments: First-hand accounts of the February 2011 earthquake is all about.

The narrative takes us deep inside that devastating day, weaving personal, often harrowing memories together to create a record of one of Christchurch’s greatest tragedies.

Over the months I’ve worked on it, I’ve frequently felt emotional, I’ve remembered people I once knew, I’ve learnt new things about the rescue operation and been moved by people’s insights and their willingness to help others.

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I also got a shock when I heard one of those original interviewees describe helping a mother lift her baby’s pram over debris at the Palms Shopping Mall. Now I wonder, was it me she helped? More on that in Episode Six – The East.

Fragments has been a way to honour a diverse range of Canterbury voices and I thank all the brave people who were interviewed.

I’m proud to share their stories.

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 McKinon. 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.

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