I arrived back in Christchurch, New Zealand, on February 5, 2011. I love this city. I always say it is large enough to have problems, but small enough to think of solutions. The city was doing so well after the 7.1 earthquake on September 4, 2010. All the messes were cleaned up, inspections were almost over, insurance claims were being paid out. Plans for restoration were on the way to being fulfilled. This city was so beautiful I was going to write and tell you so.
This annual visit, to see my children and grandson who live here, was a bit later than the usual: I had simply gone for the cheapest ticket from Los Angeles on Air Tahiti Nui, the airline I like to use because the flight is broken up with a short layover in Papeete. Not every day you get to say, “I’ve just been in Tahiti.”
After arriving, I felt a bit fragile at first. I have experienced much emotion in this city. Then I went to the Columbarium Wall to one side of the Cathedral in the Square where, on the other side, its Tower has stood proclaiming for over 150 years, “This is the heart of the city.” But, on the other, darker side, I ran my fingers across the name of my husband who died here: Tom Green (USA) 1947 Creative Artist With his Lord July 4, 2003.
I had my grounding again. Terra firma.
The days would go by quickly I knew, catching up with old and new friends—one whose house was near the Avon River and had suffered quite a bit of damage in the September quake: bricks would be removed, house lifted up and settled again, windows and doors balanced, new drive and walkways. I was also busy getting that mocha in the morning before walking my seven year-old grandson to school. One friend I knew I wouldn’t see was living and working in Libya. I emailed her to tell her I was here and hoping things were peaceful. “All is quiet here,” she wrote back.
Most importantly, I wanted our family to eat a meal or two together before the month was over, but especially to catch up with each one individually. It was happening—lunches with the daughter in Lyttelton, the port across the hills from Christchurch, where the first settlers arrived to build a city planned in England. Over to Sumner, a lazy beach town, where one son lives. All the while staying in the suburbs with my other son and his family.
Five days ago, it was with this son I planned to have lunch after picking him up from his workplace at an insurance company. In the morning I saw my friend from Zimbabwe whose family immigrated to raise their children away from the poverty of dictatorship. She is a nurse in training, doing clinicals in the orthopedic wing, and asked if I could drop her off early so she didn’t have to take the bus into town. She would be at the hospital at 12.30PM rather than 2.30 and study. I was happy to oblige. Easy as, it’s on the way.
I picked up my son. 12.40PM. Where would we eat? I didn’t want the publicness of Subway. We decided on a busy Satay Noodle House on Riccarton Road, just outside the city centre. We could have gone anywhere. We ordered and sat down to wait. 12.51PM. Suddenly, we were on a distressed cargo plane lumbering clumsily down a runway. No, we were on a freight train, wildly off its tracks. No, we were in the middle of a thunder cloud. I put my hand on my son’s arm and began to pray audibly, but softly. Don’t want to offend. Forks were down. Pots and pans rattled off the walls. Dishes were breaking all around. A man said, “I think we need to be outside.” Everyone followed the leader. Prayer is good. Knowing how to do that AND give good advice is better.
Immediately after the quaking stopped my son, Joe, said, “We need to get to Isaac’s school.” We walked quickly to the street and the car. People were outside shops. Cars were stopped dead in the road. We saw no falling storefronts. No panic. We were able to arrive at the school within ten minutes. Children sat on the schoolgrounds huddled and cuddled close to their teachers. Some were calm, others were crying. My grandson, the budding scientist, was observing. He saw us and quickly began to describe his experience.
“Can we help?” we asked the teacher. “No, we are fine,” she said, and gave us permission to take Isaac home. Off we went. At home, we created an outdoor kitchen with foodstuffs and liquids, then checked on the two widows who live to the side and back.
The widows were fine—one’s son was on the way. As the afternoon passed, the other came to sit in the car with us: after a particularly strong aftershock, it seemed like a really safe place to be with no overhead power lines. We listened to our wind-up emergency radio. Meanwhile, Joe’s wife, Angie, was in the city, in a building that was now leaning. She had managed to escape with the video equipment necessary to do her job. It took her two hours to get to us.
The daughter, working in Lyttelton at an organic foods store, found herself outside, in the street, at the epicenter, watching the town crumble. She walked up the hill to her grand old lady of a house with its views of Diamond Harbour and Quail Island where Scott or Shakleton kept his dogs or ponies before departing for Antarctica. Wanting to travel, she had just found renters and was flatting in the city. Sitting on the side of a hill, the house was empty, but fine. Back down to the town where she and her boss began handing out the perishables. An Army vessel “just happened” to be in port and began to prepare meals as the tunnel to/from the city was closed down. In the city, she would hear later, the walls of her new place were falling down. But, she was alive and we knew it.
Over a sleeping lion of a hill, in Sumner, the other son and his town were taking a beating. Huge boulders were falling down onto houses. He would be evacuated as there was a concern due to cracking that the beachfront units would fall into the parking garage below. But, he was alive and we knew it.
Soon, Isaac’s New Zealand Granddad, a mechanic who is working today inspecting the heavy vehicles necessary for a city to function, and Nana, a nurse who will deliver medicine this weekend to patients in areas covered by liquefaction, arrived—and we all went to Angie’s sister’s house. We were all alive and we knew it.
In 1997, Tom and I came to live and work in New Zealand because a regional television station was starting up. The people of Christchurch and the province of Canterbury liked having their own station, watching local people and watching programs of local interest. It was called Canterbury Television or CTV. Joe and Angie met there. It was a struggle, many changes of ownership, and my husband left after only four years to pursue documentary filmmaking. But, Tom left after September 11, 2001. On that day, he linked by phone with a CNN producer/friend and still photos were broadcast while they talked. This was advanced regional television here at the time. Now, less than ten years later, our iphones, the internet and SKYPE are making all the difference in communication.
Staying on at CTV was our good friend, Paul Wu, the accountant. In those early days, we knew Paul held the place together. There were times when to pay bills or salaries, we knew he did without. He and his wife, Nancy, came to New Zealand from Malaysia to raise their three children. Having been an accountant for a large bank in Malaysia, Paul bought a bicycle shop when they first arrived, knowing this would give him work. The children have done well, one is even an award-winning pianist, and all three are now living and working in London. Nancy now heads up the English as a Second Language department at a high school.
If you have been watching the news, the most shocking destruction is of the CTV building. It was seven stories of glass and metal. Paul and the TV station offices were on the first and second floors. When the quake hit, the building collapsed and a fire began. Some of those who were on the top floors were part of a language school. Some found themselves looking at the street and were able to crawl out. At least 22 Japanese students remain in there.
For four days now rescue workers from around the world have been working in the cordoned off city centre. The Japanese Rescue Team has been assigned to the CTV building because of those students. We wait to hear of the bodies of the on-air personalities. We wait to hear about those who worked behind the scenes. We wait to hear Paul’s body has been found; Nancy doesn’t give up hope—because Love never does.
We are reminded of 9/11. Earthquakes and aftershocks, the earth’s groaning and travailing, reverberations and revolutions are heard round the world. We tremble at something bigger than all of us.
My daughter has flown to Wellington to join her long-distance love. My single son is with his girlfriend at her parent’s. I am with Joe’s family at his other Nana’s—Isaac is with both his grandmothers. The adults want to watch all the national and international TV coverage. There is no longer a regional station. The city’s newspaper building was severely damaged, but they manage to print each day. I write to you on the internet. I SKYPE with my husband in America—we were married four years ago in Lyttelton at Holy Trinity, Canterbury’s oldest stone church; it has been destroyed. Text messaging keeps us in contact with those near and far. Landlines, which need no electricity, are at a premium. With each aftershock, we play a game to guess how strong it is.
It’s a sunny day. It’s summer. Flowers are in bloom. Children are in the parks. Children have to play. Paul and Nancy’s children are on their way from London. People are being evacuated from Libya. The Cathedral Tower has crumbled. The Columbarium Wall still stands.
The Mayor and the Prime Minister say, “We will rebuild the city. It will be a different one.”
We are alive and know it.