Watch, Youâ€™ll See It Happen Anthonie de Heer
And Kindness Lay All About
Stories from the Christchurch Earthquakes
Anthonie de Heer
We went to Te Papa, in Wellington, to that earthquake exhibition there and you’re going through it but you kind of don’t believe it. I
guess it’s like anything else, not until it really happens do you know the truth of it and when it comes to earthquakes the truth… well, the truth is totally and utterly different than what any synthetic room can provide for you.
We’ve got handles on our chest of drawers—little rings that are
the handles—all of which started clattering and vibrating, announcing
what was about to happen, and those are the sounds that you remember,
the notes you never forget. The noise and the violence, it’s personal.
When you experience it in the exhibition you see a lamp fall over. But when it’s real life, when you see the pictures coming off the walls and the thoughts that are flooding through your brain are how do I get out of this house? Where do I go? What do I do? Yeah, when all
that is kicking in you understand—you understand the real thing is something else entirely.
When my parents moved from the Caribbean, they had the choice
of South Africa, New Zealand or Australia—this was a time in South
Africa when it was going all pear-shaped with apartheid and we were
sitting there amid the turmoil all around us. ‘Why,’ I asked my dad, ‘didn’t you choose the other countries’ ‘Because,’ he said, ‘at the time I
believed it was the best decision. They had found all that gold, it was
going to be a wealthy country, everything was looking prosperous for South Africa, so that is why I chose it. Plus, it wasn’t so far to go, only a two-week trip.’
That was a long time ago, but it was the same with Sarah and me.
Our decision to come here, to Christchurch, the reason was the same. You ask yourself what is the best thing to do at the time.
We met in London. The two years I’d originally gone for somehow
turned into ten. As it happened Sarah moved into the same flat as a
friend of mine and we ended up going out in the same social circle. One night we hooked up and that was pretty much it. We never looked back.
London was good, but once we started to think about a family we
began to look at where that might best be done. New Zealand seemed like a pretty good option. The quality of the place, the values you found
here, so that’s how we ended up in Wellington. It was after the birth of our son, Theo, who was born with a disability, that we decided to come
to Christchurch. We came because we wanted to be closer to family but I have to say I have come to love it. I like the English heritage it
has and I hope that will remain. All those magnificent trees and so on, I love that it is the garden city. It reminds me a lot of Stellenbosch and the kind of English towns that we have in South Africa. Its winters
are cold but then that is nice as well, there is a difference between
the seasons and you get those lovely blue skies that I like. It was cold the day we arrived, but blue, a beautiful blue day and as you leave the
airport here you go through these lovely areas and wow, yeah, I thought,
this is a nice city. And it was flat. Where I came from was also flat and I’ve always liked that. Wellington, on the other hand, is hilly and as I remember it, a little bit on the grey side.
That night in September, when the earthquakes first came, the
family were all down in Rakaia. Fortunately, it was just me in the house when it happened. In South Africa we don’t have earthquakes but having lived in Wellington for a couple of years it’s not as though
we hadn’t felt them—little ones—but nothing like this. This one just
seemed to go on forever. The scariest thing about it was that I’m
trying to get out of bed but being constantly knocked back into it. I’m thinking what do I do now? Do I get underneath the bed or do I stay on top of the bed? I know New Zealanders have all been told
about duck and cover sort of thing but it never even occurred to me. Even if it had there was not much choice really. I do remember
thinking it’s probably best to stay in bed anyway, because I’m up two
storeys and if the house collapses it will be a softer landing if I’m on a mattress. Remember it was in the middle of the night and the
power had gone off so it’s all happening in the dark, so whatever you’re thinking is a little bit crazy. Then it stopped.
I hadn’t heard the groaning or anything coming towards me that
some people talk of. When it woke me all I had was a sense of wanting
to get out. I was lucky that the family, the kids and Sarah, weren’t here. I didn’t need to try and get out of the room to find anyone and protect them. That’s something I learned with that one, that you only have the
first couple of seconds to react and pretty much where you are in those first couple of seconds is where you are going to be for the duration.
The first thing in your mind after it does stop is the family. How
were they? Are they okay? I tried to text them but the network was all down, wasn’t working. The next thing was I could hear people panicking in the street below. I could hear cars driving down Retreat
Road—absolutely flying down the road trying to get away, and then finding themselves in holes and ditches and things like that. People
seemed to be going down the road and then coming back up the road; it was all chaos.
My next thoughts were that it had come from Wellington and
I’m like, holy smoke, if we felt it that strong and it was centred in Wellington, well, that’s gone. Wellington’s gone. There was no way it was going to be around anymore. Then a bit later it started to filter
through that it was actually Christchurch, not Wellington at all. Now suddenly a lot of people were getting in their cars and going up into
the hills and they were riding down our road again to get there. I
didn’t think of those bad scenarios, it didn’t dawn on me that we
could have had a tsunami. No doubt we could have had all those
things, I simply didn’t think about it. In one way it protected me from over-reacting, from panicking. I had managed to get in touch
with the family by now and knowing they were okay I just went back to bed. I thought the lights, the electricity, it would all be back on
when I woke up. All I can say is it was my first earthquake, first major earthquake, and so I just didn’t know.
Things really started to hit home the next morning when I went
out and checked on the people that were around me. I didn’t know
a lot of people in the area at the time that all came later with people being out and about talking to one another. In some ways we were
lucky that day, we didn’t have a lot of liquefaction around our home— we literally only had minor damage—but it was just remarkable how badly other people around us had been hit.
After that I needed to check on my work place in the city, I needed
to see if everything was okay there. I took my bicycle rather than the
car because I thought it might be easier and that, I suppose, is when
it really hit home. The first thing I saw was a car stuck in a ditch just down the road and you only had to look around you to see those
sorts of things were going to be an issue. The massive big gaps in the roads, the damaged bridges, the infrastructure, it was all gone. I rode
on down past Avonside School to the Avon River and was absolutely amazed at how big the holes were there. They would have been three metres in places it was just crazy. And that was in September, that
wasn’t February. September… which we now know was like a warning. On my way into the city I saw a lot of damage and that’s when
it really started to sink in how bad this all was. When I actually
got to work however, everything was fine. I’m a retail manager for
TelstraClear so I’ve got a retail store—or had a retail store—in the city. Some things fell off the shelves but nothing was severely
damaged. It seemed to come down to the way the store was set up, and the angle of the earthquake when it hit. Mostly it kind of moved things along the shelves as opposed to knocking them off. It was
completely different again in February. When February happened it all came down.
In between there was Boxing Day, that was the next quake we had.
It wasn’t as big as some but it was quite traumatic in that we were
still coming to terms with September. It wasn’t huge, but it was big
enough for a shutdown and go home scenario at work. If not for any other reason than to give our people the chance to get back to their
family and check out their homes. It shook up a lot of people that day but then they seemed to get over it pretty quickly. Everybody kind of
climbed back on the horse. In hindsight it was most probably a good evacuation drill for what then happened in February.
Yes. February. I had just got myself a head office desk, which meant
I was then working in Worcester Street. A bit after midday I walked down to South City Mall to buy something for lunch. I then walked
back up Colombo Street to my store that was right in the heart of the
city, just to have my lunch there and check on the guys. And that’s where I was, on the second floor, which is actually like a mezzanine
floor in a three—storey building, happily having lunch with my colleague when it came.
In the various aftershocks we’d had since September my reaction
had been to move straight away towards the stairs. I suppose I thought that if I could make it to the stairs I could start making my way out of
the building. As the quake went off I did manage to get to the stairs but my colleague was still having his lunch and he kind of just stood there, frozen. Then all of a sudden, he moved and joined me at the
stairs —he made it over to the stairs —but that was as far as we could get. Once it really got going there was no way we were going to be moving anywhere, we were being so violently shaken about. We did
kind of look at each other and the unanswered question was, do we
go downstairs or do we stay upstairs? There was no right answer. We
looked down the stairs and that didn’t seem so good. Where we were upstairs didn’t look good either but on reflection you simply don’t have an option. If it’s your time, it’s your time. No choice involved really.
I also had two work colleagues that were downstairs on the shop
floor. They tried to make it to the front of the store but they also
became stuck, they couldn’t get out. I was screaming down to them, yelling, ‘Get out, just get out, we’ll be okay, just get out.’ They tried to move themselves forward but they couldn’t do it, they couldn’t actually get out of the store. Now, knowing what happened afterwards with all
the facades falling off buildings, I think we were kind of… we were very fortunate.
Meanwhile the earthquake hasn’t stopped. We were still being
violently thrown around upstairs. My colleague, who was now standing
two steps up from me and was the same height as me—around six foot two—he suddenly got lifted up into the air and landed on the stairs on
the other side of me. And he didn’t actually touch me. Somehow, he got bumped and came right over me, literally went right over my head
and landed on the other side. I grabbed him and we both kind of clung
on to each other while at the same time holding onto the handrails, and then the ceiling fell in.
It came down onto the mezzanine floor near to where we were
standing. Fortunately, it didn’t go any further than that. It didn’t go
through to the bottom level. Had it done so I think it would most probably have got my colleague who was standing at the bottom of
the stairs. Then the sidewalls started caving in and the bricks came
down, so did the roof. We looked at each other and you could see in our eyes what we all knew, one more shake and everything was
coming down and that included us, we were going to go down with it. Then just as suddenly it all stopped.
I don’t know if it was the earth, or us, or what, but something just went
phew. We looked at each other for a moment more and then went for it. Ran outside, and that’s when we saw the crazy things that had happened. The first thing I looked at was the footpath where pavement
stones had been pushed together with such a force that they were now poking up at a forty five degree angle. Then I looked across the road and whole façades of buildings had been torn off. People
were walking around with blood on their faces. We kind of didn’t
know what was going on. There were so many people on phones just
trying to make a call. There were girls—teenagers—running and screaming, absolutely in tears and all in like a state of shock, out and out panic, and not knowing what to do. Total chaos, at least at first.
Then, perhaps it was because we’d already had this experience on
Boxing Day, there was now an instant reaction just to get in your car
and go home, and that is what happened. Everybody kind of got that message. My assistant manager, the chap who was with me on the
stairs, he left and obviously he had had enough, because that became
the end of his time with us. I did get to speak with him later, but no, he never came back.
From the shop I walked back into the Square and saw that the
front of the Cathedral had completely gone down. At that time
there seemed to be a lot of panic about people who might be in there, or people who had been up in the tower. Everybody seemed
concentrated on the Cathedral but a lot of other buildings were really badly damaged too. A lot of parapets had fallen down. I remember
walking past the ANZ and all their glass was on the ground, many
of the shop windows were on the footpath, or smashed on the road, which was absolutely crazy. Those were the things that amazed me, just how big this had been and how much damage lay all about us. Then there was that bugger of an aftershock that happened five minutes later, when everybody had just started to kind of get their senses back, and it was like hell, it’s happening again. That—
whoah—that got a lot of people upset, that really kicked people over
the top. We had this kind of panic, because a lot of people had gone back in, or tried to get back in, to the buildings.
I remember thinking there was no liquefaction when I came out
of our building but across the way there was a clothing store that was covered in water. Not just a little trickle of water, there was like a flood of water being pushed up against their windows, and I
couldn’t believe how much was pouring out of the building. Then that aftershock happened and we all got shaken up again. I knew my guys had gone so I was happy with that—they weren’t still in the building—they had gone.
All around me though the streets were still full of people. There
were people who were majorly injured being ferreted through the
streets down to the hospital. There were others who were still trapped. I remember seeing people breaking the window on the top of the KFC
building trying to get out and there was no logic to what they were
doing, just throwing chairs at the window to try and get out. I think
they got injured, cut up from walking out on the glass they had broken, but that was the scenario, that was the panic that was going on.
What I did then was I walked back to the Cathedral where I met
somebody—I have no idea who the gentleman was—who looked like he had been in one of the hotels that were around there. He was wearing no shoes, he looked almost like he had just woken up but it
seemed wrong at that time of day. He was completely… he didn’t know
where he was, he was completely disorientated and I took him by the
hand and walked him up the road. I was actually walking back to my Worcester Street head office to find out what happened to the rest of my colleagues and that’s when we saw the other buildings down. We
saw The Press Building had been severely damaged but I didn’t actually realise that there were people still in there. I carried on walking up the road taking this guy with me until we got to Latimer Square, which
in hindsight became the centre of everything. That was when we saw
the smoke and dust and thought what the heck is going on there? And it doesn’t…. when a building is not there but you see smoke, it
doesn’t become apparent to you until someone actually says, ‘There was
a building there.’ It gives you the shivers, there was a building there and now it was not there, and that was the CTV building that had come down. That was completely scary.
I found my boss and all my colleagues up in Latimer Square; they
had come there from Worcester Street. Anybody that smoked had a
cigarette in his or her mouth. By that time however I was pointed
in the direction of home and began to make my way there, it’s where
I was hoping I would find my family. I got a ride part of the way, got over the little bridge, and then I was at Retreat Road, which was once more covered in water—it was a swimming pool with mud—so
I took my shoes off and kept walking, hoping I wouldn’t disappear
down some hole. Someone had said be careful you don’t cut your feet, what with the sewage and all that, so you’re thinking be careful, and then I’m thinking bugger it, you know, I’ve just got to get home. Sarah
meanwhile had heard there had been serious things happening in the city, that people were dead, so when I finally made it home there was
great relief. I’d had no idea what I was about to walk into but then to see her there and the family, to know they were safe, when it could have easily been the other way… that was a good moment.
On the way home there had been the odd image in my head where
I imagined what if it was the other way around, if I had come home
and they were… if the house had been flattened. The bad scenario. You don’t actually want to acknowledge those things do you. That is not a
place you want to go. So, when you see your family, the people you love, standing in front of you, all safe, you feel very thankful indeed. They are alive, they are okay, and then you take a deep breath and try to get some focus on the next thing you have to do.
Sarah and I walked around the house and tried to take in what had
happened to it. First you see the liquefaction everywhere and then you look at the whole driveway, which that morning had been perfectly fine and was now completely buggered. The house itself seemed to have been shaken to its very core. Our garage was split in half and the
liquefaction was just pouring out. There was a hole a metre-deep hole in the driveway that was there one minute and filled up the next. A big part
of you is going that’s terrible, how am I going to fix it, and in another way, you’re going—wow! This is phenomenal. Then the next moment you are asking yourself how the hell you are going to get your car out of the garage and down the driveway? And suddenly all these things are pouring into your head. There is no power, so how do you work an
electric door on a garage? Have you got enough petrol? Is my mobile
phone still charged? Why is it not charged? Because I’ve been trying
to send ten million text messages, that’s why. All these crazy things, absolutely crazy. The more we talked about it, the more we thought about what was happening around us, the more the focus came down to getting our family out of here and making them safe again.
It didn’t take too long to decide that’s it, we are out of here. We are
off to Rakaia, going to stay with the parents. But what are we going to do with all the food in the freezer? What’s happened to all the food
in the fridge, you know, let’s pack that up. What about the kids’ stuff ?
How long are we going to go for? No, don’t worry about that, let’s just go… what about water? We’ll get that on the way. What about
petrol? We’ll get that on the way. Crazy things…. there’s a whole list of things that go on in your head and it gets to be a panicky sort of
situation where you are both having different ideas about what should
happen. In the end you just say bugger it, come on, let’s just leave. So
we bundled everybody in the car. We told some neighbours that we were off and they actually said, ‘Can we come with you?’ ‘Of course,’ we said, ‘yes of course.’
And now these people we actually hadn’t known that well are close
friends. Anyway, we just got in the car and left and that was February. In the end we didn’t care about everything else, we just packed up and went.
We talked about it later—a few days later—we sort of tried to
reflect on things and what had happened but then all that got taken
away because of what happened in Japan. You saw that massive quake
and tidal wave on television, you looked at it and went holy smoke, that’s so much worse than what we’ve just gone through. Not that I’m suggesting we should minimise what happened here. Christchurch is a
strong neighbourhood, people here are tough, so maybe it’s easy to put
things on the back—burner and just say she’ll be right mate, but that’s not always the case and sometimes you need to acknowledge that. It’s good for people to talk to each other. Anyway, that was February, in a nutshell.
The sentiment after February was that no, it can’t happen again.
But I think we all knew, really deep down, that it was going to happen
again. I’m not afraid to say my whole attitude to all this has changed. These days I would rather react to a small shake than not react at all. Every wobble that happens in this house, I need to react to. And in June, that kind of knocked us for a six. Everything came away, yeah, it really damaged us that one.
The funny thing was that in February everybody had time off, most
people kind of had a break. In June nothing like that happened. We got damaged quite badly here but there was no recovery time, there was
no, let’s take a breather, let’s take a bit of time, it was just back to work
sort of thing. Almost like a non—event. Except that for many people
it meant the end of their work, or the demise of their home. The end of the line.
We bought our home because of its character, we liked the wood
panelling, we liked the bay windows and everything else about it. But
now we are sitting here and our designation is blue/green. Across the road, everything opposite us, all the way down to the river, is red. So
we are sitting here while our next—door neighbours across the road
have already bought a beautiful house, something that certainly ticks
all the boxes for them and that I would love to own myself. They have moved on and it’s like we are just sitting here, waiting. With our place
there is still a stipulation that they might find it uneconomical to repair the land. We are supposed to get assessed individually as to whether
it is economical to repair, and if it’s not economical to repair then
they might still buy you out. That, I hope, never happens because with everybody around us—the thousands that have already gone down that track—we’d be so far behind we might never catch up. The availability
of places, where they are, the cost, all of that is only going to get more and more difficult. So, we hope that doesn’t happen. I hope that they
stick with their blue/green and that they build up a foundation so that we or anybody else can have faith in this property.
I suppose if I have a complaint it would be this limbo thing that
everyone talks about. Coming as I did from another part of the world, I think what the government have done in stepping up to this situation and supporting the city is phenomenal. In the long run I hope we
will be better off and the way the government is investing so much
money here should mean we will be. What’s missing, I guess, is the
transparency. Where are we with the insurance companies, where are
we with EQC, and that’s been tough. Every time I walk the dog, walk around the neighbourhood, there is another house gone, or there’s some guy in his truck accelerating away too fast because he’s on a
gravel road, spinning his wheels and kicking up the dust. Those are
the frustrations that come with staying. See me in ten years’ time and I might be singing a different tune. Look at my new house, it’s
all worked out, but at this present moment it’s not so great. We are going through another winter. The place is cold, the power bills are
up and the liquefaction isn’t dug out underneath the house. The kids
are getting more colds, so as far as their health goes, it’s not ideal. You can see why I look across the road sometimes and wonder if, in a strange way, they have been luckier than us.
It’s just the everyday stuff, a bus comes past and the house shakes.
The fact that you’re not able to drive the same way that you drove
the day before, because maybe they have closed off part of the road. The dust, the sand, the driveway that’s still mucked up, the constant
irritation of not having an answer on the house and what’s going to happen there—what’s going to happen to your neighbourhood—those
are the things that have been taken away from you, and there’s a feeling of insecurity that comes with that. The frustration of wanting to get
on, to invest in your house, but it’s kind of like wasted money if they’re just going to bowl it over. It’s all those little things that constantly wear
you down. Then on top of that we need to think about Theo and his
situation. Because of the earthquakes there is an added level of concern
about his health. How that all fits together with the earthquake damage
and keeping the house warm and the way all these concerns grow onto
the extra problems you don’t really need. As a family it means there is now even less time for us to do all the other things in what was a fullon day already.
Theo has Nager Syndrome and what that means is he was born with
an undeveloped jaw; he had to have a gastrostomy procedure because of
his jaw being so small. Since then we’ve had three operations to bring
his jaw forward and I mean that’s just the tip of the iceberg, that’s what you see straight away. He also has some hand problems and a number of other issues but he’s a fighter and we are very proud of him.
One thing that is really important is to keep his airways as clean as
possible. You want to make sure that he doesn’t get a lot of dust into his
trackie but with all the liquefaction and the dust being blown around, how do you protect him against such things. Still, he’s pretty amazing
and he’s been coping well. We’ve actually gone through a spate of colds and things like that… it’s about looking after him, it’s about making sure that we’ve got all his medical stuff with him at all times, trying to care for him as best we can under the circumstances.
I guess the irritation of going through an event like this is going to
be with us for a long time to come; you can say it’s unfair, you could say
all those things, but words like that make little difference. Our life will continue to be what it is.
It’s not just us of course, thousands have been—and continue to
be—affected in so many different ways. We are fortunate that our kids
are at a younger age and apart from what I’ve just said, I don’t think
they have been affected too much. It’s the kids over five and on up into the teenage years that it’s likely to have had impact on. You hear of kids who won’t—can’t—sleep in their own room, it’s affected them
that much. That’s still going on and perhaps that’s something that they may take with them into the future. Just how much any one of us is
affected, I don’t think anyone really knows. I don’t know, and to be honest I don’t go there.
Some people have been brave enough to break down and cry and
show those emotions but a lot of other people have just got on with it. They’ve kind of gone, it is what it is, and they’ve moved on. Perhaps
because of that there’s a lot of built in angst and anger—resentment—
all of those things. Going over things in your mind, did I do everything
right? Could I have acted in a better way? That’s just a mental minefield. The more you open that box the more you maybe learn about yourself
but will you actually like the picture you arrive at. Sometimes the way we react is not necessarily the way we perceive ourselves. We need to be smart enough and grownup enough to make allowances for that.
One thing I do know is that having a family changes things.
I think it changes everybody. For me—who in the past has never really hung his hat up anywhere in particular—place has become
important. Prior to that it didn’t matter to me, I could quite happily move on anytime, change location quite simply, but that has all
altered. The kids are with us now and we need to give them stability. They need to have their friends around them and when they go to
school in a year or two it needs to be a place that they know. I think it’s important that they have that.
Also, I think Christchurch is part of them now. They’ve lived through
just as much as we have. We came here with a ten-year plan and we’ve hardly got started on that yet. Okay perhaps our timing wasn’t the best
but you can’t spend your days in the ifs, buts and maybe department
can you. I’ll tell you what would really kill me, is to run off somewhere
else and to have something happen all over again there. I guess by now we all know nowhere is a hundred precent safe. What happened in
Japan just a few weeks after us proved that. Actually, when you think
of what we have been through, the people we’ve met, the friendships
we’ve made, yeah, it’s been an awesome thing. Okay, a lot of bad stuff has happened but there’s been the silver linings too. And Christchurch
will come through this. Hey, Napier had a big earthquake and they
came through didn’t they. So, I’m going with a positive attitude.
Christchurch has had a thrashing all right, but the city, the people, they will come through. You watch, you’ll see it happen.
And Kindness Lay All About. Stories from the Christchurch Earthquakes.