Letter from Christchurch

Letter from Christchurch

By Andrea Bell, SCAPE


Thanks for your kind words of support since the earthquake. I’m writing from my boss’ brother’s neighbours house, where we have been staying. Our house has been red stickered and cordoned off which means it is too dangerous to enter.

When the earthquake hit, I was at work at the SCAPE office based on the second floor of a neo-gothic building in the Arts Centre. My partner was at home in Lyttelton where the earthquake was centered only 5km beneath.

There are so many lucky escape stories, like my co-worker who was meant to be hand-delivering fliers along High Street – now largely rubble. My partner could have been on a bus along Colombo St – two of which were crushed by falling buildings. Fortunately at the time the earthquake hit I was running late for a meeting in Cathedral Square, otherwise I would have been driving along Manchester St where a number of cars were crushed by bricks, or parked directly outside the Christchurch Cathedral – where I had just been granted a permit. Three weeks on it sounds like I’m being melodramatic, but like so many others I was just really lucky not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I was on the phone in the office when the earthquake hit, leaving a message on a property owner’s voicemail, asking if he had any vacant shops along High Street that we could use for SCAPE – not anymore! I dropped the phone on my desk, blurted ‘EARTHQUAKE!’ as folders, computers, pot plants crashed down onto the floor. The violent rumble below caused the building the shudder and twist. I didn’t know whether to crouch under my desk and potentially become trapped, or make for the doorway. It took a few stumbling attempts but I made it to the doorway and watched the office turn upside down. My co-worker pointed to the windows that overlooked my desk and we watched in horror as billowing cloud of dust indicated the partial collapse of the building next to us. After the room stopped shaking I grabbed my cellphone and a fluoro orange hard hat that just so happened to be on my desk and got out as fast as I could.  I was in such a rush to get out that I left my handbag with wallet and keys behind.

We all congregated outside on the once immaculately mown french lawn, now strewn with huge stone masonry, cornices and bricks. Must have timed our escape from the building just right, as I didn’t even think to wait for the loose masonry to stop falling from the building.  The rubble created a lot of dust that made us cough and splutter and settled in the creases of our clothes. Someone decided that it wasn’t safe to stay on the lawn surrounded by potentially unstable buildings so we walked to the Botanic Gardens, flooded with streams of people coming from all directions. People were coughing, crying, hugging, and chattering incessantly – sharing their stories and experiences. We were all on edge. Another large aftershock followed, I remember watching the flowerbeds rise up and down like the sea, the ground turned to jelly.

Soon after an English tourist came up to us, covered head to toe in dust, even his eyebrows and eyelashes were caked with the stuff. He told us he had been at the Cathedral, that the spire had fallen but we couldn’t fathom it. A girl with a strong stutter and suffering anxiety attacks joined our huddled group, she had been on her way to the bathroom in the basement of Ballantynes Department store when the earthquake hit, and had seen bodies pulled from rubble as she fled down Cashel Mall.

The mobile phone networks were down for ages due to overloading but after many attempts I managed to contact my partner and family. After about an hour the group I was with decided to try and get out of the city. The roads were gridlocked with traffic but we didn’t know what else to do or where to go.

I overheard that the Lyttleton tunnel was closed, and gratefully accepted an offer by one of my colleagues to go back to her parents’ house in the western suburbs. Meanwhile my partner was stranded at home with no power or water, only tea light candles and a battery powered radio for company.

As we walked through Hagley Park to where my co-worker’s car was parked, we crossed massive cracks that had ruptured the ground’s surface, strange mounds of liquefaction, newly formed ponds of brown water and uprooted oak trees. It took about three hours to drive out of the city, and as the rumble of each aftershock approached we flung our seatbelts off, poised to get out of the car in a second. I kept my hard hat on the whole journey.

The once smooth asphalt suburban streets had become 4WD territory with wonky speed bumps, fjords, and flooded sewerage. I stayed the first two nights at my colleague’s parents’ house. The morning after the quake my partner walked over the Bridle Path (a very steep scenic bush track that connects Lyttelton to the rest of Christchurch). He wore two backpacks with spare clothes for me and a cell phone charger and got a lift with a neighbour whose car was parked on the other side of the hill. He said that the road on the other side of the hill was lined nose to tail with abandoned cars from the commuters who had attempted to get home the night before but had to hike over the hill because the tunnel was closed. I since read a story in the newspaper of a man who had survived the quake, made it to the Bridle Path and called his wife and children to let them know he could see their house, and would be home in ten minutes. Only, he never made it home; he was crushed by falling boulders.

On the other side, my partner got a lift with our neighbour who drove towards the city until they ran out of gas. People were stockpiling petrol at the stations with queues so long they caused traffic jams. so when they ran out of petrol they abandoned the car and went their different ways on foot. It was mid afternoon by the time he arrived. Our reunion was shortlived though, as after downing a cup of tea he was off to work at the hospital, where he has spent a lot of time since.

In the days that followed I stayed with friends, friends of friends and relatives and developed a new routine of baby-wipe showers and visits to street-side portaloos. It’s awkward staying two nights at one house, two nights at another, not wanting to outstay your welcome, but not knowing where you will spend the next night. Neither my partner or I had managed to make it back to check on our house in Lyttelton, which had been cut off with no tunnel access, buses, power or running water – until our landlord told us our house had been red stickered. He managed to salvage an impressive amount of important possessions such as clothes, paper documents, artworks and our computer. But by the time I arrived the house had been cordoned off and any form of access was strictly prohibited. It’s strange thinking back to the Tuesday morning of the quake. It was raining and I was in such a rush on my way to a meeting that I barely looked back at our house. I never could have guessed that would be the last time I saw inside it.  Our idyllic life in Lyttelton now seems like such a long time ago. The cafe and fish and chip shop we used to be frequent have been demolished along with many other homes and businesses.

I returned to the office with my boss last week. After trying a number of different checkpoints we finally gained access the Arts Centre, still standing. We entered our building through the basement and it was like going caving: pitch black and stepping through water. My heart was racing. We had ten minutes to grab as much as we could and get out. I found a bicycle helmet and wore it for at least half an hour after we had left the building -even while driving out of the city. It was a great helmet (shiny silver metallic) and I got a lot of smiles and compliments from fellow drivers and rescue workers at each checkpoint.

It’s pretty disappointing that after all the blood, sweat and tears we put into SCAPE, twice, it won’t go ahead as we had planned. Pretty bad luck really that three weeks out from opening in September the first earthquake hit, and now just one and a half weeks out from opening in March much of the central city looks like a bombsite. For the postponed SCAPE we had intended to highlight the role artists’ projects can play in contributing to discussions about urban regeneration, a topic that had become especially pertinent since September; but given the extent of the last quake’s damage a whole new strategy will need to be developed.

Of course there are far more immediate things to worry about right now – like the restoration of vital services, power sewerage and clean drinking water, finding somewhere to live. Although we are doing it pretty tough there are many others in the same situation or far worse. We are OK and we are really grateful to each of you for your well wishes and words of support, it really means a lot to us at this time. All my love, Andrea.