Crisis in Christchurch

When John and Dianne Liefso of Virden, Manitoba, booked their vacation to New Zealand, the last thing they expected was to find themselves sitting in a booth in a pizza joint in Christchurch, holding on to a table for dear life amidst the roar and rumble of an earthquake. Expected or not, that’s exactly where they ended up.

The Liefsos, having already completed most of their 24-day vacation to New Zealand, had arrived in Christchurch on February 21, following an 11-day tour around the south island.

The night before the quake, they walked through Hagley Park and down to Cathedral Square, stopping to take pictures along the way, including some of the exterior of the famous Christchurch Cathedral. They grabbed a bite to eat and returned to their hotel on the other side of the park.

The next morning, February 22, they signed themselves up for a tram tour of some of the sights in Christchurch.

They stopped with their group of tourists at the cathedral first, advancing inside to see the high arched ceilings and stonework, learning that construction of the church began in 1864, was completed in 1904 and that it is an iconic representation of the city of Christchurch.

Lunchtime approached, so the Liefsos decided to grab something to eat at a pizzeria beside Knox Presbyterian Church, a few blocks from Cathedral Square.

Around 12:50 p.m. (6:50 p.m. February 21 in Virden) the ground began to rumble.

“It was one of those things that we just knew what it was,” Dianne explained. “We were sitting in a booth and the table was screwed down and we held on. We knew that we should leave, but we couldn’t get up. You couldn’t move because of the intensity of it. The noise of the earthquake was so loud that we couldn’t hear anything inside the restaurant breaking. When it was over, there wasn’t a bottle or glass in the place that wasn’t broken but we really didn’t hear anything except the roar of the earthquake.”

Measuring a magnitude of 6.3 on the Richter scale, the February 22 Christchurch earthquake was supposedly not as large as the 7.0 earthquake the city sustained back in September of 2010. Despite the measurement, residents of Christchurch could be heard saying that this was much worse.

Once the quake subsided, they ventured outside to find structural destruction. There was a hole in Knox Presbyterian Church. “We couldn’t believe it. There was no glass in buildings; bricks were falling from everywhere. There was so much damage.”

Though the Liefsos didn’t see it, they learned that the spire of the Christchurch Cathedral they had left merely an hour ago had collapsed, trapping an unknown number of tourists inside.

Walking back through the park to their hotel, “[they] thought that maybe every water line in the city was broken; there was this grey mud and water muck shooting up from the ground everywhere.”

The grey muck they waded through is liquefaction—the quake stressed the soil underground, causing it to lose strength and stiffness, behaving like a liquid.

“The streets were packed with cars, but there was nowhere to walk because bricks were falling and the grey muck was everywhere. The streets were cracked. There was a lot of congestion,” Dianne said, trying to explain the aftermath. “We still didn’t realize the destruction… we were in disbelief.”

“Having never experienced [an earthquake], I thought it might feel worse than that at the time. It was frightening, but… it’s hard to explain,” Dianne said, at a loss for words.

Having returned to their hotel, they came across a business meeting in the parking lot. Following the quake the group had simply relocated and continued. They also found that their hotel had no sewer or power. After a few hours of waiting, the guests were allowed to enter the hotel a few at a time to gather their belongings and return to the hotel’s conference room, a large space of steel posts and wooden rafter beams.

Though they’d heard from other hotel guests that the third floor was in ruins, when the Liefsos reached their room, “it was not disturbed; everything was exactly how we’d left it,” said Dianne. “We gathered some things, and left some things, we did the checklist of the important items like camera, tickets, keys, and we went back downstairs.”

Despite the size of the conference room, it was not large enough to house all of the guests. “There was no where to lie down. They later opened two washrooms to use, but they couldn’t flush. There was 6 to 8 inches of grey muck everywhere.” John and Dianne decided to spend the night in their rental car.

In the time following the quake “they said that there had been 30 aftershocks, but they must have counted only the really significant ones because it was continual—there were thousands. The little tremors were like turbulence in an airplane—it will shake you awake if you’re in a plane, it’s kind of the same thing if you’re sitting in a chair.”

The following morning, which happened to be their last scheduled day, John and Dianne carefully made their way to the Christchurch airport to catch their flight to Auckland. Surprisingly, the airport was in good condition and their flight was on time. “They had opened to domestic flights that morning,” international flights were being rescheduled for the next week.

Having returned home safe and sound, Dianne is unsure if she would return. “It would be really hard for me to recommend that you go.” Although she admits that “it really was a beautiful country. I am very glad that we got to see it before.”

“If there’s luck in the whole thing, it’s where we were when it happened.”

 Published in the Virden Empire-Advance. March, 2011.

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