Saturday, March 12, 2011


Another way I love writing non-fiction is to share a docudrama, telling a real story as if you were reporting from the scene, and including quotes from the people involved in the action.

As I thought about creating a blog with how-to tips on writing docudramas, I had no idea I was going to have my own story to tell. I’ll start with my story, my survival of the Christchurch earthquake, and then, in a second blog, I’ll share my how-to tips.

At 12:51 on February 22, 2011 a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand. It was shallow--less than three miles deep--and for all those people going about their lives on the earth’s surface, it was world-changing.

Reporters said the dust from the collapsing buildings and whole hillsides exploding could be seen for miles. I don’t doubt it. But, at the time, dust was the farthest thing from my mind. I was in Christchurch when the earthquake struck. All I was thinking about was staying alive.

I’d already been through the September 4, 2010, Christchurch earthquake. It was as different as night and day from this one. For one thing, its epicenter, the point where sections of the earth slid past each other, was about thirty miles away and about ten miles deep.

That quake also happened in the early hours of the morning when most people were home in bed. That time, I awoke to a roar like a violent windstorm.

Then the house began to tremble and the shaking became increasingly violent until it again slowed and, finally, stopped. It was scary, and some buildings were destroyed, but no one died. Along with everyone else who lived through that quake, I thought, “Well, I’ve lived through the big one. Thank heavens my house only suffered minor cracks, and my husband and I are safe.”

Four months on, Christchurch was in recovery mode. The rubble had pretty much disappeared and new buildings were springing up. The fact that a few streets still had residents living with port-a-potties was considered absolutely outrageous. After all, the earthquake was an event for the history books—over and done.

An earthquake was definitely the farthest thing from my mind on February 22nd. My girlfriend was here visiting from out-of-town, so we went out to lunch at one of my favorite Christchurch restaurants. We ate sandwiches and laughed a lot. Then our after-lunch coffees arrived, I picked up my cup, and the restaurant exploded. Everything in the restaurant was instantly shrapnel. Food and dishes launched and smashed. Tables and chairs launched and crashed. People were airborne, screaming, falling, gasping, landing, crumpling. Windows shattered.

I’ve been told the quake only lasted twenty seconds. It felt like hours. It’s hard to believe so much damage could happen in only twenty seconds. Just around the corner from me—less than half the length of a football field away—part of the front of the two-story shopping mall crashed onto the sidewalk, seriously injuring a number of people and crushing a mother and her baby.

Less than a mile away, in the very center of Christchurch, tall buildings pancaked down and parking garages collapsed. In just one-fifth of a minute, 750 buildings became rubble.

The iconic Christchurch Cathedral’s bell tower tumbled into a heap.

The fabulous stained glass windows of Knox Centre Church were reduced to bits.

Two city buses lay crushed under heaps of bricks, power lines snapped, school buildings cracked, bridges split, and flat roads were transformed into roller coasters.

Besides that damage in the center of the city, in surrounding suburbs, 100,000 homes suffered significant damage and 10,000 more were completely destroyed. Many people were seriously hurt. Nearly two hundred people died.

But I didn’t know the extent of the damage surrounding me when I fled the restaurant while the earth was still jerking with strong aftershocks. I only knew the nightmare wasn’t over, and I wasn’t yet safe. The world around me was chaos. Piles of shattered glass sparkled in the sunlight outside buildings like weird snowdrifts. Confused people staggered into the street and ambled aimlessly.

Others sat on the curb weeping. Still others, like my girlfriend and I hugged, and hurried toward the parking lot. We skirted bubbling gray mud spouting from cracks in the ground, but the mud was everywhere. The going was difficult. It was also hard to hear—hard to think—over the sounds of chaos and the shrill blaring of many sirens.

The drive home that normally took forty minutes took four and a half hours that day. Aftershocks repeatedly rocked the car. An especially strong aftershock briefly had the car airborne. Again, that event probably barely lasted a second but it seemed much longer. Time was strangely out-of-whack in this alien world.

My girlfriend came home with me. Her husband and their two sons and their families arrived at my home later that night. I was blessed that my home again suffered very minor damage and we had electricity, clean water, and working toilets to share. We settled down to a surreal existence that became a struggle to obtain supplies that were in short supply. It was nearly a week before our visitors could safely go home or on to other families living outside of Christchurch.

Have I now actually survived the big one? I hope so, but, like everyone else who lives here, I’m not so sure. Japan’s major quake just a few weeks later fuels my uncertainty.

I haven’t been back to the city since the quake. Some parts remain sealed off, but I haven’t been back mainly because I’m not ready to see that the pictures of the destruction are real. The city I loved no longer exists.

I will never forget the first time I saw Christchurch just after Christmas in 1996. I’d flown in from Atlanta, Georgia late at night and gone straight to my hotel. The next morning as the summer sun rose bright and hot, I walked across a bridge, over a beautiful meandering river, and into the city. I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, opening the door from her black and white world into the spectacular, brilliantly colored world of Oz.

I believe those that say Christchurch will be even better when it’s rebuilt and that it will become a city of the future. But I admit to feeling grief over what’s been lost—people who will forever be missed and a city made up of the most amazingly beautiful buildings. Sadly, for now, much of Christchurch is rubble from which winds stir up dust and memories.

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