Aspen resident lives to tell about the Christchurch earthquake

Catherine GarlandSpecial to The Aspen TimesAspen CO Colorado

Editor’s note: Aspen resident Catherine Garland witnessed first-hand the Feb. 22 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, that destroyed buildings and killed as many as 200 people. She wrote the following account of her experience.

I’m in the Museum shop in Christchurch and I watch in admiration as the young woman folds each T-shirt with the mindfulness of a Buddhist monk before carefully adding it to the pile for sale, stopping only to answer with a smile questions from customers milling around the store.The exhibits in the museum are fascinating and well displayed – many mementos of Captain Scott’s ill-fated journey to the North Pole, including his diary and a mock-up of his little wooden hut, and some interesting exhibits on the Maori culture.I’m already loving this town even though I had made a mental note not to come here when I read about the earthquake last September. But one forgets fast and this is a lovely town, very gracious and very English with the placid Avon River winding through, its banks heavily fringed with hanging willows. It reminds me of Cambridge and here too one can punt down the river. How romantic, I think. Maybe we should do that tomorrow.After the museum, we stop at the Ernest Shackleton exhibit in a separate building but we’re late and we’re told by a pleasant young museum attendant to come back the next day. We decide to do this as I really want to see the exhibit. Shackleton is one of my heroes and it will be good to spend a few hours immersed in his story.It is a sunny afternoon and after meandering a short while in the pleasant Botanic Gardens we wander over to an outdoor caf in the central square near the Cathedral to order my daily latte. I tell my friend Tom that I also very much want to visit the Cathedral the next day. In the caf a woman a few tables away gets up and berates the waiters for their slow service and they look crestfallen; I myself feel so happy that I hate to see this and I tell the waiters how lovely their restaurant is and how much we’re enjoying being here, and their smiles return. How simple it can be to soothe hurt feelings.On the way back to the car I point out an attractive building. “That’s the hostel where we would have stayed if my son hadn’t arranged for us to visit friends of his.” It looks great and its location right in the center of town is excellent. Maybe we’ll stay there on the way back.The next morning we decide to visit the Antarctic Center by the airport before coming into the middle of town (the CBD as it’s called). The Center is fascinating; first we marvel at the little blue penguins, then don heavy anoraks to experience the biting cold and wind at the North Pole, and then settle down to watch a 4-D movie of being in a small boat in the Antarctic. We laugh as our seats rock violently to mimic the choppy waves the little boat is going through on the screen.But our seats are still rocking as the boat enters calm waters and I wonder vaguely why. A moment later the lights go on and we are told there has just been an earthquake and that we should evacuate the building. We calmly troop out, still laughing at the cleverness of tying the shake into the movements of the movie. I have experienced several earthquakes in my life, even a 7.5 magnitude in Costa Rica, and they have been no more than conversation pieces with little damage and no loss of life. Then word comes that buildings in the CBD have fallen on two buses, killing the passengers inside, and suddenly it’s not funny any more. Not funny at all. Suddenly it’s very serious. Very serious and very tragic.After several hours of hanging around the Center where we experience constant aftershocks but see no damage, the staff tell us they’re closing the building and that we all need to move on. We hear that the center of town is cordoned off and so we retrace our earlier journey around the perimeter of the city to our friends’ house on the other side of town. There is a steady stream of cars on the highway, a highway that looks nothing like it did earlier in the day. Now buckled and twisted with deep, wide fissures running randomly down the length, and places where the surface has fallen by a couple of feet or so, and other places where it’s been pushed up sharply; and everywhere sinkholes of dark gray silt with cars bogged down in them, front forward and backs sticking up into the air at a sharp angle. Many of the roads are flooded from the liquefaction and bridges are impassable.It’s an obstacle course and very scary. There are many abandoned cars by the side of the road, and several people are simply sitting weeping on the edge of the highway, their nerves still frayed from the September quake and the violent aftershock the day after Christmas. I too feel very emotional even before I know the horror of the devastation and the heavy loss of life.We finally get home and find to our great relief that our hosts and their house are all right, although the floors are littered with broken glass and china. There is no power and no running water. Before supper we go for a short walk around the neighborhood. Luckily it is mostly undamaged although occasional houses have tumbled. One house still has the side walls standing though the back and front of the house have crumbled. In front the agapanthus still stand tall and stately and bloom a brilliant blue in the soft evening light and in the next block beds of ruffled petunias line a twisted pavement in front of a building where the turret has come down and is now lying grotesquely misshapen by the front door. But even though some flowers still bloom, the birds have all left town and there is eerily not even the slightest chirp of bird song to be heard.For supper we heat cans of food over a camp stove, and then play Scrabble by the light of a kerosene lamp. It is raining hard and the earth continues to grumble and rumble and shake and shudder with aftershocks all through the evening and night. I wake up each time and it feels as if the little house is dancing on a liquid surface and deciding whether to make the effort to stand or let go and fall.The next day we hear more news of the devastation. The Cathedral I was planning to visit the afternoon of the quake has been heavily damaged with debris up to 30 feet thick and an estimated 23 people buried inside, and the hostel where we were to have stayed was flattened with many bodies being carried out.I remember the young woman folding T-shirts with such care. Did she escape? Was she one of the lucky ones? Or was she crushed along with the carefully folded T-shirts? What of the other people I had met the day before? The waiters? The impatient customer? The young museum attendant at the Shackleton exhibit? The teenagers in their striped blazers spilling out of school? And all the happy, laughing throng enjoying life in Christchurch?One survivor talks of being on the fifth floor of a building in the CBD and finding herself suddenly at street level with a collapsed building under her. People on the street come over and break windows to get her and others out. The people on the floors below are not so lucky. A young Philippine woman attending classes at the King’s Education School for English Language on one of the middle floors texts her mother in a remote village in the Philippines, “Ma, I got buried.” And then, later, “Ma, I can’t feel my right hand.” And then, later, “I hope the end comes quick if it comes.” And then silence.A plea goes out for all non-residents to leave town and we are lucky to find a gas station at the edge of town with electricity to pump gas and we join the long queue. Luckily they still have gas when it’s our turn and luckily there’s no rationing.And then we drive away, away from the horror and anguish and grief. But how can one really leave that behind? Yes, I’m safe now and back in the raw beauty of New Zealand’s lush rain forests and beaches and mountains, but for a moment in time those people in Christchurch and I were one and a part of me is now missing. I feel deeply saddened by the pool of suffering and agony and devastation in that lovely city.We drive out through the mountains and climb up to the glaciers spilling into the luxurious rain forests. I marvel that all the beauty around was once shaped by violent geological forces similar to the earthquake. Now only the beauty remains. How fragile and puny our lives are compared to the grand scheme, but as humans these personal connections are all we have, even though the beauty will remain long after we’ve gone.And I’m so incredibly and utterly grateful to still be alive, fully alive, to be able to feel both grief for loss and joy at the overwhelming beauty that is life. To be alive and able to feel both emotions – and be at peace.