Many people have often said that when you are about to die your life flashes before your eyes, this my friends is not the case. Whether or not my life was actually thrown towards the thresholds of existence that afternoon, it remains that such a moment did not occur to me. The faces of my family and friends did not leap towards me in sequence just as the immense moments of short life were not replayed over in my mind for a brief period of time. I felt utterly alone, frightened, unnerved and completely exposed to the idea that this is how I was going out-not with guns a blazin’ but crouched next to a door frame in a darkened corridor thousands of miles away from home.
The day had begun and was progressing like any other. The air was in no way palpable or humid. Things felt neither still or ominous, in fact the weather was quite dull, drape and seemed to shadow how I was feeling with the long day ahead. With a slight overcast sky I set off for school; a 10am start that would continue until at least 5pm. I spent two hours in the gym, playing basketball and reviewing some of the country’s curriculum with fellow class mates. We held discussions and, as always, enjoyed a good laugh which made our upcoming night out something we had no pleasure in waiting for; I feel that our class’ intention to go for dinner and drinks this Friday may be pushed back barring the chance that ‘Joyful’ Chinese Restaurant still stands. I have the strangest feeling that somewhere, someone is watching all us fools enjoying the smallest moments in our lives and spiting us. Or maybe we should rid ourselves of those mundane joys, look for something bigger. Maybe we need to shake things up a bit.
I left class with nothing more than a thought of what I had to do next, where my day was heading, where my written schedule led me next.
For the next fifty minutes I found myself in a meeting alongside three other women who had also been selected to escort and facilitate a group of young Kiwis onto the secluded Blumine Island off the coast of New Zealand’s much larger South Island. It will be a weeklong orienteering adventure to raise awareness of the dying population of the nation’s beloved Kiwi bird. If all goes to plan we, the college students, will lead the expedition for the first couple of days and the youngsters will take control of the remainder of the trip building trails, permanent nests and developing leadership skills. It seems like a phenomenal opportunity for not only myself, and I am glad to have been selected, but also the kids who will report back to environment ministers and company heads. In order for the trip to move smoothly the four of us needed to prepare well in advance so after a brief discussion in the college’s courtyard we made our way over the equipment shed which had been filled with spare non-perishable food, kayaks, petrol tanks and their accompanying stove-top cookers. Having borrowed the key from our own university advisor, Chris, the 4 of us made our way back to his office where he had mentioned to us that sliding the under the door would be no problem; it was 12:45pm.
Spending a good part of that hour organizing for our travels we began heading our separate ways, whether it be to our next lecture or home for a late lunch, feeling a growing excitement for the impact that such a program could potentially make. Although I shared those same feelings I had another four hours of class awaiting me, the first couple being held on the third floor of the campus’ largest building, Taurew. I remember checking my watch constantly so that I would not be late for Professional Studies as I remained with two of the other girls who were dropping off Chris’ keys; I can only imagine what drove me with them as I passed right by the stairwell door which would have led to my class. There was no need for me to go with them, Chris was not in his office and although I knew I had a bit of time before my class would begin it was not uncommon for us to gather ten minutes before hand for a cup of tea. Some of our actions just don’t make sense to us during times of reflection, this was one of those moments. I can only assume how terrible it would have been to head upstairs instead, upstairs to an empty classroom with empty chairs and empty desks wondering what on Earth was going on when suddenly all Hell would have broken loose. Standing outside the building amongst an enormous group of students, alarms blaring, I realized I had misread my schedule. I was to attend a class I never had but decided to stick it out with Sara and Alex for a few more minutes.
Walking down a secluded and dead-end hallway towards our professor’s door the three of us continued to chat amongst ourselves. We placed the key on Chris’ desk, closed the door behind us and walk a few steps towards the main section of that floor’s reception area.
I remember briefly saying, “alright, well I better head off to class, I’ll see you girls –“ . A huge crack erupts as if a pack of de-railed trains had made their way through the deserted hallway. The foundation of the building violently struggles with the intensify nature of the very ground it sits on. The corridor, already unlit, begins to unnaturally contort in all directions as I am flung into a state of confusion. Stabilizing myself with knees bend I attempt to grasp out for something but with no avail, I am teetering back and forth in the middle of the hall, with legs of jelly. The sound is deafening; cracks, snaps and screams ablaze amongst falling shards of drywall. A door swings open, the exposed office becomes littered with fallen books. I see the face of a frightened women beneath her desk gripping the legs of her shaking workspace. My attention moves back left to Sara and Alex, crouching within a door way, arms wrapped around its fragile frame. I fall in line, immediately hitting the floor, ruthlessly attaching myself to one of the girls. For one brief moment, although it always feels dreadfully longer, I thought that this was my end and it was nearly calming. I had a chance to look around and slowly awaited something to come crashing upon me but all that came was the end of the ordeal, it had ended with the start of a sea of alarms and hustling of feet running passed towards the exit.
Outside in the courtyard of the college the environment became all too surreal. Pods of students scattered the area as a stir of concerned voices filled the air. For those who found themselves outside during the quake, it may have been much less unnerving but no less foreign, especially to the international community who had never felt something like that before. We began gathering ourselves. We found flatmates, classmates and friends and awaited instruction. I remember over-hearing some of the locals discussing how this quake had dwarfed the 7.1 episode that plagued the region last September. This one had manifested itself just beneath our feet, five kilometres down. It is as if we all live on the top story of a high-rise and when an earthquake occurs it’s like someone below us is playing a stereo very loud; the closer it is to our floor the louder it sounds and the more the walls trembles. This bugger was right below us.
The immediate aftershock, metaphorically and literally, was, dare I say, a bit more fun. It may have been because I felt like I had found myself on rough waters with a broken surf board or maybe because the 500 some-odd Asian exchange students had found each other within minutes of the disaster. I hope that somehow paints a bit of a picture, it was very amusing. I watched the building I had just ran from wobble before my eyes as the car park began to look like one large bouncy castle; their suspension was getting a solid work out.
Within twenty minutes we had made our way back to our flat. The electricity had been cut because of the quake so we all sat in our living room sharing the “where were you?” stories. We had a long journey ahead of us.
The hellish reality of downtown Christchurch seems to loom in the distance of my flat, her people torn from a place of joy and now a place of utter silence as more are pulled from her shattered bones.