An extract from “29 Argyle Drive”
Over time, especially after Boxing Day, Christchurch learned to cope with the aftershocks. When the ground shook, people panicked less. They steeled themselves, grabbed something, and their eyes searched for a doorway or a desk to shelter under.
They held their breaths and gritted their teeth and waited it out. When the earth settled down, they breathed again, made a joke or laughed about it, and went on with whatever the aftershock had interrupted.
Because lightning never strikes twice in the same place.
Over and over, they reassured one another with that old adage. They believed it. To consider the alternative was unthinkable.
But the unthinkable happened, lunchtime – 12:51 – on Tuesday, February 22, 2011.
That time, the shaking didn’t stop. It increased in violence, and the world of every Christchurch resident exploded.
Inside offices, people cowering under desks and in doorways were bounced out of that flimsy protection. Walls shook furiously, floors heaved and buckled; ceiling fittings and steel beams gave way and came down, windows burst.
In restaurants, tables jumped up and down, plates clattered and crashed, shelves fell. Customers and staff trying to drag themselves under the tables or the counters were shrugged backwards by the undulating floors. Ventilation shafts fell, wall tiles exploded.
Drivers felt their vehicles being lifted off the road by a giant’s angry hands, shaken about, dropped back. Roadways became waves under the tires. Power poles swayed violently. Cars slid from side to side. City buses were crushed by falling masonry.
People caught on the streets of the central city district froze in horror as shop overhangs snapped off and dropped and facades crumbled. Buildings went straight to the ground. Bricks, glass and chunks of concrete were hurled into the street. Cracks opened in the roads.
In the suburbs, roads swelled and burst under the pressure of liquefaction, releasing tons of water and sand into gardens and homes. In houses, bookcases and refrigerators crashed to the floor, paintings came free of walls and cart-wheeled across rooms.
Buildings in the central business district suffered the worst damage; two, especially – the Canterbury Television Building and the Pyne Gould Corporation headquarters.
People inside them felt they were trapped in a salt shaker. Everything was smashing, cracking and shattering. Floors tipped, walls caved in. Clouds of dust choked. There was a stench of burning electrical wiring, and then of smoke. Everybody tumbled downwards.
Both buildings collapsed. Only the elevator shaft of the CTV Building remained standing. The Pyne Gould Corporation building was a mountain of rubble. And the spire of Christchurch Cathedral, the city’s most famous landmark, toppled and crashed to the ground into a heap of stone and twisted metal.
When the ground stood still again, the aching silence filled slowly with screams and crying; and with the noise of fire alarms and evacuation recordings from inside broken buildings, and with jammed car horns. And the dust began to rise over the city center in a dense, yellow-tinged pall.
The people the quake had caught in the open – men in business suits, laborers from construction sites, drivers, university students, tourists – many of them injured themselves by flying glass and masonry – began to clamber over the wreckage of the CTV Building, pulling roofing iron and timber away, digging for survivors.
The first to be lifted out of the rubble and passed down from hand to hand was a two-year-old baby.
The seconds of the shaking claimed 185 lives. Most of the victims, more than a hundred, were crushed and burned inside the CTV Building. Many were foreign students studying at a language school located on the third floor. From the Pyne Gould Corporation wreckage, 18 bodies were recovered. Ten passengers on a local bus died when the vehicle was buried under falling concrete. At other central city locations, 28 were killed. Twelve people died in the suburbs.
The eastern residential districts were hit hard, and damage was particularly severe in Sumner. The cliff faces were shaken like never before and fissures hundreds of meters long opened, in places cutting directly through the middle of houses, tearing them apart.
More dangerously, whole sections of cliff face crumbled away, and boulders and stones came smashing down into streets, gardens and through house roofs and walls.
A five-meter boulder crashed into the middle of Argyle Drive, bounced through the weeds and undergrowth where the gates of No. 29 had once stood, kept on rolling and came to a stop in the middle of the empty property.
Photographs of that huge stone went viral over the next few days. In the midst of the worst catastrophe to ever engulf New Zealand, the Devil was back in residence at 29 Argyle Drive.
Jack was home again.
Very soon, those images of the stone, enlarged and enhanced, were being examined on computer screens all over the world, with the same intensity that astronomers pore over details of the surface of Mars.
Terrifying discoveries were made.
The most widely-disseminated shot of the boulder showed a close-up of the blasted granite surface circled with thick, black marker. Within this circle, the actual features of Satan’s face were delineated with a fine-tipped red pen.
The face was long, gaunt and sharp; the horns, short, stumpy things; the eyes were blazing black, and the lips were twisted into an evil grin.
Other computer sites, other researchers, focused their investigations elsewhere on the boulder’s surface and revealed even greater horrors – seething cauldrons of faces, which they identified as belonging to the Fallen Angels – to Asb’el, to Gader’el, to Yeqon.
This Afterword cannot express the tragedy of that day. The loss; the ruin of a beautiful city, and the ruin of so many lives, leaving scars that will remain for a long time. Hundreds of empty gravel lots, voids where once shops, restaurants, office buildings and houses had stood. Boarded up windows, desolated structures fenced off by steel mesh. The end of laughter.
These final words focus not even on that boulder, but on something very different that unfolded on the property of 29 Argyle Drive during that long, gray afternoon and night.
By the time the ground stopped jumping, the middle of the road had split open, and mud and clay oozed out of the ruptured asphalt. At the bottom of Argyle Drive, a geyser of muddy water spewed ten feet into the air.
Power poles toppled into front gardens, bringing down lines, causing sparks and smoke. Hedgerows were pushed out into the pavement. Front porches collapsed; roof tiles cascade onto the street.
Into this chaos spilled the residents who were at home at that lunchtime, weekday hour. Housewives with young children and babies. Retired couples. Elderly people, some of them disabled.
They were in shock, staring around at the unrecognizable street, the unrecognizable houses. Where is this? Where is my home? What has happened to us now? Oh, God.
After the shock of September 4, the population of Christchurch had been drilled, by television and by written literature deposited in their mailboxes, about what to do if they were caught outside when another severe earthquake struck.
Keep away from falling masonry and electric wires.
Do not reenter homes or buildings.
Seek open space.
Stay there until assistance arrives.
The confused and terrified residents of Argyle Drive found the open space that the quake literature said would save them in the wide flatness of No. 29.
Assistance soon arrived.
The Student Volunteer Army had been formed by students at Canterbury University following the September quake, when they had assisted in the clean-up, especially in areas where soil liquefaction was severe.
They mobilized again on February 22, into ‘Battalions’, ‘Squads’ and ‘Street Teams’, spreading out, in cars, charters buses and on foot, to the most severely devastated areas.
They brought with them food, water and other emergency supplies, but, more importantly, humor, cheerfulness and optimism to the stunned survivors.
One street team that was ordered into action lived right at the top of Argyle Drive in an old house that had been converted into student flats.
Six young men and women, weighed down with backpacks, lugging shopping bags in both hands and pushing an overloaded wheelbarrow, made their way down to No. 29.
There, they found the residents huddled, cold and confused; the oldest in shock, the youngest crying.
The students had brought – a big tarpaulin, three tents, sleeping bags; plates, cups and glasses, knives and forks; a mountain of blankets; a barbecue grill and bags of charcoal; bottled water, food from the refrigerator; bits and pieces of clothing; rolls of toilet paper; a bag full of sanitary pads; a first-aid kit; shovels and a pick-ax; two transistor radios.
They were climbers, trekkers, perennial hitchhikers, and they possessed survival skills.
They rigged up the tarpaulin, using guy lines from one of the tents and the boulder as an anchor; and poles from the tent to secure the other end. They erected a second tent and helped the oldest people into it, out of the cold. They dug a latrine and covered it with the third tent.
They got the grill going and food frying. They built a bonfire. They distributed their phones so that the residents could try to contact their husbands, sons and daughters. They brought steadiness and good cheer.
Sumner police and firefighters were already beginning to coordinate evacuation of the high roads that were in most danger from falling rocks and disintegrating cliff faces. But it was not until after nightfall that street-by-street evacuations were coordinated.
At an 8:00pm news conference, the spokesman for the Sumner Fire Department urged people who had evacuated their homes to stay where they were and to be patient. Relief would reach them as soon as was humanly possible.
It was a cold night, and rain began to fall, but the evacuees around the boulder were sheltered from the cold by blankets and from the rain by the tarpaulin. They stared out at the black sky and the dark sea, not thinking about the morrow, not talking much, listening to the stream of updates on the transistor radios. Thankful to be in that safe place.
While fools at their computers joined lines on photographs of a boulder to make the face of Satan, the property that had once been notorious in the media as The Hell House was a blessed spot that night.