Four years ago, New Zealand was struck by one of the deadliest disasters in its history – the Christchurch Earthquake of February 20I0. Saray Marcos Otxoa was at its epicentre – alone with her four-month-old son, Henry, at home in the Port Hills. She told Charlotte her story.
My husband Ben is British and I’m Spanish. But we moved from the UK to New Zealand when Ben, who’s a surgeon, got a job at Christchurch Hospital.
When we arrived, in July 2010, I was pregnant with our first child. We found a beautiful town house – high up on one of the Port Hills with views to the city, the sea, to the Southern Alps and the Kaikoura Ranges.
Days after we’d moved in – when I was 35 weeks pregnant – a huge earthquake struck. It was 4.35am – September 4th, 2010. Ben and I were both thrown out of bed. It was pitch black. It felt as if the house was rolling down the hill. We both thought: “this is it”. Once Ben and I had found each other in the darkness, we just clung to one another. We had to shout our final goodbyes over the roar of the ground juddering and bits of the house falling down around us. I found myself speaking to my husband and my unborn child at once. I told them both that I loved them. And I told Ben that I was sorry he would never manage to achieve the professional ambitions he’d been working so hard for. And to my unborn child I said I was sorry I’d failed to keep him safe; I told him that if I did get a second chance I would protect him better.
Luckily we did get a second chance. The house didn’t fall down (although it was badly damaged). And then our wonderful neighbour, Hilary, burst in – armed with torches and all the essentials we might need – and she told us how to stay safe. Life was hard after the quake and there were a lot of powerful aftershocks – but we decided to stay in Christchurch. We had fantastic neighbours, and we loved it there. Although the September earthquake had measured 7.1 on the Richter scale, its epicentre was 40km away and no-one had been killed. (It would have been a different story if it had struck in the daytime when the city centre was full of people.) We’d survived it. Now we knew what to do if it did happen again – though we all told each other it wouldn’t.
Henry was born on October 16th. We started to feel more settled after all our furniture arrived from England and, by February, when Henry was four months old, we had our own little routine. Every day I would take Henry to have lunch in Castle Mall in the centre of Christchurch. Then we’d “play” at the park in the stunning Botanic Gardens until Ben finished work. On the 22nd of February, Henry had overslept, so we were running late. I’d normally feed him in town over lunch, but today he woke up hungry so I fed him at home. Then I put him in his Jolly Jumper while I had a coffee. The buggy and bags were in the car when suddenly the earth begun to shake. Usually we’d hear the earthquake coming but this time we didn’t have those precious few seconds’ warning when you could run for cover. It was a 6.3 earthquake, barely 10 km deep with the epicentre right in the Port Hills, in a previously unknown fault line.
I did what we had prepared ourselves to do for all those months. I grabbed Henry out of the Jolly Jumper – struggling to unfasten the straps. The quake was so violent it was all I could do not to drop him. I ran under the table but my head kept banging on the top of it and I couldn’t protect Henry so I decided to go under a door frame. I soon realised that two arms weren’t enough to cover my head, hold the baby, protect his head and hold onto a door frame. This time the earthquake movement was vertical, unlike the September earthquake, which had been lateral. And the Peak Ground Acceleration was one of the greatest ever recorded in the world. The walls and ceiling were opening before us; everything was falling on us. I tried to protect Henry’s head with a cushion. I told myself that, even if I were killed, someone would come and find him soon. I was happy that he’d just had a big feed.
My phone rang. It was Ben. But the noise was so thunderous I could hardly hear him. He thought we’d be in town. I told him we were at home and the house was falling in on us. For a second time I told him I loved him and said goodbye forever. Then he screamed: “Aarrgh!” and the phone went dead. I couldn’t get through to him again. My neighbour Hilary came in and told me to get out at once. I walked over all of our smashed possessions scattered across the floor – some inherited pieces of furniture were centuries old and they had meant so much to me till that day. They didn’t matter anymore; my child was alive.
Once we were out, I sat with my four closest neighbours and their children on the slope of our cul-de-sac. The house next door had completely fallen to the ground and the others were barely standing. A cloud of smoke obscured the centre of Christchurch. The beautiful views that I’d once admired from our hilltop were now terrifying. I wondered if anything at all down there could still be standing. I’d still had no news from Ben. My neighbour Rachael – who had a boy the same age as Henry and an older daughter – convinced me that I should travel with her down south to stay with her family and friends. I wanted to wait for Ben. But she was right: I had no home, no city, and I barely knew anyone. I had a 4-month-old to think about. I hadn’t heard from Ben but I had to keep telling myself he’d be OK; I tried to convince myself he was just busy with patients at the hospital.
In between aftershocks I tried to dart into the house to grab essentials for Henry (a difficult task as everything we owned was mixed up in heaps on the floor and the powerful aftershocks kept on coming). All I took for myself was my wallet, my phone and a pair of glasses. I packed our car with food, water, torches and a phone charger, for Ben when he got home (if he ever did). I also left him a letter telling him where I was going. Then I jumped into my neighbour’s car with two baby boys and a two-year-old girl. We tried to sound cheerful for the children but we couldn’t stop thinking about the people we were leaving behind.
Our three-week car journey south took us to Oamaru, Dunedin and Gore, where Rachael had various friends and family. Many would then become very special friends to us. I didn’t know these people and they didn’t know me, but they treated me like family and I thank them for that to this date. Seven hours after the earthquake, I finally managed to get through to Ben. I was so relieved to speak to him. He told me that when he’d screamed and the phone had cut out it was because the ceiling tiles above him in the hospital had collapsed and someone had fallen on him.
It was difficult not to see Ben for so long. I had some comfort from seeing him on the television news a few days later while I was staying in Oamaru. Though I saw a tired, sad husband who didn’t sound like his usual self, I got to see that he was OK and he had somewhere to sleep – thanks to the kindness of our neighbour Carl, who let him sleep on the floor of his beautiful coffee shop. We were away from Christchurch for about two months. Ben stayed there and worked at the hospital – initially working all hours trying to save the scores of crush-victims who were brought in fighting for their lives or to save a limb.
Finally, after a few repairs, we were able to return to our rented house – which was still standing although badly damaged. The aftermath was tough. We had to collect water from a truck 5 km away. We had to boil the water but we often lost electricity because of the aftershocks. Henry was weaned by the time we came home but we couldn’t cook purees and freeze them because of the interrupted power supply. Ben needed our car to commute to work and the bus service was barely running so Henry and I were pretty much stuck at home. We got used to cold showers and baths and cold or raw food. We called this time the ‘new normal’.
We were so lucky to survive – and none of our friends were killed. But we do know people who lost loved ones. I don’t regret that we were caught up in the earthquake. Before it happened we were like most first-time parents – creeping around Henry whispering, “let’s not wake the baby” and fussing about the temperature of his milk. But after the earthquake we had to change and I guess he did too. He got used to eating whatever he was given and sleeping anywhere. So it helped us to be flexible parents. And it helped me to remember what’s really important.
In the end it made us really strong. Until Ben’s a consultant we have to keep moving every year. (We’ve just moved to Auckland.) It isn’t easy. But having had that experience has helped me to cope with it. We walk into the unknown and know that we’ll be ok. Henry’s four now and now he has a sister, Grace, who will be three in April. I don’t live in fear but now, if I’m in an earthquake prone city, I do notice what a building’s made of and decide how long I want to spend inside it. Christchurch is now raising and beginning to look very beautiful and with so much consideration going into making it safe; I would move there again tomorrow. We love New Zealand as much as we did on our first day.