It could have been me

2011-02-25 00:00

I WAS at Burnside High School when the earthquake struck. Lunch was just coming to an end and I was heading down the stairs of one of the blocks with a friend. As we were descending to the bottom, the block started to shake slightly, but we carried on walking, not too bothered, thinking it was just another aftershock, as these have tended to happen often and unexpectedly since the September earthquake. But when it hadn't stopped after about 10 or 15 seconds, which seems like a long time when the world is literally moving beneath your feet, we both paused and looked at each other.

For a split second all I wanted to do was scream, grab hold of my friend, and succumb to panic, but I managed to stay calm and we both grabbed onto the railings that line the stairs on the side closest to us. It was nothing like the last earthquake. Instead of the building just shaking, this time it moved, literally moved from side to side with us just standing frozen there while it was happening, the noise of screaming coming from all around.

Since the earthquake was unexpected neither of us reacted like we should have. We just stood there for a while, then commented on the Year 9s (Grade 8s) screaming downstairs. We stood for a while longer, then suddenly remembered that we'd been told that it was especially unsafe to be on stairs during an earthquake. This in mind, and voiced by both of us, we moved down to the bottom of the stairs and stood there dumbly until the earthquake had mostly subsided and the ground was only moving faintly beneath our feet. The best way I can describe the fading of the earthquake is like when you're hit with a sudden dizzy spell, and the earth doesn't feel like it's where it's supposed to be beneath your feet, and you're pretty sure you'll topple over any second because it's so unsteady. Only it's not in your head, the ground is actually moving.

Just as it was stopping our 10-minute warning bell, which sounds every lunch time, went, and most pupils treated this like the emergency bell signal, and immediately headed out onto the upper fields. As Burnside is such a large school (2 700 children) it is divided up into divisions, North, South, West and Senior, and we each have our own emergency meeting places, all in various positions along the field.

Just after I had managed to find my teacher there was the first aftershock. Immediately pupils reached out to each other in shock, some hugging each other for support. Again there were screams, mostly from the younger pupils. I was still reasonably calm at this point and looked around. As I did, I observed a large group of teachers, who had been huddled on the grass outside the classroom with radios and the like trying to figure out a plan to make sense of the chaos, immediately move hurriedly away from the block and the large trees growing next to it, which were again swaying alarmingly.

As soon as this aftershock was over teachers began to move us further out onto the field. Up until then we had been reasonably close to both the blocks and the tall trees, and this was a worry, in case something collapsed. A lot of people were also frantically trying to contact family, especially those with family in the centre of town, as instinctively we all knew that that would be the place most hard-hit. Texts could be sent, but phoning wasn't working on any of the networks as far as I know, so a lot of people were very worried that they could not contact their families. This panic was exacerbated as people were still able to access the Internet on their phones and went onto Geonet (a site where they put up recent earthquakes and aftershocks, saying how big they were) and soon the news was flying around that it was a 6,3 on the Richter scale and only five kilometres deep, which we all knew meant it would be very bad.

Amazingly no one was hurt, surprising in a school of so many pupils, although I put this down partly to the fact that most pupils were outside because it was lunch. Had the earthquake occurred 15 or 20 minutes later, I have no doubt that I and many more would have been injured as we all would have been in class by then.

Upon arriving home I was greatly relieved to find my house in one piece, although one bookshelf had fallen over and my room was a complete mess, as things had fallen off shelves and half the water in the fish tank was gone. Once I had made sure that my fish were alright, I posted a status on Facebook saying that I was okay and had a quick look for my cat. I retired underneath the kitchen table with my laptop, a pile of DVDs, my cellphone and my pillows and a blanket.

No one died in the September earthquake, which was one of the many reasons I was much less affected by every­thing, including the aftershocks. However, it just made this earthquake all the more shocking, traumatising and horrific. Even though no one I know has died, or is trapped or missing (at least to my knowledge), it still affects me. I cannot bear to watch the news and I refuse to look at pictures of the destruction. It terrifies me that that possibly could have been me, or a member of my family, or one of my friends. The aftershocks affect me a lot more this time round and I am unashamed to admit that while I'm at home I carry my teddy bear with me, clutching onto it for comfort whenever an aftershock hits. If one of my friends were here, or a member of my family close enough, I would cling to them instead.

Last night (Wednesday night), I slept underneath the kitchen table, on edge because the aftershocks were quite close to the time I was heading to bed. This morning my father said that one of the people at our church had contacted our head deacon, asking for help to clear the liquefaction from his house. Thankful for an opportunity to do something useful and to be around other people, I immediately asked to go with him, and spent my morning shovelling silt from his driveway and behind the house. It was a lot better than the way I spent Wednesday, huddled on the couch all day, trying to distract myself from the fear I was feeling.

After the September earthquake we slowly began to recover, putting books back on shelves, rebuilding and getting pipes reconnected. Mainly we all thought it was over, that we would continue having minor aftershocks for the predicted six months to a year and then our lives would go back to normal. But after this earthquake I'm not entirely sure what normal is anymore, or how to go back to it. How am I supposed to go back to school and carry on my life when I'm constantly afraid that there will be another quake, something that I now know is very possible?

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