Four part series published beginning February 27, 2019, Siskiyou Daily News
Eight years ago, six of us decided to go on a month-long New Zealand driving adventure. Our travel group consisted of my wife Ann and I, and our friends Dave and Kaye Caulkins and Steve and Kris Howard. At that time the Howards and Caulkins were living in Eagle Point, Oregon. (Dave and Kaye were formerly residents of Yreka for years, and are no doubt known to many reading this. Kaye worked for Human Services. Dave, an accountant, was on the Yreka City Council and Mayor.)
We spent many evenings planning the trip, dividing the responsibilities of scheduling details such as route planning, air travel, accommodations, and vehicle rental. Ann’s responsibility included booking our stay at the Grand Chancellor Hotel in Christchurch, a fact that will become more significant later in this story. The Grand Chancellor, Christchurch’s tallest building, was our first stop after about twenty-four hours of flying across the Pacific Ocean.
We arrived at the Christchurch Airport at about 8:30 a.m. the morning of February 22, 2011, NZ time. It was actually 11:30 a.m., February 21, Pacific time. Crossing the International Date Line (as well as the equator) meant for us that a day simply disappeared. Poof! We rode a Super Shuttle to the Central Business District (CBD), arriving at the Grand Chancellor around 9:30 a.m. Our rooms weren’t ready so we left our luggage with the front desk to explore the CBD. I had developed an eye infection on the airplane, and set off to find a chemist (pharmacist) for an antibiotic. The other five members of our group explored one of the world’s most quaint and pristine neighborhoods. They walked down Cashel Street to Oxford Terrace, along the Avon River to Worcestershire Street and to Cathedral Square and to the i-SITE Visitor Centre. They made 6:30 dinner reservations at a restaurant called Sticky Fingers, and on the way back to the hotel had lunch at the Tap Room. Little did they know that this scenic area would cease to exist in less than three hours.
We returned to the hotel around noon. Our rooms were ready, and we picked up our luggage and took the elevator upstairs. Dave and Kaye were on the 24th floor and Ann and I and the Howards had rooms on the 23rd. Ann and I began leisurely unpacking our suitcases. On the dresser there was a “Pardon Our Dust” notice from the hotel. There had been a moderate earthquake in September that caused minor damage to the hotel, and there were workmen on the premises doing repair work. The notice assured the guests that the hotel building was state-of-the-art, and, don’t worry, earthquakes are nothing to be concerned about. In retrospect, one of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t grab that notice as a souvenir.
At 12:51 p.m. it happened. It started with a very loud noise. Then there was violent shaking and the room began swaying back and forth. I was sprawled on the bed and Ann was still putting stuff in drawers. Ann was thrown to the floor and I was rolled out of the bed and onto the floor. Neither of us could get off the floor. We were on hands and knees, clawing our way toward the door to the hall way. The room swayed back and forth, several feet each way. For every two steps forward, there was one step back. We were gradually making progress. In the meantime, fixtures were falling from the ceiling and flying around, and broken glass was everywhere. The hotel fire siren was blaring, by now superfluous, but adding to the terror.
We finally made it to the hallway door, and had to force it open. A few people were gathered in the hall, including Steve and Kris, a few other guests, and some female Philippine housekeeping employees. There was no sign of Dave and Kaye. There was no apparent way to get out of the hotel, or for that matter, out of the 23rd floor hallway. The elevators were disabled. There were two interior stairwells, side by side. One was entirely gone, having pancaked all the way to the bottom. The other was still intact, hanging on by a thread, but passage was blocked by timbers and other debris that had fallen across it. The hotel was tilting, and we couldn’t get out!
Eventually Dave and Kaye and a few other people managed to make it to our floor from above. Some young workmen who had been working upstairs joined the group. A couple of them had been on a scaffold when the quake hit! These were strong young guys wearing work boots. Many of the hotel room doors along the hallway were jammed shut. Behind one door we heard a woman moaning and a child crying. The guys with boots kicked open every door along the hallway, including the one with the woman and child.
The earth did not stop shaking after the first jolt. The initial 12:51 p.m. quake was of a magnitude 6.343. That was followed at 1:04 p.m. by a magnitude 5.845 aftershock, and then at 2:50 p.m. by one of magnitude 5.91. Between the first and last of those three, there were another 22 aftershocks of more than magnitude four. With each large aftershock, our hotel building tilted a little more. In the 24 hours after the initial quake, there were 46 aftershocks of at least magnitude four. The Richter Scale numbers weren’t exceptionally high, but what made these earthquakes so devastating was that the epicenter was very shallow, and located underneath the Central Business District. Most buildings in Christchurch’s CBD were old, built well before earthquake standards were applied to new construction.
In retrospect, I am happily surprised at how calm and cool-headed our group of six remained through this ordeal. Especially me, as I’m definitely not the hero that would tackle an airplane hijacker. The housekeeping ladies were frightened to death, and would scream and cry with each major aftershock. I remember one of those aftershocks where I had my arms around three of them, all of us huddled under the framing of a doorway.
Among the people who had gathered in the hallway was a man named Steve Phillips, Maintenance Manager of the hotel. He immediately assumed a leadership role and made it his mission to get everyone out of the hotel safely. The electrical power was gone, except for the infernal fire siren, and the air inside the hotel was becoming increasingly hot and stifling. At his direction, windows were broken to allow ventilation, and to try and communicate with people at ground level, letting them know we were stranded. That worked on both counts. Someone below spray painted on the ground, “Help is on the way.” Steve Phillips and the workmen also figured a way to disconnect the damn siren, which was accomplishing nothing except to add to the terror.
I was consumed by three specific fears. One was the fear of fire. We have all seen news stories of people jumping from skyscrapers to escape fire. After one of the large aftershocks, out the window we saw a rising black column that looked like smoke. It turned out it wasn’t smoke, but dirt and dust that had been released upward when a neighboring building collapsed. Small consolation. My second fear was the thought of possibly being buried alive under a pile of rubble. The third fear was the prospect of having to descend 23 floors down a ladder. Or worse. Steve Phillips had already begun tying bed sheets together to fashion a rope.
To steady my nerves, I stole a beer from a mini-bar in one of the rooms. I figured I could settle up later.
After a few hours on the 23rd floor, Steve Phillips and the workmen began to assess whether it was possible to safely get at least a few levels lower using the one staircase that was still hanging by a thread. We decided to go for it. We didn’t want to be encumbered by bags or suitcases, so we gathered all the essentials we could think of, and crammed them into our pockets. Money, meds, and passports were about it. Everything else, including luggage, cameras, computers, iPads, and clothes were left in what we later lovingly referred to as “the basement.” I realized too late that I forgot my prescription eyeglasses.
Two by two, we proceeded down the staircase, one level at a time, praying that a major aftershock wouldn’t deal a final blow. The construction guys lifted and moved timbers and debris, enabling us to go around or crawl underneath. Progress was slow but we made it to the 14th floor, adding additional people as we descended through lower floors. There were 28 people when we arrived at the 14th floor. Breaking a window, we were able to climb out onto the roof of the adjacent parking garage. The transition pointed out clearly how far the hotel was listing. Although we weren’t out of the woods, it felt much better on the rooftop, not inside that damned hotel. The aftershocks continued, so we stayed clear of the edge.
A helicopter landed on the roof, but only stayed a few minutes and took off. This was disconcerting, but soon a construction crane positioned itself down below on Cashel Street, and sent its bucket up to us, landing on our roof. Ten at a time, we rode the crane fourteen stories down to Cashel Street. One of the housekeeping ladies had a bible in her hand (probably “borrowed” from a bedside table in one of the rooms), and kissed the ground. I can’t adequately describe the exhilaration of being on the ground.
Civil defense people loaded us into cars and hustled us to Hagley Park, a city park that had become an earthquake refugee camp. The park had previously been set up for a flower exhibition. There were a few chairs, tables, some pallets, and porta-potties, but by the time we got there the porta-potties were already overflowing. And it was starting to rain. We had no idea where we were, and thought we were probably going to spend the night there, sleeping on pallets.
But hotel maintenance manager Steve Phillips came through again. He was determined to take care of his guests. He said there was a hotel affiliated with the Grand Chancellor within walking distance, and maybe they could put us up for the night. He didn’t know for sure because all means of communications were disabled, but it seemed a better choice than spending the night in the rain on a pallet at Hagley Park. We walked a mile or so, through a golf course. It was during that walk that we started to notice sandy gunky stuff seeping up out of the earth. Liquefaction. We’d never heard that term before, but now know what it is. Liquefaction occurs when a saturated soil loses its strength and stiffness in response to an applied stress, such as an earthquake. Material that is normally solid behaves like a liquid. Although of interest, it was not a problem for us, because it wasn’t deep, and we could walk across it. It did become a problem in other areas, where it became so deep that it interfered with search and rescue, and had to be removed with bulldozers.
When we got to the other hotel, the situation didn’t look good, as the hotel guests were all seated outside in an open clearing. We went inside anyway, and were walking toward the reception desk when there was a loud “Boom!” and the ground shook again. The hotel security people quickly escorted us outside.
With Grand Chancellor Hotel Manager Steve Phillips in the lead, the six of us, plus a young couple from Germany, walked down the road. Phillips’ intent was to get us safely to his house, although his car would not have accommodated us all, and he wasn’t even sure it could be driven. There was a guy in a station wagon parked across the street, who called out, “Can I give you a ride somewhere?” We said, “Sure,” and, saying goodbye to Steve Phillips and the German couple, the six of us piled into his vehicle before he had a chance to change his mind.
His name was Bruce Anderson. He had driven to the Central Business District to drop off his daughter Teri, who was a member of the Urban Search and Rescue Team (USAR). The USAR had begun the difficult and dangerous task of searching for survivors in the rubble and debris even as the aftershocks continued. In the days ahead New Zealand’s USAR would be joined by similar teams from Australia, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, China, USA, and UK. It was eventually determined that 185 lives were lost due to the earthquake. The majority of the victims were killed when the Canterbury Television Building (CTV) collapsed and caught fire, but people died in other buildings as well. It was initially believed that there were bodies under the rubble of Christchurch’s iconic 136-year-old Anglican Cathedral, but that turned out not to be true.
Bruce Anderson realized after we all were inside his station wagon that we had no place to go. “Oh hell,” he said, “I’ll take you to my house.” He lived in a comfortable four-bedroom home far enough from the CBD that the earthquake damage had thus far been relatively minor. When we arrived, he had no electrical power or running water, but he had water in jugs, and a charcoal grill and sausages. And he also had alcoholic beverages, bless his heart. Even though we still had no idea where we would go tomorrow, our spirits rose considerably. Except for one especially loud and jolting aftershock around 5:00 a.m., we got a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, I called the rental car agency to see if we could pick up our vehicle a couple of days earlier than originally planned. The answer was, “No, and for that matter we can’t furnish you with a vehicle at all. All our cars are buried.” Bruce Anderson dropped us off at a school being used as a staging area to get stranded tourists shuttled to the airport. After a long wait, we started to board the bus and were told by the driver, “The airport is chock-a-block full. You can expect to be sitting in this bus for hours or days, and the only place you can fly to is Auckland.” We declined the bus ride and went back to the well, calling Bruce Anderson. He picked us up and found a small independent rental car agency which, miraculously, had a six-passenger van parked outside. We didn’t even ask the rental rate. We did the paper-work, and were on our way to Dunedin, a charming college town a few hours down the road, where we spent three nights and restocked some of the items that we left in “the basement.” After our false start in Christchurch, we were finally on our way to four weeks of exploring New Zealand, a great country with wonderful people.
Bruce Anderson, his wife Joanne, and his daughter have become our friends for life, a friendship arising from a deadly earthquake and a remarkable set of coincidences. Bruce’s retirement plans were derailed by the earthquake. He loved to fish, and had purchased an unimproved lot on the North Island with access to a boat dock. He intended to sell his Christchurch home and build a small cabin. Because of aftershocks, his Christchurch home became uninhabitable. Bruce, a mining accountant, delayed his retirement and took an accounting job in Siberia for a few years. After retiring the second time, he and Joanne built the small cabin as a residence for the two of them. With insurance proceeds from their destroyed home, he and Joanne bought a pickup and trailer (he calls it a “caravan”) in the USA, intending to visit every state. They now come over here every year, giving us all the opportunity to visit and reminisce our frightening earthquake experience.
As for the Grand Chancellor Hotel, fortunately it didn’t topple over, but the threat that it might impeded access to the CBD for many months.
An email received from hotel Maintenance Manager Steve Phillips more than a month after the initial quake pretty much tells the story: “I am so pleased you and your friends got home safely and that the rest of your trip was more pleasant …. We are in a temporary office (about nine of us) winding down the business and meeting with two companies from the States that are able to deconstruct the building as no one in New Zealand has the experience. It is getting a bit tense here with business owners protesting because they can’t get into their properties with buildings like the Hotel Grand Chancellor leaning dangerously. Personally, I am fine and my family is good although my trip to the States to see my grandson in July has been put on hold as I won’t have a job but hopefully something will turn up and I get there in the next year or two.”
As for us, we will never forget New Zealand, and will go back in a heartbeat, but maybe not to Christchurch. Eight months after the earthquake, all the belongings that we left in “the basement” were returned to us. After shoring up the underpinnings of the hotel with concrete, the deconstruction crew demolished the hotel from the top down, and when they got to the 23rd floor they retrieved our stuff.
Four weeks of driving through New Zealand was a catharsis for the six of us. We talked about our experience every day, successfully staving off PTSD. Of course, Ann was constantly hammered by the rest of us, telling her that when she selected the Grand Chancellor Hotel, “she didn’t know the difference between a city center and an epicenter.”