Southerly by David Haywood

A moment of silence. Then a wail of sirens.

The first jolt knocked me off my feet. A desktop computer landed near my head and exploded into parts. Every piece of furniture was moving. A heavy wardrobe thudded onto the floor beside me. The desk upended itself; my filing cabinet toppled over and blocked the doorway. In the kitchen I could hear crockery shattering, and books tumbling from shelves in the sitting room.

I discovered the impossibility of taking useful action during a strong earthquake; the only option is simply to endure. Time slows down. After the shaking stopped, there was a moment of silence. Then a wail of ambulance sirens.

I shoved the filing cabinet out of the way, struggled to open the jammed study door, sprinted outside. White with dust, my three-year-old son was emerging from under the floorboards where he had been hiding, in a bid to avoid attending kindergarten. He asked unsteadily: "What happened, Daddy?"

The world had been transformed. A slurry of sand and water was fountaining from fissures in the road. Our lawn had been torn apart by giant five-metre-deep cracks; one of the cracks ran right through our home -- breaking it into two separate halves. The foundations beneath the rear half of the house had collapsed; the verandah hung in tatters like a broken umbrella. In the kitchen every plate, cup, and dish was broken. A solitary picture remained on the walls of our hall, tilted at a crazy angle.

My wife emerged from the back garden clutching our three-week-old daughter. Later we discovered a mound of fallen books in the sitting room -- engulfing the crib where she usually sleeps.

We live on the banks of the Avon River. As my wife and I stood on the front lawn, uncertain of what to do next, a huge aftershock struck. Trees and telephone poles swayed like drunken men; the river gathered itself into a wave and surged across the towpath. On the opposite bank, the road suddenly collapsed beneath a car, opening up a giant sink-hole. A man crawled out of a window, checked the car, swore.

A woman was screaming nearby. On the footpath I discovered our neighbour -- streams of mascara running down her cheeks. A chimney had fallen through the ceiling of the room where she was having lunch with her elderly father.

"It's my birthday today," she sobbed, "my house has been destroyed." Along the street other shell-shocked neighbours were emerging.

A procession of city workers began to trickle down the footpath. Their suits and dresses were torn and dusty; the hems of their clothes wet with mud. Soon there was a continuous stream of bedraggled escapees making their way homeward on foot. Some were weeping. Others spoke to us of impassable roads, buildings destroyed, bodies lying beneath ruins.

This morning our family had a house; tonight -- as with many other Christchurch families -- we live in a tent. But elsewhere in the city there are those whose loved ones will never return home. As I write, the radio informs me that hundreds still lie buried in the rubble. 

Thus we must count ourselves among the lucky; it could so very easily have been otherwise.

Note: an edited version of this account appeared in the Guardian on 22nd February 2010.