By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 04/09/2020


On the third of September, 2010, I – like many Cantabrians – went to sleep safe in the assumption that Christchurch ‘didn’t have earthquakes’.

It was something I took quiet reassurance in: growing up in the Wellington region, where earthquake drills and talk of ‘the Big One’ were omnipresent, it was something of a novelty to live somewhere with “no quakes”.

Of course, you know how this story goes.

Along with the rest of the city, I woke up at 4.35am to the most intense shaking I’ve experienced. I watched my cat dart under the bed and all my Wellingtonian training kicked into action. “Get up and get to the doorway,” I thought: well, that’s easier said than done when a magnitude 7.1 earthquake is in full flight.

Rather, I crawled to the doorway and wedged myself in: back against one side of the frame, hands and feet braced on the other. It still wasn’t enough – I was being thrown out of the doorway as I watched books fly off shelves in the dark.

The shaking continued for some 40 seconds, though it felt like minutes. Hours.

Even as the world shook, my heart flew to Wellington – “this must be it,” I thought. And if it was that bad in Christchurch then, well … I couldn’t imagine Wellington would still be standing. It wasn’t until the texts from my family started coming back – saying it was my message that had woken them up but maybe they’d felt a bit of a shake – that I realised.

And in the daylight we found out the truth.

I was incredibly fortunate. We were incredibly fortunate.

Yes, that morning in the dark was awful, terrifying, traumatising – but we were okay. It was shocking to see the city so trashed, but “at least there were no deaths,” we told each other. “At least it was the middle of the night, and not during a busy work day.”

Of course, you know how this story goes.

The years went by and I was back living in the Hutt Valley in mid-November 2016 when the Kaikōura earthquake hit at 12.02am. I lent to the bottom of my bed, swept up my cat (a different one, by now) and cradled her in my arms. I was living with my mum at the time and we made our way across the house to each other – the power had gone out, I couldn’t figure out how to turn the torch on, and as my trembling knees gave out I slid down the wall until I was sitting on the floor sobbing, still cradling the bewildered cat. Meanwhile the other cat – the earthquake-worn one – rushed off to hide under Mum’s bed. Earthquake drills are handy.

Even now, a rumble in the dark, the roll of thunder, will wake me up in a panic – heart racing, eyes darting for the unseen danger. A sense of safety is lost when you are startled from sleep like that. I don’t know that it will ever come back.

There was so much else that happened to Christchurch, but for me it is that dark morning ten years ago that shook me to my core. And I think it’s important that we remember that – that we acknowledge the trauma began long before February 2011, and has continued long after. That we be gentle with ourselves and each other when there are bumps in the night.