Some likened it to a tornado, or an oncoming train; others remember registering not much more than a rumble before the roof caved in. At 12.51pm on Tuesday, 22 February 2011, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck the New Zealand city of Christchurch. In the devastation, 185 people died, and an entire city was scarred.
Ten years on, Christchurch remains forever changed. Though new layers to survivors’ trauma are still being revealed, in amongst them lies faith in other people, hope for the future – and astonishing resilience.
Every year on 22 February, Amy Cooney starts the day by replaying her memories of the most traumatic day of her life. “It was like a movie in my head for so long – I was disconnected to it,” she says. “It’s a good reminder to keep it real.”
Sat at the new rooftop bar where she works, a few hours before opening, 41-year-old Amy has the unflappable toughness and humour of a hospitality lifer (not to mention, a mother of four).
In 2011, she was assistant manager at Iconic on Gloucester St – and that Tuesday was her first day working with her baby brother “JimJam” on the bar.
Despite their 10-year age gap, Amy and Jaime Gilbert – then 22 – were close. She was there for the birth of his first of two children; he was the “fun uncle” to hers (then four, eight and 12 – her fourth was born two years ago). Their families lived a block from each other.
At 12.51pm, Iconic was quiet; Amy and Jaime were facing each other on either side of the bar. Then she heard what sounded like an oncoming train – and saw bottles behind Jaime moving on the shelves. “I remember looking at him with terror in my eyes, going ‘Shit – we need to get out’.”
They made a bolt for the door, across ground that was moving “like jelly.” Outside, buildings were collapsing into the street around them. Jaime, running behind Amy, reached out his arm to shield her as they were both covered by rubble.
Amy was knocked unconscious. “I slowly woke up, smelling all the limestone and the dust… I was in a Z-shape, pancaked down.”
In the darkness, she could feel Jaime’s hand not far from hers. “Then the realisation hit me – that he had actually passed…
“He was saying, ‘I can’t go now, I’ve got Nat and the kids’. And I was like, ‘mate, if it’s your time to go, you can’t argue… I’ll make sure they’re all right.
“I’d kind of strangely made peace with it before I even got out of the rubble.”
Help came within 10 minutes. Amy was hauled to safety, but refused to leave without Jaime.
They were taken to hospital in the back of an electricians’ van, Amy sitting cross-legged with Jaime’s body across hers. “I just sang to him, all the way,” she says – an Arabic prayer they had learned as children, growing up in the Baháʼí faith.
Jaime was buried with his grandfather’s ashes at a peaceful Māori burial ground, overlooking a lake. “It was really important to the family that he was not in the city.”
It took Amy time to forgive herself for leading him outside. “If I was going to run, he was running with me… There was the trauma of being in the earthquake, and the grief of losing my brother.”
That September, Amy was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Determined to come to terms with her loss, for 18 months she saw a team of psychologists and doctors.
“That moment in time – literally only 30 seconds of an earthquake – it just gets stuck in you… I needed to deal with it, then start rebuilding my life.”
One of her first steps was to seek permission to enter the cordoned-off inner city and return to the bar. Escorted by authorities, she was able to take 12 steps inside – enough to retrieve Jaime’s belongings.
“It was horrible and confronting, but it was also healing… It was important for me to realise that it was just a building.”
For a long time Amy wanted to leave Christchurch, and join her mother and brother in Brisbane – she and her husband even put their house up for sale. But as the move drew closer, it felt wrong, says Amy – “like running away.”
Her husband is a builder: “Part of his healing was to fix the city.” But Amy realised that she wanted to be a part of that, too. “That was the point I committed to Christchurch… and weaving my recovery story into the rebuild.”
Now Amy loves the city in a way she never did before. She likens it to the Māori concept of kotahitanga, of feeling connected and acting collectively. Jaime, too, still feels “just as close.”
For Amy, learning to live with the earthquake and the loss of her brother has meant keeping the memories of both alive. “It’s so easy to get stuck on the loss… but the more you can remember the good times, the easier it is when you have the dark times.”
“I could talk for a month,” says Maan Alkaisi, 70, asked about the earthquake.
We are in an empty tutorial room in one of the middle floors of the University of Canterbury’s engineering faculty, where Maan is a professor. It was not far from here that he was eating lunch that day in February 2011, with two engineers visiting from Germany.
Maan showed them how to dive under the table when the shaking started. Then he went to call his wife of 35 years.
Maan and Maysoon had met as 20-year-old students in Baghdad, locked in friendly competition over whose discipline was harder. Their ambitions led to the UK for postgraduate study, then back to Iraq to start their careers.
When war broke out, they decided to emigrate with their three young daughters, eventually settling in Christchurch in 1995.
The moves made their bond “even stronger”, says Maan. He speaks slowly, with an academic’s care, reflected in his neatly tucked shirt and trimmed moustache.
“We were really very close… She was beautiful, strong, determined – I learned a lot from her.”
That day in 2011 Dr Maysoon Abbas, 61, had been seeing patients in the Canterbury Television (CTV) headquarters in the central city. Her clinic had moved there from its Gloucester St premises just 500m away after that building was damaged in earthquakes in 2010.
It withstood 22 February. The CTV Building, deemed safe, collapsed – only its lift shaft remained standing.
When Maysoon’s phone went unanswered, Maan had gone across the city to Madras St. “I just saw smoke, fire, rubble. I immediately said, ‘Maysoon doesn’t deserve that’… It was one of the most difficult days.”
As well as The Clinic and CTV, the building housed an English language school and a not-for-profit counselling agency. A total of 115 people, the majority of the earthquake’s victim’s, died there.
Both a royal commission and a three-year police inquiry found “significant deficiencies” in the building design, and manslaughter charges were considered for the engineers responsible, David Harding and Alan Reay.
But, in 2017, the Deputy Solicitor-General advised against proceeding – in part because of the low chance of securing a conviction.
Maan says that arguments rests on “excuses”, to the exclusion of evidence of negligence. For the last 10 years, he has been pushing for justice as part of the CTV Families Group, representing relatives of some 50 victims, including many in Japan.
“The best way to honour those people we lost is making sure that we learn from this experience… This story will only end when justice is done.”
In recent years Maan has met with the prime minister Jacinda Ardern, the justice minister and the attorney-general to push for a trial. “When you lose somebody so close to you, you become braver,” he says. “I’m afraid of almost nothing now.”
His daughters – now 30, 34 and 40, with two engineers among them – and three granddaughters have helped him through. Maysoon was “the glue of the family”, Maan says; after she died, “we became even closer.”
Since meeting with barriers within New Zealand’s legal system, Maan now intends to take his case to the United Nations. Even if it proves futile, he says, “I will die happy about what I did… People who make changes for the better are always the fighters.”
His wife’s memory spurs him on. “I always say that if Maysoon was here, and it happened to me – she would have solved it.”
“When you put yourself back there, it’s still just as raw,” says Summer Olliver, 33, bouncing her baby girl in their sun-drenched home in suburban Christchurch.
The 22 February 2011 was three days after Summer’s 23rd birthday. She was working as an administrator on the second floor of the Pyne Gould Corporation building on Cambridge Terrace.
She had just stood up to go to lunch when the shaking started. She dove under her desk. “It felt like the building just dropped with me, it was that quick.”
In the pitch-black, Summer was pinned by a concrete beam across her back. She was there for four to six hours, amidst continual aftershocks. “It was just torture.”
Outside she could hear applause every time someone was freed from the building. Ten of Summer’s colleagues had died, as well as her aunt, who worked on an upper floor.
Eventually rescuers appeared through a small manhole, cut in the concrete above her. A fireman managed to heave the beam just high enough for Summer to be dragged out. “That was when the pain was at its worst… I’d been crushed.”
Summer was taken by plane to Wellington, where she spent five weeks on dialysis for kidney failure. Her heart was so weak, she was prevented from watching the news – and her pelvis was broken.
“Doctors said to me ‘you’ll never walk again’,” says Summer. “I was like – you haven’t even let me try.”
Back in Christchurch, she spent some four months in hospital doing just that: “The start was just getting my legs off the bed.” But by 2011’s end, Summer had returned to work – even as rehab was ongoing.
Managing her chronic pain took daily gym visits, consulting with a psychologist and five years on morphine. Changing drugs would take her out of action for days.
“It just completely consumes you. At some point I found my identity was ‘I was in an earthquake’… It’s important to find out who you are again – even though it definitely won’t be the same as who you were before.”
Buying her own home, in 2012, helped Summer to reclaim her independence. In 2018 she married her husband, whom she met through church; she is now the mother of two children, a 2-year-old and a 10-month-old.
“Life carries on,” says Summer. Flare-ups of pain are a reminder of the quake, as are other disasters – the 2019 volcanic eruption on Whakaari was too painful for her to watch.
But it is matched by an appreciation for daily life, she says. “Even just going for a walk in the park with my husband and kids, I’m like – ‘this is bliss’.”
For Summer, the 10-year anniversary is not so much an occasion for sadness, but reflection – even pride. “It’s more of a look back to see how far I’ve come… ‘Look what you can achieve’.
“I can’t put it down to luck, because I’ve worked so hard – but it’s pretty awesome to see that I can come through that. I’ll never get over it – but it’s good to be able to start moving forward.”
Emma and Chris Greenslade were the only good news story to emerge from the quake. Their wedding, three days after Emma was pulled from the rubble, was celebrated internationally as a fairytale.
Emma had been working on the third floor of the PGC building. There wasn’t time to make it under her desk: “It was like a Tupperware lid made of concrete fell down.”
Trapped by the rubble in an upright foetal position, Emma was able to reach her digital camera – an early wedding present from Chris – and took photos to see around her.
Chris faced an agonising wait outside, having run the 2km between their offices to find Emma’s building flattened. “I knew where they sat,” he says grimly. “I didn’t see how anyone could survive that.”
But six hours later, Emma was freed – miraculously unharmed.
The only disruption to their wedding plans was that Chris had to borrow a suit: his hired one was inside the redzone.
Their wedding service was mobbed by the media, understandably eager for a “good story to cling to”, says Chris. But the chaos of the city could not be contained.
As Emma pulled up at the church in a white Jaguar, a tank was rolling past. Across the road police were briefing victims’ families – just visible in one of their wedding photos.
“Joy and agony in one street,” concluded one report at the time.
The coverage led to a whirlwind trip to New York for an interview, within a week of the quake; and letters from around the world – one including a dollar bill to go towards a cake. Emma kept them all in a scrapbook.
But as she leafs through it with Chris, sitting in the front room of their home in a sprawling satellite town outside Christchurch, it is clear that even the good memories are fraught.
During their wedding – “and for a very long time” afterwards, Emma says – they were “just running on adrenaline… I remember thinking ‘Why are we getting all this attention? We’re okay’.”
Not even their home was damaged. They struggled with survivors’ guilt for years, says Chris: “It was just too good to be true.”
For Emma, their lucky escape from the earthquake meant she was slow to reckon with its emotional toll. “I’ve been in fight or flight for years.”
It took her until 2018 to summon the words to thank Steve, the fireman who rescued her from the rubble. “How do you say thank you to somebody who saved your life?”
That same year Emma was diagnosed with PTSD. She recently started taking medication for anxiety. “Going on it just made me realise how hard things were for me before.”
Chris says he has come to terms with his relatively privileged position within Christchurch’s “traumademic.” “You spend a lot of time trying to rationalise it, going ‘You were lucky to survive’ – but you were unlucky to be there in the first place.”
His attitude is a ballast for Emma, more inclined to worry about what could have been. “If the building had rocked the other way, I would have been dead and others would still be alive.”
Beijing-born Quin Qing Tang, 58, used to feel like a visitor to Christchurch, though she had lived there for decades. It took an earthquake to give her roots.
We meet at Latimer Square, an inner-city park a block from the CTV building. In 2011 Quin was working on the top floor, as a counsellor at the non-profit Relationships Services.
That Tuesday, she and some 12 colleagues were in training; the guest speaker had brought her baby. One moment Quin registered the room shaking – the next, she was struggling to breathe for the dust. “Everything was very fast, just like a movie.”
The six-storey building came down so straight, a car parked against it was barely scratched. Eyewitnesses later told of the top floor dropping to the ground as a whole, intact.
Quin, 58, remembers being struck by the hot-pink insulation material, unexpectedly exposed – and, in front of her, the speaker’s baby. Calls went up from Quin and her trapped colleagues: “Baby here.”
Nearby workmen quickly came to their rescue, clearing the rubble from above. Astonishingly, of the tens of people on the sixth floor, only one had perished – Quin’s colleague. “We didn’t know until many days later,” she says.
When Quin was helped out the top of the piled concrete, she was operating on instincts alone. “I told myself: don’t think, just walk – as much as I could. I heard people screaming – there was a fire inside the building.”
For some two hours Quin wandered Latimer Square – where a makeshift triage centre had been set up – in a daze. Only then did it dawn on her that there had been an earthquake. “Suddenly I realised: I’ve got to go home.”
It was about a 3km walk to her suburb. “The road was like a broken cookie.”
Quin’s youngest daughter, then 18, was stunned to see her arrive home. Her older sister, 20, had seen the CTV building and said their mother had died. “She said ‘Mum, are you alive?’ We hugged each other, cried… That is a very surreal experience.”
The next day, Quin submitted her masters thesis as planned. It was only then that she felt safe, she says – testament to her internal confusion. “One part of the brain did not talk to the others… That connecting takes a long time. It’s like traffic lights: sometimes go, sometimes slow, sometimes stop.”
Having only twisted her wrist, Quin returned to work a few weeks after the quake – and began healing alongside her patients. “We met very much human to human: ‘Are you alive, are you okay?’… We could be together in the process.”
The experience restored Quin’s faith in humanity. When she was three years old, during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, Quin’s mother was killed. “In the earthquake, I thought that if I died, nobody would notice… because when Mum died we weren’t allowed to talk about it. It was as if it didn’t happen.”
In Christchurch, people helped each other in big and small ways – from saving lives, to leaving baking. It was a “humbling experience,” says Quin, repeated after the mosque attack in March 2019: “I just trust Christchurch people… We have that hope – that we can be there for each other, and we care.”
She had arrived in New Zealand in 1988 with her now ex-husband, speaking no English, with no connection to the city. “I felt like a visitor… but after the earthquake, I feel this is my home. Now I really understand what that means.”
On the tenth anniversary Quin will return to Latimer Square for a picnic with her former colleagues.
Along with her garden – where she sat every day after the earthquake, grounding herself – the park is one of many sites in Christchurch to have taken on special, even spiritual significance for her.
“Now,” says Quin, somewhat in wonder, “only this place feels safe.”
Some 10,000 people are believed to have left Christchurch for good after the earthquake. “For Ngāi Tahu people, whose ancestral bones are in this land… you put up with it,” says Puamiria Parata-Goodall, 51. “But the advantage of that is we have a strong community.”
We are seated at Puamiria’s dining table, a plate of food set out before us, in her welcoming hillside home. This became the tribe’s headquarters through those weeks of chaos.
In 2011 Puamiria and her husband were both working for Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, the governance entity of the iwi. At the time of the earthquake she was at an inner-city food court with her cousins, with whom she worked.
As one side of the building collapsed, they escaped through the other onto Manchester Street. The dust, screams and falling masonry resembled a war zone, says Puamiria. “Scaffolding’s coming down, buildings – you can see people pulling through rubble because they can see someone’s under it… You see the leaders start to emerge.”
The ground giving way underfoot, Puamiria was guided to Latimer Square, where roll calls were being taken and walking buses organised to different suburbs.
Puamiria and her husband flagged down a lift to their son’s primary school in Cashmere. He was safe, but from the top of the hill, they could see the city covered in a shroud of dust. “Clouds would keep popping as another building went down.”
Back at Puamiria’s home, the tribe leapt into action: contacting those who were unaccounted for, organising for children and elders to leave the city, and coordinating support from other iwi.
All 18 of Ngāi Tahu’s meeting houses across the South Island were opened up to shelter those in need – as well as the medical crews, of up to 100 strong, sent by North Island tribes.
“We know how to mobilise as iwi – this was the real big test,” says Puamiria. That core group of about 30 worked nonstop for six weeks, to the brink of exhaustion, before the tribe stepped in.
Puamiria was sent to recuperate with family in Gisborne. “Sitting on the plane, I started crying – and that was me done.” She bursts out laughing. “I was a complete and utter wreck for three days.”
Only 10 days after the earthquake, Puamiria had to return to the cordoned-off centre to represent Ngāi Tahu at a government memorial service. It felt uncomfortably soon, she says. “I remember thinking, ‘the rocking hasn’t stopped – why are we doing this?’…
“It took years afterwards to start dealing with trauma because there was work to be done – for a number of us, our life is our service to our people.”
Ngāti Porou, a Gisborne iwi, raised $100,000 for the recovery effort. “That would have been, literally, the shirt off their back,” says Puamiria, “and yet they gave it to us here in Christchurch.”
Four years later, Ngāi Tahu asked to host the national kapa haka competition – Te Matatini, the largest Māori gathering in the country – to say thanks. “That was the basis of our bid: we will look after you… because you looked after us.
“Every time there’s an opportunity to say thank you – it doesn’t matter if it’s 10 years later.” The anniversary is also a time to reflect, says Puamiria (as well as “have a wee cry”).
In 2011 Christchurch’s Māori identity was less prominent than that of an English “garden city”. After the quake, the government recognised the central importance of Ngāi Tahu to the recovery.
That is reflected in the new Ōtautahi, says Puamiria, with Māori language, art and stories across the rebuilt city. She now works as a consultant, writing cultural narratives for projects in the Christchurch area that recognises its pre-European history and lays the foundation for a more balanced future.
That work is a direct consequence of the earthquake, Puamiria says. “We sit as an equal at the table – we would never have had that opportunity if our city had not been so badly broken…
“We have far more influence now than we have ever had, and we are actively involved in the development of our own city: we are back on our own landscape.”