‘It wasn’t an intruder, it was an earthquake’: How it felt when the NZ quake hit

Part of the destruction caused by the earthquake. Photo: Iain McGregor/Fairfax NZ Sydney Morning Herald journalist Saimi Jeong.
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The door was rattling in my Christchurch hotel room. As it became more violent, I bolted upright, expecting an intruder.

The rattling turned into a rumble as the floor shook. It was only when I flicked on my beside light that I realised what was happening: lamp and curtains shaking, glasses and water bottle trembling on the table; it was the unmistakeable scene of an earthquake – straight out of the movies.

At first, I stayed in bed, waiting for it to pass. When it didn’t – and it could have been half a minute, but that’s a long time when the very earth itself is shaking – I slipped out from under the covers and carefully pulled on a shirt and shorts, in case we needed to evacuate. Unsure of what to do next, and with the tremor still going, I slipped back into bed. I imagined myself being pulled out of the rubble in the morning by figures in dusty body suits and hard hats.

After the first quake ended, I tiptoed across the floor in the new knowledge that nothing was as solid as it seemed, and poked my head out into the corridor.

Other heads were poking out, too. One of them, at the far end, was accompanied by a hand, waving gently at me as if to say: “Hey, we’re alive, isn’t that funny?”

I smiled and returned the wave. Another door creaked open and a hulking man with a shaved head emerged, walking down the corridor, my way. I waited, eager for more of an exchange than silent hand gestures.

“That was a long tremor,” he said as he walked past.

“Ye-e-e-eah,” I half laughed. He was already too far away for anything more to be said.

Unsatisfied, and with a post-rollercoaster-ride feeling in my stomach that was part adrenalin, part motion sickness, I grabbed my phone and texted: “Did you feel that tremor??” to a blogger from Australia in the room next door.

“Hell yeah. Just keeps going!” he texted back.

The room shook again every few minutes, then every 10 or so, and, again, hours later, by which time the shocks had lessened in severity and I had gained in confidence: What, this again?

To reach this level of cool, I had quickly Googled “what to do in an earthquake”.

In the stillness between shocks, I prepared according to the New Zealand government website Get Thru.

I swept my laptop and charger off the desk, then dragged it away from the outer wall of the hotel, positioning it so it wasn’t too close to the TV on the other side.

I pushed the chair away for unobstructed access and practised crouching under the desk, holding on to its edges. I tried another position: one hand on an edge and one clutching a table leg.

An hour and a half after the first tremor, I was feeling pretty self-assured.

Then the tsunami warning was sent around. I didn’t sleep for another two hours.

Saimi Jeong is a Sydney Morning Herald journalist.

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