A girl, an earthquake and how she survived it …
When I first posted this back in February 2016 I was unprepared for the flood of comments, shares and views that would result from it. People were obviously blown away by Monique’s courageous and terrifying experience during the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.
This year Monique is getting married and she is also competing for the title of Miss Viva Las Vegas 20 (to vote for her – click here, scroll past the “submissions closed” bit and click on her photo to vote.)
If you’ve read this before, read it again! If you haven’t read it, grab a coffee (or a wine!) and settle down and have a read. I think you’ll be both surprised and horrified. So here we go …
Anyone know what this is?
Well I’ll tell you … it’s a body tag.
And we can be incredibly grateful it is a green body tag. Because look who it belongs to:
Yep – it belongs to this incredibly vibrant and courageous woman, who I am proud to call my friend – Monique (pinup name: Miss Monique Sweet)
What many of you may not have known about Monique is that she is an earthquake survivor. In fact, she beat 50:50 odds and came out of the PGC Building on the 22nd of February, 2011 – ALIVE.
To commemorate the 5th anniversary of the Christchurch earthquake, Monique has agreed to tell her story. And let me tell you, it is harrowing. I challenge any of you who know Monique not to be a) horrified and b) in awe of her.
So … here is Monique’s earthquake survival story, in her own words. But before we start, I just wanted to show you this image of the building Monique was in when the earthquake happened.
Why hello there!
It took me a while to decide how I should approach this story … do I gloss over the hard stuff and spare people the gruesome details, or do I tell the REAL story – the one people might not want to hear?
I decided this story deserved 100% honesty – I have seen, heard and felt things you cannot even imagine in your worst nightmares and I don’t want to minimise that fact. Shocking? Yes. The cold, hard truth? Also, yes. Consider this your warning ….
To many people I am a confident, outgoing and bubbly individual, whose personality exudes passion for life. However, to honour and commemorate the 5th anniversary of the Christchurch Earthquake, I want to introduce people to Monique – the Earthquake Survior. I also want to celebrate how far I have come as a human being and to commemorate those who were unable to continue this journey with me over the past five years.
Four years ago – in the midst of Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) – I was not the person I am today. In fact, I remember a time when I sat on the side of the road, looking at oncoming traffic and willing myself to jump into it. Yip, that’s right – bubbly, confident me. And that wasn’t the only time either. But to explain all this, we have to go back further – to February the 22nd, 2011.
For me, that day began like any other – I woke up and had my usual self-debate; stockings, no stockings? Umbrella or no umbrella? At the time I was working at Perpetual Trustees, based on the 1st floor of the Pyne Gould Corporation Building at 233 Cambridge Terrace, Christchurch.
I lived at the top end of Manchester Street and didn’t own a car, so always had a lovely walk into work with my iPod – I often passed the odd hooker or two still working their corner! The walk to work that morning was just like any other morning of the four months I had lived in Christchurch (I moved into my flat the week after the September quake.)
At that time, I was on a health and fitness kick and had spent the hour before lunch debating whether or not to go for a run as I’d planned. If I’d gone, I would have left at 1pm, as per our usual running group time. However, it was raining and I was hungry – I distinctly remember looking at the clock on my computer and the time was 12.50. My mind (influenced by my growling stomach!) decided “aaaaaaaah, screw it!” So I got my lunch out of my bag, left my desk and walked the 5 – 10 metres to the cafeteria, where I said hello to Stacey, Lisa and Alec who were all eating, and placed my lunch in the microwave.
The earthquake hit …
As I pressed the button to heat my lunch, the microwave started making a funny noise. “What the hell is wrong with the microwave?” I thought.
And then the ground started to shake.
And in a short period of time – maybe 5-10 seconds, my life got shaken around and, quite frankly, turned upside down. I can now date my life as “pre-earthquake Monique” and “post-earthquake Monique” – but more about that later.
I tried to steady myself, as this particular shake started off like any other aftershock. But then the violence hit. I was thrown left; I was thrown right and the building started taking mountainous jumps. There was no time to think – my mind just went blank from utter confusion. I turned to the others, who had moved under the table. Of course I was still being thrown around – not really consciously realising what was happening – I mean what do you do when a massive earthquake hits and you’re in the middle of the room? Suddenly I saw it – the wall collapsed toward me and I threw myself at the table the others were under. I’m talking a Superman dive – if Superman was awkward and falling! Even with that Superman dive, though, I didn’t make it under the table. Instead, a door fell on me – that’s how quick everything came down.
In the next half-second, everything went pitch black and all you could hear was the rumbling of the earthquake and the shattering of glass, accompanied by the loud, dumping sound of things collapsing around you. I had something on my back – my legs were out straight – and the pressure on my back grew and grew with the shaking, until my head was a couple of centimetres from my knees. To this day, I have absolutely no recollection or understanding of how I came to be in that position – I had literally done a 180 degree turn to face the opposite way, with my legs flung out underneath me.
The shaking stopped and the realisation of what had just happened set in … and so did the panic.
Something was on top of me – it had cut through my merino top and was cutting into my back. It was HEAVY and that feeling is something I can still feel to this day. My head was basically on my knees – the pins and needles started running through my legs almost immediately and I was struggling to breathe.
The first thing my brain conveyed to the rest of my body was “you have to move – there will be an aftershock” – which was the only certainty I had at that time – hence the panic. How do you move, when you cannot move?
There were noises coming from other people and I could tell someone close to me was not ok.
It was pretty quickly established who was in our area. The “Cafeteria Four” had turned into the “Cafeteria Five” – Chris had started running as soon as the ground started shaking – he’d made it close to the cafeteria, but then a metal beam went into his foot.
My panic was instant – I HAD to move. I somehow had to get my legs out from underneath me – Lisa and Stacey said all I had to do was get out from where I was and I could join them. Fortunately, at this point I wasn’t hysterical – I had a job to do, and that job was to MOVE. The unfortunate part was that it was impossible for me to move either of my legs with the room I had. Thankfully, my legs went numb pretty quickly as I knew I would probably need to break one of my legs to get it out from under me.
The weird thing was there was no “should I?’ I just knew instantly and instinctively that I needed to move quick. So I told everyone what was about to happen, then moved my right leg underneath me, held back an outburst of tears as I grabbed my left leg with my left hand and held my knee with my right. And then I pulled it as hard as I could pull.
I did what I had to do, and fortunately, my leg didn’t actually break. Don’t get me wrong though – it’s taken a huge amount of work to get it back to the state it’s in today.
The relief when my legs came free was incredible. In fact, I would have happily broken both legs for that relief. The weight also lifted off my shoulder as I moved into the foetal position, thus regaining the feeling in my legs and the glorious ability to breathe freely, albeit in masses of dust.
I had survived the first two(ish) minutes after the earthquake.
But it didn’t end there …
Once I had grasped the horror of the situation and returned myself to reality a bit, I started talking to the people around me. We decided the roof must have collapsed inward and if we were in this position in a newish building, we would have to prepare ourselves for a long wait to be rescued.
Stacey had found her cellphone and we worked out there was a cellphone-sized gap between where she was and my foot. I needed to see where I was, but I was too afraid to move as I knew I didn’t have much space and I didn’t want to do anything that might reduce that space. This is where the long onslaught of sheer terror started.
The incredible relief that came with the opportunity to see where I was, quickly diminished when I realised my perilous situation. My legs were now underneath a chair and my head was inside half a recycle bin. But here’s the kicker … there was a giant concrete beam coming down across me and that beam was being held up by a chair. I shimmied my body two inches or so toward the chair. At this point my knees were in the foetal position, coming up to my face, because I’d had to move my body closer to my legs to get my body under the seat).
I placed my top leg into the gap in the drawers that had fallen onto a 45 degree angle. I also moved my head outside of the bin onto the side so I could try to get it under the chair.
At this point, I started the fun game we earthquake survivors like to call “which limb can I live without?” I had this theory that it was ok to lose my legs – I could live without those – I could even live without a portion of my back – but I needed to protect my internal organs and head. So if I could shove my head under the chair, that would be the safest position I could be in at that stage.
It was at this point also, that I realised I was going to die.
And that is when I started to fall apart. I tried to text, then call a friend. The first time I got through to her, all I did was tell her the information I would end up yelling for hours on end: “There are five of us – we are in the PGC building in the cafeteria on the 1st floor – please send help.”
Aftershocks were fun – and yes, I am being hella-sarcastic here. As each aftershock hit, I would move my head upwards; rip some hair out (due to the jagged edge my head was resting on); clench my fists; shut my eyes tight; hold my breath and cry hysterically – it was just pure terror.
Once the aftershock was done, I would start up my broken record again … the “Cafeteria Five” would get used to this over the ensuing hours. Hysteria mixed with panic and “I/we are going to die.”
The first aftershock was not the best …
Remember how the concrete beam was resting on the chair – and I was under the chair? Well the chair started to buckle under the pressure and I went from having “wiggle room” to being pinned down by my waist. Thank God I moved myself under that chair though yea? Now THAT was intuition!
Anyhow … that tiny space was where I would call home for another four plus hours.
I had to make another phone call – this time to my Grandma. I knew my situation had deteriorated and I thought death was imminent at this point, so I wanted to make sure I at least said goodbye to someone.
Can I just add … in times of crisis it is bloody hard to remember phone numbers! However, I will always remember this conversation:
Me: “Grandma, I am in the PGC building – I am stuck under a chair. I just wanted to call to say I love you.”
Grandma: “Oooo hello dear (in the chirpiest voice imaginable) I was wondering how you were going! Did you feel the earthquake?”
Me: “Grandma, I have to go. I love you.”
And hung up … and it was at this point I entered full-blown hysteria. I had to pass the phone back and I wasn’t allowed to make any more calls – they were making me worse.
Waiting for death …
After calling my Grandma, I quite literally thought I was lying there just waiting for death. At that stage, the odds were stacked (by four storeys) against me.
It was pitch black. There was only silence and a breeze we could feel coming through the building. I was pinned down and was at the mercy of the chair, the building and the aftershocks. I knew I was going to die, the question was – how long would it take?
It is true what they say about death – your life does flash before your eyes. Even if you are still alive, but worried that death is imminent in between aftershocks, panic attacks and trying to breathe.
The first sign that we might be rescued was an oxymoron; we thought they were right there about to come up the stairs and through the doors (that no longer existed) but they didn’t. They found a man close to me – the only other person I could hear in the building outside of the “Cafeteria” group. The man had been moaning since the first earthquake – we didn’t know who he was but he kept groaning and that groaning got more and more intense until we heard someone speaking to him. The sound of another voice started up my broken record again; “Help! We are in the cafeteria, there are five of us, we are on the first floor.” I was literally screaming and begging for help until a man yelled back. His exact words were “help is coming shortly, hang in there.”
The groaning continued until it eventually stopped – we did not hear from that particular male voice again. It wasn’t until much, much later we found out why he was groaning, and why the man didn’t come to our rescue. There are some things you can’t really prepare for; finding out you listened to another human being getting their legs amputated is one of them.
There is something that people don’t tell you about hope – and I’m talking about the hope that man gave us when he yelled back to us. In an earthquake, hope fades very fast. When someone gives you hope – only to have it shaken away from you by another aftershock – it makes you feel like you are in a final destination film. You think you have evaded death once – but now death is still going to get you, in some sort of cruel, twisted fate. That is what it was like for me. I had hope until the next aftershock hit and then I had refreshed panic – panic they would not make it in time. The chair was dipping lower, the pressure was getting more substantial and the fear was something words cannot describe.
Not everything was bad in there though – there were many kinda cool things that happened while we were all there together, sheltering under our various debris. The best part was that we all supported each other – when I was panicking, Stacey would grab my foot and Alec would grab my shoulder to comfort me.
We found out I had the beer fridge crack open next to me and I was able to pass around a cider through the various little spaces we could find – Alec was less than impressed that I couldn’t find any beer!
There was also a plate of cakes I’d found, but was unable to reach after the first aftershock. We had joked (?) if we needed to save water, we could use it as our pee plate!
Our first sign of rescue came after what seemed like ages of hearing only hammering and helicopters. I thought I heard a voice so I started my broken record “help, there are five of us etc, etc.”) This time, though, the rest of the group were less than receptive; a few expletives may have been directed my way! But here’s the thing … I am a determined person and half way through that long stretch of silence I had decided I wasn’t going to just wait for impending doom and was going to do everything within my power to stay alive.
The rescuers started talking to us from above – there was quite a lot of confusion as we couldn’t understand why they didn’t just come down to the first level (we didn’t know at that point that the first three levels were now one.) Another rescuer came to talk to us from the bottom, trying to pinpoint our exact location. Things moved pretty fast from there – rescuers tried to come at us from the top, however what they thought was the first floor, was actually a couple of concrete pads above us. When they shone their torches, thinking they had got to us, I imagine it would have been as disheartening for them as it was for us when we couldn’t see their light.
It still brings tears to my eyes, when I think about Michael calling out to us. Not only did we have people trying to rescue us from the top and the bottom, there were also people trying to find a path to us through the gaps – that was Michael’s job.
Michael – an Average Joe – who decided he could help when he felt the earthquake, so he came into town. Like an angel, he just happened to land on our building, worked his way through the nooks and crannies and found us. He cut a hole in the fridge and found Stacey and Alec. Stacey started flirting with Michael as soon as he had broken through, offering him some milk!
As glad as I was to see him, there was this underlying feeling that an aftershock was about to happen, and it could be a big one that I didn’t think I’d make it through – it was kind of like death was still going to get me in the cruellest way possible – just as I was being rescued.
He got Stacey and Alec out and for me, there was instant renewed panic – he was going to leave me. In hindsight, I totally understand why he would help them make their way out, but what ensued was the meltdown of the century! I didn’t want him to leave me. I didn’t want to be alone; I didn’t want my only shining light of hope to crawl away from me.
He didn’t – bless him, he was such a sweetheart. I remember telling him not to bust down the drawers because I didn’t want everything to collapse around me/him. First thing he did (as I was screaming at him) was bust down the drawers! Which ushered in the first element of relief – I could place my legs on the ground again, instead of having them stuck through drawers. His next step was to get me out from underneath the seat. He grabbed one of my legs and yanked and pulled me free. This got me into a space where I could get onto my hands and knees, but it also dragged my skirt up around my neck! Reason # 1 to always wear pretty undies – you never know when a rescuer might inadvertently drag your skirt above your head!
Words cannot express the joy of seeing the glimmer of light that meant potential escape and getting out from under that chair. I was a bit rude at that point – I didn’t say thanks – I was in a state of shock. And to be fair, my whole goal at that point was to get the hell out of that building!
Crawling out through wiggle space only, felt like I was trying to get through the underground caves in Waitomo. It was at this point I started to realise the true extent of the damage to the building. Crawling through it meant making your way over solid, compacted debris (concrete, glass etc) mixed with a shit tonne of paper and splashes of blood.
I would like to say I cried when I came out at the end via the ladder, but I didn’t. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, then threw my shoes off the building – they were the last thing I was worried about.
A man was helping us down the ladder, however being extremely independent, I snuffed my nose at it, but was forced to accept his help and THANK GOLLY GOSH I did. I was shaking so violently I could barely hold the ladder and he had to coach me to move my body.
I felt immense relief when I got to the bottom of the ladder. Someone had collected my shoes and had them waiting there for me. Someone else held me up until I was passed onto the ambulance officer who again, had to help me to walk out. Looking up at the building, I was like “holy.fuck.” There were no feelings – there was just numbness.
I looked at the people but I didn’t say thank you … I couldn’t talk. We walked around from the back of the building and turned the corner to the side of the building, where I had been sitting 30 seconds before the earthquake. It was a pancake. All four levels were sitting literally on top of my desk.
At that moment I let out an excruciating howl; dropped to the ground and started crying hysterically. The ambulance officer basically dragged me over to the emergency ambulance bay where I was greeted by James – a member of my team (who, about a second before, I had thought was dead.)
The weirdest part was being body-tagged and waiting to be able to leave the site. It was seeing the rescue workers and the bleak look in their eyes. It was telling Michael (my rescuer) I loved him.
Ten people from my work passed away that day, with another eight from our building. Two of our team made it out that day – one with significant injuries. The other two, unfortunately, passed away. We have since been told that every person who made it out alive that day had a 50:50 chance of doing so – thankfully I was on the good end of that ratio.
To read about the aftermath of the earthquake, and the ongoing effect it had/has on my life, come back for post number two – coming soon.
I cannot believe the absolute horror of this …