Monday, February 28

One Couple's Eyewitness Account of New Zealand Earthquake

It was Tuesday the 22nd and I was on board an Air New Zealand flight from Dunedin into ChristChurch. We were scheduled to land in ChristChurch at 1:00pm. We were coming in for landing at approximately 12:50 when the pilot announced “Folks, I don’t know what to say, but we’ve lost contact with air traffic control. We’ve been trying for several minutes, I don’t know what to say but we’re turning around and going back to Dunedin.” I was in an aisle seat towards the front of the plane so I could see the flight attendants and they seemed as confused as the passengers. The people in the row behind me were trying to figure out if there was something wrong with the plane.

In a few minutes the pilot came back on and said “Uh folks, apparently the reason we lost contact in ChristChurch is that there has been a big earthquake. I don’t have any more information than that, but we’re returning to Dunedin.” Throughout the plane there was an audible gasp. The flight was short and when we began our descent into Dunedin, people were turning on their cell phones and calling their families. Others were on their phones searching for news about the earthquake.
 Most of the passengers lived in ChristChurch and when one person announced that the cathedral had collapsed everyone was upset.

We landed in Dunedin at 1:45 and the airport was complete chaos. The Airline announced that the control tower at the airport in ChristChurch had fallen in the earthquake. The Dunedin airport and all other airports in New Zealand were closed. I sent my wife a text message to let her know what was happening and to tell her that I was ok. The small Dunedin airport was filled with stunned passengers staring at the TVs.

It was Monday night and I got a text message from my husband Tim, that said “There’s been an earthquake and I’m headed back to Dunedin. I’m ok. I have my suitcase, plenty of $$ but the battery on my phone is almost dead so I won’t be able to call you until I can get a new battery.”

I read this text and immediately responded to the contradictory statements “I’m ok” and “there’s been an earthquake.” This is serious drama that warranted panic and I immediately wanted to call my family and friends. I just didn’t want to wake anyone up and I wasn’t sure how serious the situations was, plus I thought if I remained calm I would ultimately feel very mature.

Instead of calling people in a state of panic, I was mature and calm and did the next logical thing. I texted my friend “Tim is in an earthquake.” When she didn’t immediately respond with an equally dramatic text, I sent another text “His phone is dead and I can’t get in touch with him.” (That should get her attention) Of course I received an outpouring of sensitive texts from her which I found very comforting. I then spent an inordinate amount of time researching earthquakes on the internet and watching CNN. The video on CNN of ChristChurch and the devastation of the earthquake was much worse than I expected it would be, so I turned it off before I felt the urge to start calling people in a panic. There wasn’t just one big earthquake, there were actually multiple earthquakes, one of which was over 6.0 on the richter scale. I did way too much research on the internet and was able to determine where Tim physically was and how close he was to the subsequent smaller earthquakes or aftershocks.

When the first aftershock hit, everyone was watching TV and we all just stood there looking at each other in silence. I found a woman that worked for Air New Zealand and asked if she knew where I could get a new charger for my phone and she said there wasn’t anywhere at the airport. A really nice Kiwi man offered me his phone charger. He said “Keep it mate, we’re all in this together.”

My first call was to Delta to figure out how I could get back to the United States. Delta said the next available flight was business class through Korea, for $9000.00 with a $150.00 change fee. I was ok with the $9000.00, I just didn’t have the extra $150.00 for the change fee. The next aftershock hit and I ducked under the nearest table which happened to be the ticket counter. Some people ran outside and others just froze in place. The airport reopened at 7:00pm and received a flight from Wellington. At 11:00pm I got on the third flight out of Dunedin and flew two hours into Auckland. I slept on the floor in Auckland and got on a flight to Sydney in the morning. I was on my way back to the United States.

My husband got a charger from a wonderful Kiwi and I have vowed to now regularly eat kiwi fruit in honor of that man. Tim texted me each time he felt an aftershock, which I could also see on the web site I found. I sent helpful texts such as “find an archway” and “stay away from sharp objects.” That’s when he gently reminded me that he was in an airport and his ‘duck and cover’ options were few. He responded to my suggestion “can you take a cruise home?” with little enthusiasm. Eventually Tim texted with news that he was on his way to Auckland and later that he was on a flight to Sydney.

I would now like to offer up this event as an educational opportunity for pilots and flight attendants worldwide. In the event of an emergency, if you have the microphone on an airplane, you should never say “Uh, folks I don’t know what to say.” If you don’t know what to say, there is no reason to tell an entire airplane full of people. Also, “we’ve lost contact with the tower” with no explanation is terrifying for a passenger of any vehicle that requires communication. Every movie with an airplane, rocket, submarine or space ship includes a very scary moment when a pivotal character says “we’ve lost contact” right before something explodes and the sympathetic character goes blasting out of the fuselage and into space, air or water and dies. Airlines everywhere, please add to the flight training course curriculum “what to say, when you don’t know what to say, and you have the microphone.”

By the way, Mr. Phone Charger Kiwi Man, thank you very much, I greatly appreciated your gracious act of kindness wherever you are.

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