CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — One woman channeled her anger to ensure buildings are safer. Others have found peace after heartbreaking losses. Ten years after an earthquake killed 185 people and devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, some of those profoundly affected are sharing their journeys.
‘NOT THE STORY OF MY LIFE’
Ann Brower was taking a bus from the seaside suburb of Sumner into the central city when the magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck. Bricks rained down as a building facade collapsed, crushing the roof of the bus and killing all 12 others on board, as well as four more people nearby. Brower was in excruciating pain, pinned under the collapsed roof. The pressure kept building until her pelvis snapped and she passed out.
Originally from North Carolina, Brower, an associate professor of environmental science, had been shaken awake years earlier by the 1994 Los Angeles quake when she was living in Claremont, California. In Christchurch, she awoke on the bus, realizing she was trapped and alone.
“I thought, this is not an acceptable situation. This is not the story of my life,” she said. “And so I did what any rational person would do, and I screamed at the top of my lungs.”
A man with bright blue eyes appeared. Others came, digging through the rubble, pulling up the roof with their bare hands, talking to her about fishing, asking her about her hopes and dreams, anything to take her mind off what was happening.
Strangers took her in the back of a truck to a hospital, where she would stay for two months. After surgeries and rehabilitation, she was finally able to walk again without crutches.
Brower sometimes wonders why she survived when all those around her died. A visit from the Dalai Lama to her and a half-dozen other survivors four months after the quake helped her put things in perspective.
“You all have something to give,” Brower recalls the Dalai Lama saying. “You just need to let go of the shoulda-woulda-coulda, and figure out what that something is.”
In Brower’s case, part of the answer lay in making buildings safer. She was furious to learn the city council had inspected the building after a previous earthquake five months earlier and found the facade was unsafe, but hadn’t enforced a fix.
“Anger can be constructive,” Brower said. “When Parliament started thinking about changing the Building Act, I said, ‘Right. OK. This is something that I can participate in. I have a few things to say about this.'”
Brower also remains concerned after touring the U.S. that cities from Seattle to Charleston, South Carolina, face similar problems with their older buildings, which can lend character to cities but also danger.
In New Zealand, Brower wanted older buildings to be covered by building codes and for regulators to prioritize fixing those parts that would fall off first in a quake, like parapets and unreinforced masonry. But she ran into resistance. She wrote opinion pieces, did radio and TV interviews but it seemed lawmakers wouldn’t budge.
She finally got a five-minute meeting with the minister in charge at the time, Nick Smith, and he ended up agreeing a higher priority was needed for unsafe facades. In what lawmakers called the “Brower Amendment,” New Zealand cut in half the time owners had to get dangerous buildings fixed. Smith called Brower a true New Zealand hero.
“I didn’t get everything I wanted, but I got pretty close,” Brower said. “And you’ve got to celebrate that.”
A KINDER CITY
After the earthquake, Prue Taylor wasn’t unduly worried at first when she didn’t hear from her husband Brian. She knew he had a lunchtime meeting in town and loved to linger and chat. She thought he would be busy helping people after the quake.
But it turned out Brian had left the meeting promptly that day to see off a group of Japanese students at the CTV building where he worked as director of the English language school King’s Education. The building collapsed, killing 115 people, including Brian.
When Prue Taylor arrived at the building it was a surreal sight, a huge pile of rubble with smoke rising and an elevator shaft still standing. She stayed there with her son Hamish for hours as rescuers searched for survivors.
“It was hard to leave the place, not having found him or knowing whether he was alive or dead or anything about him,” Taylor said.
Brian and Prue met as undergraduates and had been married more than 40 years. Prue was principal of Christchurch Girls’ High School but she and Brian had been talking about retiring, about traveling more.
After Brian died, Prue focused on work.
“I keep thinking, what would Brian have done if it was me who died?” Taylor said. “And I think we both would have felt the same, that there were things we could do with our communities. In my case, my school community.”
Taylor remains angry about the construction of the CTV building, after an investigation found its design was fundamentally flawed and should never have been approved.
“Cheap and shoddy really is the way to describe it,” she says.
She unexpectedly lost a grandson a year after the quake, which caused the family additional grief.
“You just start to think, this is life,” she said. “It made me more aware of what people have in their lives, the tragedies that people endure.”
She says the sense of communal mourning in Christchurch after the quake helped her get through. People became kinder and friendlier to one another, she says, greeting neighbors they’d never met, bringing over baking, empathizing over those they had lost.
THE LONG JOURNEY OF GRIEF
Jonathan Manning had been keeping vigil near the collapsed CTV building with his children Kent, who was 15 at the time, and Liz, 18, when a police officer told them she had horrible news.
Until then, the kids had held out hope that Donna Manning was somehow still alive: “My mum is superwoman,” Liz had told a reporter moments earlier. But the officer told them there was no more hope of finding survivors.
“That’s the moment when it really sunk in for all three of us,” said Jonathan Manning. “The kids fell apart. I did, too.”
Jonathan and Donna, a television presenter and producer, had separated nine years earlier. Now Jonathan felt the responsibility of helping guide his children through their grief. He wished he could shield them from it but knew he couldn’t.
He rented a place so they could all live together, something Liz initially opposed but eventually accepted. He said the next two years were tough, as Kent finished high school and Liz ventured into paid work.
“They very much struggled in a fog, in a malaise,” Manning said. “And then over time, slowly, things just began to move forward and pick up. Grief is a very personal journey, a long journey, and recovery takes time.”
Manning, who works with bequests at the Salvation Army, said he’s incredibly proud of the adults his children have become. Liz is now living in Western Australia, studying to be a counselor, and engaged to be married. Kent is an apprentice joiner in Christchurch and has just bought his first home with his partner.
Manning says he’s grateful to his family and friends, and Donna’s siblings, who have helped them since the quake, and to people from around the world who contributed to a trust fund which helped the kids get started in their adult lives.
“I think their grief never leaves them, but their life gets bigger around it,” Manning said. “They still miss their mother.”
He thinks his children have become more empathetic since the tragedy. Each anniversary brings up emotions, he says, but these days they are all feeling more at peace.