Last week’s earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, sent a sickening aftershock through some Whitehorse families.
Dave Neufeld had just come home from work and switched on the radio when the quake was broadcast.
The news hit him in the stomach.
His daughter Erin lives in Christchurch with her husband Stephen Horton, also a Yukoner.
“We’d been through this before,” said Dave.
Christchurch was hit by an larger earthquake in the fall, but the epicenter was much further away. And no buildings collapsed.
Immediately, Dave logged in to his email, Facebook and Skype accounts to open all lines of communication with his daughter.
“I didn’t try calling her, because I knew if she had a phone she’d call me,” he said.
A few hours later, Erin’s mom Joy Waters came home and Dave broke the news.
“At first I wasn’t too worried because they’d already had one, and this one was smaller,” she said.
Then Waters saw the videos start rolling in on CBC television.
“That’s when I really broke down,” she said.
When they went to bed that night, the couple still hadn’t heard from their daughter.
“It was a fitful night,” said Waters.
The next day, when phone and internet communication remained silent, Waters phoned another Yukon mom with a daughter in Christchurch.
“She’d heard from her daughter (Jodi Gustafson) right away,” said Waters.
But they’d used cellphones, and Erin didn’t have one.
Under a pile of rubble, in a suburb of Christchurch, Erin and Stephen’s phone sat disconnected and useless.
A two-storey brick chimney had crashed down on the desk where Erin did most of the work on her PhD – studying sense of place in relation to Antarctica at Christchurch’s University of Canterbury.
And the couch where Erin had been sleeping earlier, at home with the flu, was covered in ceiling plaster.
Waters and Dave didn’t know any of this when Gustafson and her Kiwi boyfriend offered to go check up on their friends.
They couldn’t drive into the city, said Dave.
So a trip that usually takes 30 minutes took almost three hours.
When they got to the house where Erin and her husband lived, only the building’s shell was still standing.
Erin wasn’t there.
The morning of the quake, after nursing her flu, she went to the university to pick up some readings and get some tech advice about computer problems.
She was in a classroom with the computer tech when the earthquake struck.
“He pulled me under a desk, and the false ceiling and pipes were coming down,” said Erin, by phone from Christchurch on Monday.
After the first quake, the students and teachers followed the drill, meeting outside their faculties as aftershocks rocked the ground under them.
“It was surreal,” said Erin.
Driving home was impossible.
So Erin, like so many others, found a plot of grass, parked her car as far away from tall buildings as possible and walked.
The city was covered in silt, and a thick watery slurry was seeping up from cracks in the ground, making it a tough slog.
Stephen, who’s a high school teacher, was out of town on a field trip with his class.
He was expected home that night, so, following the plan they’d made after the last earthquake, Erin waited outside the wreckage that used to be their home.
Earlier, when she arrived, Erin ventured into the shattered building to rescue their passports and the cat, Smog, who was cowering under the bed.
But after ripping up Erin’s arms, the terrified feline ran off into the devastated neighbourhood.
Re-united in front of their house, Erin and Stephen were taken in by friends.
More than 24 hours after getting news of the quake, Dave and Waters learned their daughter and Stephen were safe.
It’s one thing to hear about natural disasters like Haiti on the news, said Dave.
It’s very different “having your daughter there.”
Almost three years ago, when the young couple left Whitehorse for New Zealand, Dave and Waters understood.
They had also moved far from home when they were young.
“But now, as an adult, you realize what a pirate you were,” said Dave.
Working as a historian, he remembers coming across turn-of-the-century letters from parents in Ireland to their children in the New World.
“These letters were conveying family news – and they had teardrops on them,” said Dave.
Now, he uses Skype to talk with Erin.
“The only real difference is you can wipe the tears off the screen,” he said.
Nothing Erin did as a teenager gave her parents nearly as much stress as her move to New Zealand.
“And I haven’t figured out how to release that stress,” he said.
“The only catharsis is a hug, and you don’t get those over the phone.”
Air New Zealand offered Christchurch residents $35-dollar flights anywhere in New Zealand and $800-roundtrip tickets to Vancouver.
Gustafson took the airline up on it.
The undergrad was in her second day of classes at Canterbury University when the quake struck.
At first, she though it was students rushing down the stairs in the lecture hall, until the walls started shaking.
Copying a local, who’d experienced quakes in the past, Gustafson crawled under her desk as plaster started to fall from the ceiling.
Then the lights went out.
“I honestly thought, ‘This might be it,’” she said from her parent’s home in Whitehorse on Tuesday.
“I’d never been in an earthquake and it was horrifying.”
After the first quake, the students started to evacuate and were in between multi-storey buildings on campus when the next one hit.
“That’s when staff started yelling at us to get out,” she said.
For hours, Gustafson sat in a field waiting for her boyfriend to come meet her.
The couple went to his parent’s farm and waited out the aftershocks.
That’s when she got the call from Erin’s parents, wondering if she’d heard from their daughter.
Over the next few days, after locating her friend and passing on the good news, Gustafson and a crew of students from the university spread out in suburban areas to help shovel all the liquefaction from people’s yards and homes.
The mix of sand, silt and sewage that bubbled up through the ground during the quake “was appalling,” she said.
Gustafson remembers knocking on one door and offering to help shovel out sludge when the woman burst into tears.
Her husband was an amputee who couldn’t shovel it himself and Gustafson’s kindness overwhelmed her.
Another home had a metre of the thick grey muck in the yard. “You couldn’t open the gate,” she said.
And the inside of their house was filled with gunk 30 centimetres deep.
As she shovelled, Gustafson tried to grasp how dramatically her life had been altered in the last few days.
Just 48 hours before the quake “I was sitting having a beer in the business district,” which is now a pile of rubble, she said.
One student from her university, a Samoan man, was crushed in a bus during the earthquake.
And people running out of buildings downtown were running past dead bodies and people lying half-crushed, she said.
“The city is just broken.”
The day after the earthquake, Gustafson wrote a big note to her friends and family via email.
“I just stressed how much I loved them, because you never know when it’s your last chance to say something to someone,” she said.
“It changed my whole outlook on life.”
Gustafson’s not sure of her next move.
But she knows she’s not going back to Christchurch.
“I’m petrified to go back,” she said.
New Zealand has roughly 14,000 earthquakes a year, she said.
“And they’re expecting aftershocks in that area, so I want to go some place safer.”
Gustafson’s considering transferring to a different school on New Zealand’s north island, where there’s less seismic activity.
But the University of Canterbury has a special program on circumpolar studies with a focus on Antarctica, which is why Gustafson was in Christchurch.
And she still wants to do these studies.
“Someday I might go back,” she said.
But for now, she just has to figure out where she’s going to go in New Zealand, so she can still be close to her boyfriend.
“I may be back on the plane as soon as Saturday,” she said.
But getting over the earthquake is going to take much longer.
“Just talking about it, I don’t feel quite over it,” she said.
“It makes you value life.”
The earthquake was a vehicle for learning how to be better parents, said Dave.
“It’s all about love,” he said.
“And how you react to disasters has to be about love too, it can’t be about loss.”
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