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A week on shaky ground

Tue 1 Mar 2011 In: True Stories View at Wayback View at NDHA

As the initial shock has eased and the impact of the deadly Christchurch quake has hit home, a gay venue owner has had a chance to share his survival story and explain what life is like in the aftermath. Menfriends after the quake a week ago Stuart Yeatman was in the ground floor office and entrance of cruise club and sauna Menfriends when the shallow and violent tremors struck a week ago today. As there had been rolling aftershocks since the original September earthquake, he believes nobody suspected this brutal aftershock would get as loud, strong and violent as it did. Menfriends was severely shaken. "The noise from the earthquake itself, a deep low-level roar, was accompanied by the sound of breaking glass," Yeatman says. "Things like TVs dropping meters to the ground, alarms going off, wood on wood groaning. We were trying to find something to hold on to rather than be thrown to the ground, trying to decide in an instant if where you are is the best and safest place to be." The power cut out about 3-5 seconds into the shake and remained out for what he says seemed like a long time. He was later told was not long at all. He says he was wondering all along when the two floors above him would smash down on him. Yeatman, staff member Mark, and eight clients were in the club when the quake roared through. He knew that as the owner of the venue, he had a very clear job to do alongside his employee. "The first thing to do was to get torches. There is not a lot anyone can do if you cannot see. Mark looked after the ground floor to check for people and turn off as many appliances, power supplies as he could find. He also told to me how many people I was actually looking for." The clients had all made their way to the locker area and were throwing their clothes on. Yeatman says the lockers are easy to find due to the way the club is set out. A large window pane, normally blacked out had broken, so with the daylight streaming in it was easy to see. "I advised everyone there to keep doing what they were doing and once we had everyone ready to leave, I led them down the stairwell as a group, together, to the ground floor and outside." TAKING IN THE DAMAGE Yeatman says within the club it was relatively quiet and very dark after it all stopped shaking. Except for the sound of alarms. "Without electricity there was little to power sound or light. We could hear the noise from outside, mostly multiple sirens and alarm and the noise of 2,000 litres of hot, chlorinated water pouring from floor to floor, a little like the sound of a small waterfall." That water was from a 10-person spa, which spilled half its contents onto the floor below. The business is now a major mess inside, with TVs and stock all over the drenched floors. "Outside it was unreal," Yeatman says. "There was a very strong smell of gas from a main next to our building. There were people walking all over the road. In the distance I could see a pile of rubble where a four story building once stood. I looked across as Cruz nightclub. It wasdamaged but still standing... some curiously odd angles but in the chaos too difficult to interpret. "I looked back up at our building, also still standing, a few more small cracks added to those from September 4th and December 26th, but not a lot of extra... it's a tough old bastard." Slowly people in uniforms arrived and instructions and orders start getting yelled out. Yeatman describes it as "chaos with some sense of order ... everyone dazed and in survival mode, trying to get a grip on what's happening, what to do and where to go." Five people escaped alive from this coffee shop It's hard for anyone who hasn't lived in Christchurch for the past five months to imagine the reality of five months of 'aftershocks', followed by the horror of a more devastating quake. And Yeatman bluntly states, "nobody here can be bothered trying to explain what it's like." He says reliving trauma must be reserved for worthwhile reasons. "The earth moving under you is not a new thing here anymore, It's a part of life now and has been for five months already. People who fly into town for a night or two just don't get it unless they happen to experience it themselves. Is he angry? "No... there's no room for angry amongst all the other emotions." Upset? "No... if you're going to be upset that too comes later. Scared, dazed, reactive, responsive, survival instinctive – that's every Christchurch resident now." RETURNING HOME The pantry - the neatest part of their house Yeatman says walking into his house he shares with partner John McKelvie was like "walking into the living room at Christmas and wondering what shit gift Santa had given you." He estimates around $80,000 to $100,000 of damage has been done to their home. There is no power and no water. Their cat is gone. Anything that was not nailed down is now on the floor and the garden is filled with cracks: "Carnage. Mess. Dirt. Water. Glass. Concrete blocks. Everywhere." McKelvie wasn't in Christchurch when the quake struck. He only heard about it by reading it in a local newspaper after fellow guests at his hotel enquired about how things were at home after ‘the earthquake'. "At first John thought they were talking about September 4th," Yeatman says. "The others had seen it on CNN the day before. The pair couldn't connect. "Texts out of New Zealand, from Christchurch at least, never made it. The first time John was able to communicate with me was several days later, by phone." When asked what the aftermath is like and how he is coping, Yeatman says, "Perhaps the best answer I can come up with it this. Go to your power board at home and turn off the mains power supply for 72 hours. Turn off your water for 72 hours. Go to a petrol station and sit outside for an hour and half before you fill your tank or whatever ration you get given. Turn off your cell phone for 24 hours. Pretend that every object in your home is on the floor, not neatly arranged. Half of what is breakable is broken. Half your friends have left town. You have no job. You have no income. You need to spend money to survive. Now lock your toilet door and think about how a Portaloo won't arrive for five days." Showers? No..." The priorities for now are the stuff of basic survival: food, water, fuel, electricity and shelter. Sleep has finally come for Yeatman, who says after three days the adrenaline ran out and he was exhausted and had no choice but to sleep. BEHIND THE CORDONS Yeatman has been allowed through the central city cordons in the company of a news photographer. He says seeing the crux of the damage was both eye-opening and numbing. "People outside of Christchurch have had a far better impression of what's happened than many of us here. It was the same in September, as no power means no TV, no computer and a patchy phone. "Everywhere I looked there was damage. But this damage and the scale of it are not limited to the CBD, it is right across an arc from north to east to south in suburbia. One wonders where on earth the recovery is going to start, the damage is so widespread. I look at it and see a month or more of work before we are even allowed in to the CBD to start clearing up... that's if our building hasn't been demolished by then for safety reasons. "After this access is gained, there will be another month to find suitably qualified engineers to check the buildings that are still standing. It is eerily quiet... soldiers from foreign countries, police from here and Australia, military vehicles everywhere, mixed communications depending on who you speak to. Journalists with large cameras slung around their necks. Fallen statues, wrecked buildings and thousands of broken windows. Fluorescent yellow and red vests and jackets everywhere. The security people are very friendly and courteous, but very firm. It's locked down tight as a Nun's..." - Pictures thanks to Stuart Yeatman     Jacqui Stanford - 1st March 2011

Credit: Jacqui Stanford

First published: Tuesday, 1st March 2011 - 2:49pm

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