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Staring disaster in the face

Sun 5 Sep 2010 In: True Stories View at NDHA

When he started his Menfriends shift at midnight Friday Matt Wright could have no idea that he would have to see the venue and its gay patrons through the biggest natural disaster to ever hit Christchurch. Many buildings in downtown Christchurch have collapsed or are believed structurally unsound after the quake. Wright, 21, born in Auckland and now in the garden city by way of Blenheim, was the sole staff member in charge of the three level inner-city cruise club and sauna. Based primarily in the ground floor reception and shop, he was also responsible for the spa and sauna area on the first floor and the maze of cubicles and corridors above that. Unusually, Menfriends had quietened down by 4.30am, even the gay nightclub Cruz across the road was no longer pumping and had closed early. "I'd just had a cigarette break and had come back into the laundry to load towels into the machine when everything started shaking," Wright recalls. "At first I didn't know what it was, then after the shaking had gone on for a while I realised 'this has to be an earthquake!' 'cause I could feel the ground moving and there couldn't have been anything else like that. I grabbed hold of the door frame and stood there and held on." If it wasn't for that door frame Wright is in no doubt he would have been smashed to the ground by the force of the quake. As he clung on tightly "I could hear a whole lot of crashing sounds and I thought it was the locker units upstairs... it sounded like heavy metal crashing onto the floor." Wright is the first to admit he wasn't initially super-cool in the face of the disaster which was unfolding across the city. "At first I was scared, but I told myself that I was ok and the building seemed strong and that I'd be fine... then water started dripping down and I was scared again. I worried that the floor upstairs had cracked and that the spa pool was dripping down." Then he was plunged into darkness. "All the lights went out... that was probably the scariest part of it all. I grabbed a torch and rushed to turn off the gas heaters and the gas supply to the laundry." Once the lurching and crashing stopped he started dealing with the shocking situation he suddenly found himself confronted with. Wright says he calmed down and focused on what needed to be done. "It all came completely naturally. I tried to remember the emergency protocol we have at Menfriends and the only thing I couldn't remember was the off-site meeting place." He rushed upstairs through the venue, searching by torchlight for the few remaining customers and found them draped in towels and huddled together in a doorway at the very top of the building. "They looked shocked and stood around like stunned mullets for a few moments. One took a while to get his shit together. I was saying 'Come on man, there's going to be an aftershock soon, we gotta get out of here.' We were all shaking, it was creepy." The damaged fire escape and rear of the Menfriends building. Photo: Rouyden Lake The fire escape door had burst open during the shaking. He shone his torch down into the darkness. "I looked out there and the stairs had been wrenched off the building. Bricks had fallen and smashed the stairs." The little group of men, under Wright's leadership, would have to go back down the internal staircase, which would at least give the near-naked patrons a chance to quickly pull on some clothes as they passed the changing room. Wright took stock of their situation. "There weren't any more aftershocks at that point, which surprised me. The spa pool was ok, there's quite a large gap between the top of the water and the top of the spa and drainage channels, so even if it had sloshed around it wasn't going to go anywhere." "Surprisingly, there wasn't too much damage inside the club," Wright says. The lockers were still upright, the metal crashing sound I had heard had actually been the big cabinets in the laundry smashing around." But he was scared the building could still fall. Eventually he managed to get the last couple of customers out of the club. "They just left quietly, we were all a bit quiet and stunned." Wright was last to leave for what he hoped was the safety of the darkened street. "There was this guy running around on the street yelling at everyone to 'Get the fuck out of here!' Other than that it was eerily still on the street, like not a lot had happened. I could see a building had fallen over and crushed a car. I was trying to contact my boss but was being bombarded with calls and texts. Everywhere around me there were alarms to 'Nam. Everything was going off, all the bars and cars along the road had sprung their alarms... cop cars started rolling around and I started to realise there had been a lot of destruction." Wright finally got through to his boss, Menfriends co-owner Stuart Yeatman. "Then it was all sweet. He told me to calm down and that he would be there soon." "He was really cool. We checked through the building again, put some buckets where the water was dripping down and everything went very smoothly. He gave me a lift home, I really didn't want to walk." Once home amongst friends Wright realised that the experience had left him shocked. Like thousands of people all over the fractured city "everyone just sat around talking about their experiences. It was a really binding experience, it drew everyone together." But the dramatic night had taken its toll. "I was pretty tuckered out and soon went to bed." It's 36 hours after the massive quake when he talks with "I look back now and kind of laugh and think 'Wow, I can't believe it even happened!'" He's glad that he managed to keep his head. "I seem to have a calm head for situations like that... just try to keep myself goal-orientated. In the end you just have to do it otherwise everyone could die." Matt Wright's advice for anyone else caught out suddenly in charge of the safety of people and premises? "Try and stay calm... try to remember to keep moving, going forward and knock off those things on that list and keep yourself motivated to do it... otherwise you're screwed." [Footnote: As we started to discuss Wright's sending a photo of himself to accompany this story another severe aftershock hit the city and he had to dive for safety. We'll attach a pic when he is able to arrange it.]     Jay Bennie - 5th September 2010

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Sunday, 5th September 2010 - 4:23pm

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