One of the five youngsters from Shetland who survived the devastating earthquake in Christchurch has spoken of the group’s shock at the damage caused by the tremors which rocked the east coast city at dinnertime on Wednesday.
The students, who are in New Zealand as part of the Learning School exchange, are: Cheryl Cluness, Lerwick; Lindsey Manson, Lerwick; Jenny Fraser, Sand; Greg McCarron, Sandwick; and Lizzie Ratter, Ollaberry; along with two Swedish students.
New Zealand authorities confirmed 98 were dead yesterday and said they held grave fears for 226 people still missing in the aftermath. Prime minister John Key warned total fatalities were likely to exceed 200.
The 6.3-magnitude quake struck on a busy weekday afternoon. The South Pacific nation records on average more than 14,000 earthquakes a year, of which about 20 normally top a magnitude of 5.0.
The Shetland students had been finishing a visit to Shirley Boys High School, about four kilometres north-east of the city centre, when the first tremors struck. Having been unaware of the chaos in the town centre, they only witnessed the full extent of the damage later in the day. Further planned visits to the school were shelved after the building was shut because of water and sewage damage.
The five, who had been staying with the families of pupils and teachers at the school, were split into two groups and re-housed in country areas following the disaster.
Miss Ratter told The Shetland Times: “We had gone outside to eat our lunch in the sun with some of the students from the school when suddenly, and without any warning, the ground started to move. It was like someone was shaking out a sheet, I could see the tarmac in front of me rolling up and down and back and forth.
“We had difficulty keeping our feet, but it could have been a lot worse as we had been in the library 10 minutes before, where books fell from the shelves, lights smashed, and it would have been an awful lot more frightening than what we went through.”
She said it had been hard to know how to react and the “constant” aftershocks had been frightening and had left them worried that another quake was on the way.
“That is apparently very unlikely as the energy of the fault has been dispelled, and the aftershocks are more to do with the ground settling. We were reasonably used to the aftershocks by evening, but that being said we didn’t sleep too well that night.”
Miss Ratter continued: “We were all bewildered by what happened, it was so very sudden. Some of the group were a bit weepy, but we kept together until we were able to get back to our host families.”
It was not until they saw images on the news and online that they realised how bad the earthquake had been: “The main reaction was shock, but we are also so terribly sorry for the people of Christchurch, who have been so terribly and suddenly affected by this disaster. One of the first things we wanted to do was to get in contact with our families to let them know we were okay.”
She said New Zealanders had been “unfailingly kind and generous” in the aftermath. “We cannot thank them enough for this, and we are doing our best to be as little a burden on them as we can. There were differing reactions at the time of the earthquake. Many were stoical but some were visibly upset. Those in the latter group tended to be ones who had been badly affected by the previous earthquake, for whom this was a terrible reminder.”
Trip organiser Stewart Hay said they were considering bringing forward a trip to Auckland in the North Island from Wednesday to escape the devastation. They are due to fly from there to Australia next week on the latest leg of their trip to explore international education systems. However, travel around the Christchurch area has been disrupted by the quake and people trying to flee the city.
“This was a terrible surprise to them, but they are all safe and well,” added Mr Hay. “I am sure they are being very well looked after by the people of New Zealand.”
SIC convener Sandy Cluness said the entire community extended its sympathy and support to the people of New Zealand.
“We have very close ties with New Zealand, with many folk there of Shetland descent and with strong family connections to the Northern Isles,” he said. “All of us were shocked by the tragic events in Christchurch and we extend our heartfelt sympathy and support.
“We are all relieved to hear that our five young folk are safe and well. Their presence in New Zealand at this terrible time is a sign of the strong and close connections which have always existed between the two island groups, and will continue to do so.”
Former NHS Shetland director of clinical services Michael Johnson, who lives and works in Wellington, has been helping New Zealand’s national health co-ordination centre to support the health response to the earthquake.
The territorial area of Christchurch, which is built on the site of a Maori chieftain’s seasonal dwelling, is about the same as Shetland, but the city has a population of 340,000. New Zealand’s second largest city, it is a popular tourist destination and gateway to the South Island.