Christchurch Still 'safe Haven' For Quake Survivor

Published February 20, 2012 7:54AM (EST)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Jane Taylor was managing a women's clothing store in downtown Christchurch a year ago when the earthquake struck during lunch hour. She was dug from the rubble within minutes with horrific injuries — her vertebrae were crushed, her skull was fractured and her pelvis smashed.

Like Taylor, many survivors of the Feb. 22 earthquake continue to feel the emotional and physical pain from the tragedy that left 185 people dead in New Zealand's worst natural disaster in 80 years. Yet they are also rediscovering what it means to be part of a family and a community, and life is settling into familiar rhythms.

Taylor was in the hospital for three months, at first in an induced coma. But the 54-year-old says that in the months since, she has found strength from those around her, and has never considered leaving Christchurch.

"It's our place of love," she told The Associated Press. "We've been privileged to get know fellow survivors, and each of us is inspired every day by each other."

In many ways, the city remains a mess, a testament of the fury unleashed by the magnitude-6.1 temblor. The business district is a giant construction site. Thousands of homeowners have been told to leave their land after the government deemed entire neighborhoods too unstable to repopulate. And significant aftershocks continue to jolt people's confidence.

Yet, when Statistics New Zealand measured the population of Christchurch four months after the earthquake, it found it had declined by just 2.4 percent, down to 368,000.

Recalling that day, Taylor explained how she was in the store in the Cashel Street Mall when she felt a violent shaking and began running.

"The verandah upstairs basically landed on me," she said. "Big blocks of concrete. I was bent over like a staple, my bum on the ground and my head on my feet."

Two men dug her out from the rubble and moved her to a bench, but there was chaos all around and no way for an emergency vehicle to reach her.

"It was pretty shocking," she said. "There was debris falling, dust filling my mouth and nostrils, people screaming."

Taylor sat there for an hour, held upright at first by a friend and then by her husband, before a police car could get close and take her away.

After three months in the hospital and another three in physical therapy, she was able to walk unaided thanks to a titanium cage that doctors had inserted to support her spine. These days, she continues to suffer from weakness in her pelvis and chronic pain, but said she's proud of her recovery and that she's now fully mobile.

Despite the continuing aftershocks, she said she considers Christchurch her "safe haven" thanks to her family and friends. She said she believes she developed the emotional strength to handle her injuries after her 18-year-old son Alex was killed by a drunk driver four years ago.

"Your priorities change after something like that, and you realize that it's your family and being together that's so important," Taylor said, adding that she and her husband, Shaun, "developed a closeness and a strength as a couple after that."

For others, there remains the lingering question: Why did I survive when so many others died?

Emily Cooper, 23, was a reporter on assignment at a local park when the quake struck. The Canterbury Television (CTV) building where she worked collapsed in the quake, accounting for a majority of the deaths from the quake — 115. Among them were two people she considered close friends — Rhys Brookbanks, 25, whom Cooper had known since journalism school, and Sam Gibb, 27, her producer at CTV.

"The guilt wasn't something that lasted just a few days after the quake. It lasted months and has never really gone away," Cooper said. "It's changed from guilt to confusion. I will never really understand why. I can't help but think, why me?"

Cooper has since left CTV and now works for a radio station. However, she said she feels compelled to stay in Christchurch and keep reporting the stories of the people there who are struggling to rebuild their lives.

One pair whose image resonated with people around the world that day are Kent and Elizabeth Manning, teenagers whose photo was captured at the moment an officer told them there was no hope of finding more survivors in the collapsed CTV building, where their mother, Donna Manning, was killed.

The teen's uncle, Maurice Gardiner, said that a year later, they are healing.

"Both Elizabeth and Kent have good days and bad days, as we all do, but they are getting on with their lives," he said. "Kent is back at high school and Lizzy is at work."

Gardiner said he was "very, very proud" of how the teens had coped with all the issues they faced after their mother's death, from figuring out where they would live (Manning was a single mother) to arranging memorials.

On the anniversary of the quake Wednesday, Gardiner said, the teens plan to bury their mother's ashes at a local cemetery. That, he said, may help bring some closure.

"One of the things that has come out of all this is that people spend a lot more time with each other," Gardiner said. "Not only with our family, but throughout the city. As we put things back together, we are very much looking after each other, caring for each other."

By Salon Staff

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