Grand Junction couple survives earthquake down under

Visit to New Zealand becomes frightening brush with death

A woman with a broken arm is rescued from the Christchurch Cathedral through a second-story window.

The spire from the Christchurch Cathedral moments after the earthquake.

Patricia and George Manning in rural New Zealand as they were vacationing in the country, taking bike trips.

A change in plans put George and Patricia Manning near the epicenter of a 6.3 magnitude earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The Grand Junction couple’s itinerary placed them a hundred miles away when the quake occurred Feb. 22. But the pair decided to spend a night relaxing in Christchurch instead. Twenty minutes after checking into a hotel, George, 64, and Patricia, 63, were thrown to the ground as the quake rumbled beneath their feet for 45 seconds.

“It felt like a drop in an elevator, only sideways,” Patricia Manning said.

The pair raced out of the hotel and toward Cathedral Square, an open quadrant in the heart of the city. They figured the area was open enough to keep buildings from tumbling on top of them and would be a likely place to find help, given its popularity.

George Manning shot video on his iPhone of crumbling buildings and dazed survivors walking the street moments after the quake. He posted the video to Facebook with a message letting friends and family know he and his wife were OK.

After a second tremor, they saw an already damaged tower on Christchurch Cathedral, from which the square takes its name, crumble. The Mannings were told 22 people on a tour were inside, and it’s believed everyone on the tour died. Those who made it out of the cathedral and other cracking buildings were covered in white dust, some gradually soaking with blood.

“There were people walking in the streets that their clothes were just liquid blood,” Patricia said.

Soon after the first aftershock, police officials told everyone in the square to join others displaced by the quake less than a mile away at Hagley Park, an area with botanical gardens and a golf course. There, hundreds of survivors set up lean-tos with wooden boards found at the site or sat on them as rain soaked the grass beneath their feet. George had grabbed a jacket before leaving the hotel, but Patricia had to improvise with two trash bags.

The Mannings left their hotel with their billfolds, their iPhones and what they were wearing at the time of the earthquake. Leaving their passports, bikes and laptop computer behind never posed a problem. Local residents offered places to stay and transportation to the 2,000 people who ended up filling the park by the next morning, and service agencies provided a steady menu of everything from hot dogs and french fries to bread and bottled water.

Water from the Avon River, once clear, was not an option for drinking, as it had turned grayish-white with dust and sediment.

“You couldn’t walk around without someone saying, ‘Are you OK? Do you need something?’” Patricia said. “One woman brought her own clothes and put a red scarf around my neck that I’ll keep forever.”

“Most of the people helping us were from Christchurch, so you have to keep in mind their homes were destroyed, their family members may be missing, their kids had a horrible time at school, and they were still helping us,” George said.

The Mannings covered themselves with donated blankets that night inside a tent set up for a previous garden show in the park. Even 10 hours after the quake, the pair could feel the earth rumbling beneath them as they bedded down.

A third aftershock early in the morning was especially loud, and the Mannings said they could hear what sounded like “a rockslide that wouldn’t end” for some time after the powerful jolt. Still, most people were calm after the quake, and the Mannings never heard anyone, tourist or local, scream or cry during the night.

The next morning, the group was greeted with a hot breakfast and cold drinks. The Mannings left Christchurch that afternoon on a Royal New Zealand Air Force plane bound for Wellington, which is on the north island of New Zealand (Christchurch is on the south island). Not having a passport didn’t prove problematic, as no one aboard was leaving the country.

The next two days in Wellington involved free hotel stays, even though the Mannings offered payment, and picking out fresh clothes at a “well fare” center for earthquake survivors. On Friday, three days after the quake, they flew on Air New Zealand to Auckland, New Zealand, for a two-hour layover where they received temporary passports that will be usable for six months. After that, their flight departed for Sydney, where they spent one more night overseas.

George and Patricia were scheduled to fly back to the United States from Sydney on Tuesday, but United Airlines agreed to let them leave Saturday afternoon. They had no luggage, and a small bag with some fresh clothes and a couple pieces of the crumbled cathedral had been lost during the previous day’s flight.

After stops in San Francisco and Denver, the Mannings arrived home around 9:30 p.m. Saturday. They’re not sure whether the belongings in their hotel room in Christchurch are crushed or safe, and they may not know for months. They said they’re just happy their only injury was a gouge Patricia has on one of her fingers.

The Mannings said there was no way to prepare for the earthquake, and they wouldn’t have handled any part of their reaction differently, except Patricia said she may have grabbed a coat before leaving the hotel. They said they always will remember the incident and the help they received from locals, aid agencies and U.S. consulate associates.

Patricia added the experience hasn’t soured the couple’s love for the country.

“We’d go back. There’s not a problem with that,” she said.


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