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‘I was scared as hell. I thought that was it, as the quake’s death rattle built and built and wouldn’t stop’

Naomi Arnold describes a terrifying night in Wellington, a phone alarm that warns ‘delicate land could sink under the sea’ and the solace of both Chilean tourists and RNZ’s Susie Ferguson.

You take RNZ for granted most of the time. It’s always there – in the kitchen, in the car, snippets at a workshop in the country, on a radio hanging in the orchard – but I was so grateful for those alert and confident voices last night.

I shrieked like a little boy when that first quake rumbled up to room 216 of the CQ Hotel on Cuba St, and I scrambled out of bed for shelter, but could find only a flimsy doorway. I was scared as hell. I thought that was it, as the quake’s death rattle built and built and wouldn’t stop.

Wellington has always made me nervous, because my father just would not quit with the vivid childhood geology lessons, pointing out distant, smoking White Island from my grandparents’ Papamoa balcony, the roadside steam vents in Rotorua, the blue cauldron of Taupo, the broke-backed South Island, rocks from down south shunted way up north. Wellington scares the shit out of me, but fortunately I live within cooee of the Alpine Fault in Nelson.

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - NOVEMBER 14: Mannequins in Cotton On clothing store lie on the ground after an earthquake on November 14, 2016 in Wellington, New Zealand. The 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck 20km south-east of Hanmer Springs at 12.02am and triggered tsunami warnings for many coastal areas. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

A clattered window display in Wellington. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

I thought it had gone. When the shaking stopped I grabbed everything I could and scrambled around to find my jeans and jacket, shoved bare feet into boots and clomped out down the stairs and out into Marion St, needing the open sky, cleverly forgoing a modern seismically-strengthened hotel for the streets shrieking with car alarms and nervous hordes in dressing gowns. After an hour, I thought “Oh, right,” and went back inside, to where the hotel staff were handing out blankets, pillows, bottled water, going upstairs to retrieve us items, asking us constantly if they could help.

One lobby man was from Chile, and brushed off the quakes with a shrug. His confidence was catching.

“This happens all the time,” he said. “There’s no danger.” Another, whose name I am ashamed I can’t remember from his badge, because he was very kind, showed me the walls: no cracks. Very strong. Mostly.

“We have Nintendo,” he said, smiling. “Wii,” he added, miming a tennis swing. Four girls from across the road screeched and rushed at the TV.

The TV was on to Sky News, and was it the Alpine Fault? Was it Christchurch? I sat down on a couch next to an older couple and the woman leaped up as though I’d dropped boiling water in her lap.

“I’m a bit jumpy,” she said and told me they were from Christchurch, and she was grateful for this hotel’s old wide, solid wooden staircase.

“I like a good solid staircase,” she said. “Some of them collapse.” I didn’t know this, and added it to my list of general background worries, which includes dying by fire, drowning, strangulation, choking on food, and the Alpine Fault.

2am. A woman in the lobby snapped at a reporter checking in from the middle of Christchurch. “Stupid! Nothing is earthquake-proof! That’s the wrong information!”

Two older women were huddled on another couch, one concerned about the other, who had heart medication retrieved from her room.

“She’s not well,” her companion confided. “She’s very famous,” she said, revealing a 1980s political win; but it would be rude to reveal her name as she sat there half-undressed, her eyes darting a little, every now and then asking what was happening, when it would stop.

The aftershocks rolled through, sharp, gentle. The RNZ web feed on my phne wouldn’t work, and the TV news was interrupted by rugby. The staff brought out coffee, to general perkiness, but some old blokes on the couch grumbled  “No milk!”

I fiddled with the coffee dispenser.

“No! Like this! On top! On top! No! On top! No! There!” the men said, both half-standing to help me with this disaster, and one came over to take my hand and pushed it down on top.  “Careful! It’s hot! And there’s no milk!”

3am. Everyone was a little tense. I went over to a woman who was wearing nothing but a T shirt, that did not quite cover her bare bottom, and a quilt, which also did not.

“So! Where are you from?” I said.

“I’m done talking,” she said. “I’m sorry. I only have limited space for conversation.”

Right! Finally, I got hold of RNZ’s web feed on my phone, and I sank into its calm, energetic authority, interspersed with refreshing the Stuff page updated by trooper Henry Cooke. All of them trying to find us more information. All up at night to help us out. I listened to All Night Programme host Vicki McKay, with no producer, no sound engineer, alone in her own studio, energetic, on fire, compassionate. I listened to the comforting, familiar lilt of Susie Ferguson, astonished at the tale of the man whose parked car had shot into its garage door. If she was there, it was morning and things were normal in New Zealand.

Except they weren’t, as they talked to more people and more came to hand and the morning light unravelled the country. The ships pulled out from the harbour and the Picton ferry lurked near its dock. The roads were cracked, or gone. People were dead. Thousands drove to higher land and shared food and drink and shoulders for sleeping children. Throughout the night RNZ got hold of people on ferries, on top of hills, people in Hanmer, experts who knew stuff, Gerry Brownlee.

7am. The older famous woman said to her companion “Well. I’d better put on my pearls, hadn’t I?”, and she did.

My alarm to catch my flight home to Nelson rang out – which is, ridiculously, and I don’t expect you to believe me, Jess Chambers’ gentle ballad Island, which has, ridiculously, the lyrics:

We live on an island.

Made from the same dust we walk over

We live on this mountain.

Forget ourselves, think we are greater

Sometimes the earth moves

This delicate land could sink under the sea

Away underneath me

Away underneath me

I recommend it as an alarm; it’s normally a gentle awakening. But it wasn’t one today. God, I hope the ground stops shaking. I’m about to get on a flight to Nelson and soar above the Alpine Fault. It’s going to go one day. But at least RNZ will be there when it does.

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