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09.08.10

How I Survived the Worst Earthquake of My Life

From luck and good timing, everyone survived the 7.1 magnitude quake that struck the New Zealand town of Christchurch on September 3. But Denis Dutton, who was only 12 miles from the epicenter, says it was still horrifying.

The Christchurch earthquake was easily the most violent my wife Margit and I had ever experienced, and notable in two other respects. It produced widespread, photogenic property damage, especially to 19th and early 20th-century buildings and homes, while at the same time causing few serious injuries and not a single death.

Over and over again, I heard from people—including California natives such as myself—that this was the most frightening earthquake they’d ever felt. I had slept through the Bakersfield earthquake of 1952, but I was only 8 years old at the time. The 1971 Sylmar quake, which we had felt in Santa Barbara, was the biggest till now—but at 100 miles from the epicenter, it was experienced as large, but relatively gentle rocking or swaying motions (I remember those big overflow waves in the apartment swimming pool).

A study of arousal from sleep once suggested that human beings are hard-wired to go from slumber to almost instant wakefulness in a life-threatening situation. That anyway is how it seemed to me at 4:35 a.m. last Saturday morning.

Earthquakes of such vast power too are sublime, and speak to deadly forces beyond our power to conquer, or even fully grasp.

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Photo: Courtesy of Denis Dutton

The event was only 50 seconds long (and felt like that to me—I didn’t think it “went on forever,” an effect many people described). It produced a deafening combination of deep roaring and high-pitched rattling which intensified, louder and louder. I’d judge that it was perhaps at the 30-second point that I thought the house was about to be smashed to smithereens with a good chance that we were going to die.

The effect was something like a car engine being gunned in neutral, faster and faster, ear-splitting to the point where you know it can only explode, with fatal results. (Odd how much you can think about in half a minute.)

Just at that point, however, the din began to subside, and with it the sense of a nightmare. Maybe we would get out alive.

Our two-story wooden-frame house, 30-years-old, is on the west side of Christchurch. At only 12 miles from the quake’s very shallow epicenter (3.1 miles deep), it is much closer than the heavily torn-up downtown and eastern suburbs. Here we were: so close to an earthquake of magnitude 7.1, yet our house was unscathed, we were uninjured.

The quake, as it intensified, gave the distinct feeling of being shallow and nearby, rather than the side-effect of a distant seismic disaster. The hellish, screeching vibration was somehow absorbed by the timber structure of the house.

There was so much luck. Had the quake hit at 4:35 p.m., instead of 4:35 a.m., pedestrians would have died on the sidewalks under falling brick facades. Long heavy shelving in the university library would have crushed anyone caught in the stacks. Sobering for us: Margit works in that library.

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Photo: Courtesy of Denis Dutton

Philosophers are fond of quoting Immanuel Kant’s declaration that the two things that most inspired him were the sublime, starry heavens above and the sense of moral law in the human heart. Earthquakes of such vast power, too, are sublime, and speak to deadly forces beyond our power to conquer, or even fully grasp.

But Christchurch also saw the other side of Kant’s inspiration. With power grids down, neighbors, flashlights in hand, checked on each other. In the days since, volunteers have jammed into relief centers or, like some of our university students, shown up on random streets, shovels in hand, to help homeowners to clean up. In Christchurch, at least, this earthquake has brought out the best.

Denis Dutton teaches philosophy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. He is author of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution (Bloomsbury).