TODAY |

Joy Reid: Canterbury quake struck, then my lonely, long and painful journey to recovery started

Joy Reid was at the centre of of TVNZ’s earthquake coverage in Christchurch on 22 February 2011. A decade on, for the first time, she reflects on the day, including extracts from an email she sent loved ones a few days after the tragedy.

Aftermath of Christchurch earthquake. Source: 1 NEWS

Naked, cowering in my doorway, watching the walls jump around like crickets, yelling but struggling to be heard as a sound equivalent to a freight train roared for what seemed like an eternity. 

That was me at 12.51pm on 22 February 2011.  

As the 10 year anniversary of the devastating Christchurch earthquake looms, I still struggle to reconcile what happened that day.

It changed me, it changed my city, it changed my community.

If I’m honest, I have tried to ignore the 22 February anniversary every year – it’s been too painful. I’ve merely covered the anniversary commemorations for work and refused to personally acknowledge it.

But a decade on, I think it’s time for me to reflect. So, for the first time, I’ve re-read the email I wrote to loved ones a few days after the quake and tried to put my thoughts, from then and now, on paper.

"I had just walked out of the shower and was in the bedroom ... so ran to the doorway... The earthquake was VERY violent, very loud... and terrifying. Geoff [my husband] who was on the other side of the hallway also took cover in a doorway. And while the earthquake went on the walls kept obscuring my view of him... (usually the hallway is obviously straight).. then he ran to me... (amazing now to think about it cos the path he ran had MASSIVE obstacles in it but adrenalin kicked in and he got to me ok). We were alive and unhurt.”

Surviving the earthquake was the easy part it seemed, surviving the aftermath nearly broke me.  I knew I’d be needed at work so rushed into the city, accompanied by Geoff, who’d also been on a day off.

We didn’t want to be separated as we knew there’d be many aftershocks to come. He grabbed his gloves as we’d heard on the radio people were being dug out of the rubble – that was an understatement. 

The smoke, the dust, the liquefaction and the mass exodus of people - some covered in blood and dust - should’ve been a hint at what we’d be confronted with in town. But my naive brain didn’t click. 

"It was extremely surreal. Buildings flattened... MASSES of people exiting the city on foot... ashen faces... tears... panic... dust... smoke... sirens...”

Thankfully my TVNZ colleagues were safe, but our building was ruined. For our rolling coverage, I was stationed outside the collapsed CTV building, which we now know was where 115 people died.

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Joy was one of the TVNZ team at the centre of the tragedy as it unfolded on February 22 ten years ago. Source: 1 NEWS

This was the time before we all had smartphones, I could only report on what I saw, but there was plenty. 

“The devastation in the city was/is intense. The aftershocks kept hitting... We saw more buildings crumble... We saw people (both alive and dead) removed from the rubble... and we saw a lot of other human devastation (which needs not explaining)... We saw a lot...”

The five storey CTV building had pancaked, it was on fire, heroic emergency services and brave civilians worked tirelessly, but it was evident a lot of people would never come home. 

A makeshift morgue was set up just metres away in Latimer Square, bodies were taken in regularly.

I’d never seen so much death up close before. I pray I never do again.

My brain was in work-mode. It reported on what it saw, within reason. 

“At the time we didn’t realise what we were living through...”

I remember standing with Prime Minister John Key as he uttered those words “one of New Zealand’s darkest days” and told the nation at least 65 people had died.

My first thought was “oh my goodness, he’s got it wrong, it can’t be that many”.

We’d survived the September 2010 earthquake without a single death, how could this one be any different?

Naivety was perhaps the reason I could do my job that day.

If I’d truly understood the horrors then, the true scale of loss, I don’t think I would have been able to function. 

The hours rolled on. I remember embracing strangers who waited at the CTV cordon for news of loved ones.

We shared a packet of chips. One man brought his family dog, hoping that the dog might be able to sniff out his wife who he’d been on the phone to as she was trapped in the rubble. It couldn’t. She never came home. 

But I saw miracles too, a mother waiting for her teenage son who’d had a doctor’s appointment on the top floor of the CTV building.

Source: 1 NEWS

Hours after the quake, he walked out with hardly a scratch. Their reunion is imprinted in my memory. Miraculous.

Once off-air, my colleague Lisa Davies, my husband and I walked the barren city streets, which were covered in mud from liquefaction and lined with broken buildings.

Army tanks drove the wrong way up a deserted one-way street, the silence only broken by sirens.

It was what I’d imagined a war zone to look like. It certainly was our war zone. 

We returned home that night to our own quake-affected homes and families, grateful to be alive but also in disbelief. But it wasn’t lost on us that many, many others in the city weren’t so lucky.

The next day we started a surreal journey of the “quake aftermath”. A journey, which for me and countless others, lasted years. 

“The past few days have been a blur... I think I’ve been in survival mode a bit... a bit of a daze... Numb... The aftershocks keep coming... sleeping’s been a chore... but I keep thanking God that Geoff and I are alive, uninjured and that we were together... That in itself has been a huge comfort to know Geoff and I didn’t have to panic worrying if the other was alive...”

TVNZ brought in reinforcements and less than a week after the quake, local staff (many of us without water or power at home and dealing with our own personal needs) were able to take a break.

"I felt a little guilty leaving Christchurch today... as though I was running away from my city in ruin... but I know I’ll be no use to anyone if my health disappears. This is going to be a LONG journey. And I’ll be back there in a few days time.”

As a seasoned news reporter, I was used to covering tragedy and devastation.

But as reporters, we learn to put up barriers in our brains so we can tell their stories impartially and without emotion. Unfortunately, my brain could not hold up that barrier for the quakes. It was my city, my community, my world.

We all knew people whose lives, livelihoods and homes were stolen by the unstable ground.

One friend went to 17 funerals in a week.

Many lost way more than I did – the collective loss was immense. 

For many, myself included, post-traumatic stress started to take hold.

I know now that it wasn’t my fault or a sign of weakness, but at the time, I embarked on a very lonely, long and painful, silent recovery.

I wanted to leave Christchurch, a lot of people did. But we’d just bought our first home, financially we were committed to ride out the storm.

It was a storm. For others it was a hurricane. 

If you wanted to forget, you couldn’t.

The broken city and heartache were forever on display. Many families had to come to terms with one of life’s ultimate nightmares – their loved one would never come home. 

I barely told any other stories at work for two years and I cried a LOT, often at inappropriate times.

I remember being at the press bench inside a Coronial Inquest and the tears started as they replayed the 111 phone call from a woman I’d known - who was stuck inside the collapsed CTV building.

She later died inside the rubble. I couldn’t stop the sobs. I knew I couldn’t keep crying at the desk, and I couldn’t leave the courtroom without making a fuss, so I had to discreetly climb under the desk, cover my ears and cry in hiding so the judge wouldn’t see me.

I was trapped inside a sterile courtroom as my heart broke in the most unprofessional of ways at the most inappropriate of times.

Grief is unpredictable. I was mortified and broken. It wasn’t a one-off. The more we learnt, the worse it got.

I now know that it wasn't my fault or a sign of weakness -

The truth about the CTV building’s compromised structural integrity started to emerge, the clean-up and recovery felt at times slow or non-existent – our community was in survival mode.

But there was so much beauty in the ashes too, the kindness and generosity of strangers and the resilience of Christchurch is a true testament to its strength.

It was like butterflies of hope would fly around and bring small joys on days that just seemed grey. 

It seems impossible to fast track my next 10 years, but I’ll try keep it brief.

It went a bit like this: Counselling. Lots of it. The quake aftermath dominated our lives. Had a baby (he’s now 7). EQC house repairs. Quake stories eventually became less frequent. Had another baby (she’s now almost 5). Back to work in the Christchurch newsroom. Posted to London as TVNZ’s Europe Correspondent. More EQC dramas with our home re-repairs. Returned to the Christchurch reporting team. Having another baby (any day…).

I’m so glad now that we stayed in Christchurch and proud that I stayed in journalism.Ten years ago I would never have imagined I’d have ever recovered.

Mental illness of any kind can be all-consuming, and at the time my post-traumatic stress journey felt like it would define and shame me for life.

But what threatened to break me, only made me stronger.

Discovering the joys of motherhood too has brought about a lot of healing! I admit, I’m not “over it” – I’m not sure that’s even possible.

If I ever hear an Iroquois helicopter, I shudder, and the smell of a burning building brings it all back.

But for me, time has been a great healer. I’m more resilient for it. I know for many others though, especially those who have an empty chair at the dinner table, their suffering will never fully abate. I think of them a lot.

There are still so many questions we need answers to.

Their loss is our city’s loss.  But this year for me, for the first time, the anniversary brings a new sense of hope.

In what is a beautiful, perhaps divine, coincidence, our third child is due on February 22.

She’s arriving into a different city to the one 10 years ago, a city with so much hope, rebuilt and safer facilities and a community that knows how to survive. 

February 22 this year for our family will hopefully be a time of celebration. Closing a chapter of hurt, and welcoming new life and new beginnings.

We will never forget February 22, 2011 – but wouldn’t it be nice to have something joyful to remember it by too. Our own little butterfly of colour on what has, for too many years, been a grey day.

This is part of a 1 NEWS series marking a decade since the deadly Christchurch earthquake.