Tuesday, February 22, 2011


It isn’t every day you are thankful for forgetting something, or sleeping until exactly the moment you decided to wake up, or for having exactly the thing you did for breakfast, which took an exact amount of time to eat. But today I was thankful for every little decision I made, normally good or bad, because here I am, alive and well, having survived the 6.3 magnitude Christchurch earthquake that has claimed the lives of many. (The news now says dozens, the official count was in the 70s and maybe more than a hundred are missing from two buildings…the statistics are bound to rise for the worse.)

I was on the public library’s second floor using the free wireless internet when the ground started to shake. “What the hell is happening,” I thought, and then my mind said, “Christchurch…history of recent earthquakes…this is an earthquake…what to you do in an earthquake…dive under your elementary school desk of course…” So that’s what I did and went under the table on my hands and knees and wondered about my future as the ground moved back and forth, like I was on a blue gym mat that people on either side were playing a tug of war. The earth felt like it moved more than a meter in each direction during the big moves.

While the Earth was moving back and fourth, I wondered what was to become of the afternoon. Is my destiny to join the historical masses that have been trapped inside a building after a natural or unnatural disaster? Am I to be crushed inside this building? Am I to be injured by flying debris? Not much time to ponder…Time to get out of the library. “I’ll go down this isle, no, I can’t do that one…or that one…or that one…” as the floor between the isles was a mound of books. No books were left on the shelves. All were strewn about the floor after having taken flight during the shaking. I am happy I was not in a knife shop.

Outside I went to join the hordes of folks wondering what to do where to go. No one around me seemed hurt and wanting to make contact with my family, who I knew was soon to hear about this on the news, I checked to see if the library wireless was still active. It was and I made a gmail phone call to my girlfriend, Glynny, who is to join me here in a few days, and to my parents. The voice was breaking up, but I was able to tell Mom to go to facebook chat. Thank you facebook (small aftershock just now – seems like we’ve had a hundred today)…though it is not easy to convey the emotion of being in a large earthquake over facebook chat to those who haven’t just been though what I had. Was I scared? Well, I thought there was a chance I was going to die, so yeah, I was scared.

There were folks everywhere like me not knowing where to go or what to do except move away from buildings. The chaos was in part fascinating. Which direction is safe, will another quake happen, are buildings about to fall, are my friends okay? How can I help, who do I talk to, where am I supposed to go? From the internet, I was able to learn that it was a 6.2 or maybe 6.3 (can’t remember) and that it’s center was 10 miles SE of the city and at a depth of 5km. Though the quake that hit Christchurch in Sept. as 7.2 or so, it was 20 miles away and at a depth of 10km. (There’s another aftershock…a little rumble and a little rattling…) Because of the relative shallowness and proximity to the city center of the quakes epicenter, there was substantially more damage than what occurred in Sept. The Sept. quake also occurred during the night, so very few people were out and about, contrary to today’s quake at 12:51 pm. Eventually, after numerous littler aftershocks, I started to make my way back to the YMCA. On the way there was much destruction. Scaffolding in a crumpled pile, buildings that had avalanched onto the street, asphalt that had buckled like the ice pressure ridges of the Antarctic, and water in the streets from burst water pipes.

The YMCA looked like it had survived unscathed but I was told by a representative that no one would be allowed to go inside until the building inspector had declared it safe to do so. Knowing there were likely more aftershocks to occur and that the demand for building inspectors must far outweigh the supply, I headed to the botanical gardens for its open spaces and for lack of somewhere better to go. The city center was being evacuated and I joined the flow to the west where I eventually met up with some Ice friends. It was very nice to see familiar faces, to know that friends were still alive, and it was good to share stories. Some had been in the gardens all along, but some had seen people crushed right in front of them, others saw moving cars crushed with falling debris. All of us were a bit shaken up.

After a bit we walked to a clearer part of the park to escape the potential hazard of large trees. Those trees are strong! They are not going to fall….wrong. The trees, yes, are strong, they did not break, but the connection between the roots and the soil around…not as strong. We later saw whole trees uprooted.

After borrowing some phones we finally made contact with the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center) of the US Antarctic program and they escaped damage and were sending shuttles to pick us up. We eventually arrived, still not knowing what to do except line up to use the internet to let friends and family know we were okay. Immediately there was a facebook group organized to find Ice folks who might be affected by the quake. A supposed 500 Ice folks are in the country, and there were over a hundred that landed last night with me, so most of them are likely to still be in Christchurch. On request for Erin Heard, a fellow rigger, looking to help spread the word of safe folks, I posted all the names of people at the CDC along with those that had checked in safely onto the facebook page. Facebook is an amazing thing at times like these. It became a way to instantly spread information to masses and served as a gathering point in trying to locate friends and family.

Hours were spent compiling the names, making sure they got entered properly, and adding more check marks by people who had turned up safe and sound. Many are safe and there must be close to a hundred people now at the CDC. I was very happy to have that job of sharing information. It gave many people much relief, but there are still many who have not checked in. There are lots of Ice folks here, and there was a lot of damage. I don’t like the odds and worry about the coming days. Lives have been lost or forever changed.

The New Zealand response was swift. Within minutes there were folks everywhere with hard hats and orange safety vests, starting to organize and direct things. Clearly they had learned from the recent earthquake history of the city and they seemed ready. There was hope of power being restored by this evening, but we shall see tomorrow.

The hundred of us are a mixed lot. Some have nothing with them, some just a passport. Some a backpack with all their camping gear. Some will get their bags back, some are most likely never going to see their stuff again. My things are in the YMCA, which, as luck would have it, is an emergency structure and shelter built to withstand a quake with a magnitude in the 8’s. Some folks are supposed to fly out tomorrow, but have no bags, no passport and no chance of seeing either again. Supposedly the US consulate is going to give some emergency paperwork and ease the burdens of transport.

It is now past midnight, and my eyes are finally tired. I tried to go to sleep earlier, but the body would not allow it. A bit of adrenaline still going through the system. It is not often I chose the spot where I lie down depending on what can go flying or fall down upon me. It is raining out, and I feel very lucky to be in a place with friends and phones, computers and internet, electricity and toilets, drinkable water and sleeping bags, food. Earlier this afternoon, I reflected on the fact that I had no idea if I was going to be able to eat anything tonight. It is an interesting thing to think, “I have no idea where to find food.” Yet, sadly, to much of the world it is an all too frequent occurrence. Many others of the city are now in public parks under tents. It is not a pleasant night to be outside and I pray for the residents of Christchurch and the people who have been affected by this. I am happy to be safe and sound. I got lucky. I had walked in places where had the quake happened a little earlier or later, I could have been injured or maybe killed. It’s all just a random chain of events that led me to be where I was and I am mighty thankful things went the way they did. Now I wait to confirm this for the others who have not been heard from.

And now I’ll try to sleep, though it’s hard to escape the feeling that the ground is ever so slightly still moving back and fourth. I’ll try now to get some sleep for who knows what tomorrow will bring.

Off The Ice

I am now thousands of feet above the southern ocean packed in a sea of seats and red jackets. There is an excitement in the air which relates very much to the excitement that exists as the C-17 flies southward in the beginning of the season. People around me are very excited about different food options, the smells of the living world, and the freedom to do what they choose.

I am lucky in that I do not feel burnt out, my job, for the most part is not mundane. I still marvel at getting paid to fly in helicopters to remote locations with one or two other folks to do our work, which often involves climbing and assembling towers and then dealing with tools and hardware sometimes at heights of one hundred feet off the ground. I am one of the lucky ones and do not take it for granted.

So now we fly north leaving behind the schedules and routines of the last three, four, or for some, six months. No more free room each night. No more free food. No more free gas. At the same time, no more scheduled meals, no more alarm clocks, no more 6 day work weeks. At least for a time. Many folks do this year after year, and so their off-ice time becomes just that – their off-ice time.

Yesterday, I went for a wonderful run around Observation Hill. It is a three mile loop that gets one a feeling of being far from the station. It was a favorite of mine this last week as the sea ice was disintegrating more and more with each passing day. How wonderful it is to see the open water in front of the station. It has not opened this much in some ten years! It is amazing what a difference it makes in the feel and energy of a place. The cold frozen continent suddenly becomes a living place. Whose waters connect it to rest of the world. I think, I theoretically, could get in a boat leave the shores of McMurdo and some time later (after lots of adventures) arrive back in Massachusetts! What a splendid idea! The smell of the ocean alone is enough to stop and marvel at the sea. A small whiff sets some neurons or something in my brain firing. McMurdo now included in my memories and experience of being on the sea. What I wouldn’t have done to have a little sailboat to do some exploring and see things from the perspective of the sea. Someday…someday…

During my the run, the wind was so light, I stopped to sit down and look upon the sea. It was warm enough sitting on the volcanic rock of Ob Hill, even in shorts, one long sleeve shirt and a vest, to sit for nearly 20 minutes and enjoy Antarctica around me. The water was making noises like whales as the waves found channels and other features in the ice. Then there were the penguins making noises just as we’ve all become familiar with from watching March of the Penguins. And then of course, the water breaking up the sea, taking one jig saw ice piece after another and quietly pulling it north so new pieces could be pulled. Had I left just a week or so ago, I would have missed the most beautiful part of the season.

The sun finally did set my last two nights. Not until almost 2am, but the darkness at those times (yes, I did wake up to see the light of the sunset) was refreshing. A change of light does wonders for the spirit.

And now a little interruption to look out the window near the rear of the plane. I don’t want to miss the Southern Ocean if the clouds have cleared! Nothing but clouds below. Someday I shall be there making this off-ice transit on a ship. Someday hopefully, on my own ship!

People around me partake in various activities. Many read, some play with their computers, many sleep and some just stare blankly in front of them at nothing in particular. I’ll later write in my journal, continue monitoring the window at the back, look at other people and wonder about their lives, but mostly look around at the exposed wires and ducts and systems on the inside of the C-17 and then dream from there. So much to learn.

Nighttime, for the last 3 months, has been out of reach. Even though the sun set the last few days, it was for a very short time and it never went very far below the horizon – perhaps not even the 6 degrees necessary to qualify for civil twilight. Darkness lies to the north. And with darkness comes the magic of being able to see past our atmosphere, into the heavens beyond. Trapped have I been these last months. One of the pleasures of climbing mountains or flying in planes or helicopters is being able to see long distances. One of the pleasures of living on Earth is being able to see far beyond it.

North to the night, to the living, to the color green! Thanks for following along!