Its 5.30am on the first day of January 2013, the sun is hanging like a big red ball just above the trees with the promise of stifling heat. Dust motes dance along the rays of light and the world is still and quiet, even the parrots that normally screech and scream at this hour of the day are silent. No traffic on the highway in the distance either, very unusual at this hour of the morning. Something does not feel right with the world this morning. The dogs out the back are silent and cowering in their kennels, no barking to greet the new day, no tail wags and no exuberance. Something is wrong.
The silence is unnerving me, the stillness of the morning makes me feel as if I am the only person left alive in the world, something is going to happen, or maybe it already has. I can feel it, the small hairs rising on the back of my neck and down my arms. I just don't know what is coming. I empty my coffee grounds from my cup onto the ground beside the porch rail where I stand, with a shiver I turn around.
I return to the house and turn on the radio and all I receive is static, the television is the same. The phone is dead and the internet has gone down too. Here I am alone, twenty miles from town and something is wrong.
Heading for the bathroom to shower and get ready for the day I feel the floor of the house lurch beneath my feet and a long low rumble fills the air with an eerie vibration. The walls start to sway and I grab for the door frame to steady myself as the house lurches sideways, steadies and then moves again with a twisting motion that has windows cracking and tiles popping from the bathroom wall to shatter on the floor.
"Earthquake! A bad one too." I mutter to myself as I watch the ground ripple through the now broken bathroom window.
"Not good, no wonder everything was so still and quiet this morning" I say aloud to the creaking house as my little house dog whimpers and cowers at my feet.
Dust is rising from the cracks that now appear in the wall and the swaying is sending me sliding towards the broken windows but I grab the hand basin and hang on grimly as this wild ride continues. I hear things falling in the rest of the house and further away I can hear gum trees popping their branches and falling to the ground. This rumble is going on and on and the swaying is getting worse.
"Please don't fall down old house, protect me and puppy." I yell above the noise of falling objects and the rumbles from deep in the earth.
Slowly the rumbles fade and the earth stills down. I pull myself towards the door, shaking from fear and the energy that I have expended to keep myself from falling through the broken windows. The floor is littered with glittering shards of tiles and glass; barefoot I am careful to make sure I don't tread on anything sharp.
I dress and slowly walk through the house collecting the first aid kit, food for myself and the dogs, some clothing, bottled water, blankets and stout shoes, a torch and my personal valuables and papers. There are will be people out there who need help. I also go to the gun safe and collect both fire arms and ammunition as there will also be injured animals that need to be put down. The house is a mess, but thankfully still standing, just with jagged glass in the window frames and broken crockery and ornaments on the floors and cupboards with doors hanging open showing their jumbled contents.
The car shed has twisted slightly on its foundation and the doors are difficult to open, but with a few heaves it opens and I head inside to get the truck out. Four dogs trotting at my heels they are very anxious and afraid. They head straight up into the truck and the three working dogs are tied to the back and puppy gets into the cabin and settles into her normal spot in-between the seats while I put down the armfuls of supplies. I also gather a chainsaw, ropes, chains, an axe and shovel from the shed; I figure I may need any one of these during the next few hours. All of these are thrown on the truck bed with a large tarpaulin to cover them.
Reversing out of the shed I notice that there are a few cans of fuel beside the truck so I pick those up and also put them on the truck with the dogs.
Driving into town becomes a nightmare of humps, bumps and crevasses in the ground that have been thrown up by the earthquake. Some crevasses are so large that I have to drive for long distances across country to get around them. The drive is difficult and dangerous with many parts of the road no longer there and sudden patches of weird sand that tries to suck at the truck and take it down to who knows where. I learn very quickly to watch for this sand and avoid it as the winch may be needed for rescue work and I don't want to burn it out.
I see no signs of human life as I drive along through the dust filled air, just a few bewildered cattle staggering through the bush and pull over to check a couple that are close to my route. They will be okay I think and keep driving towards the township that is now just visible on the horizon. The dust pall is huge and I suspect that there is going to be a huge amount of damage to contend with when I get there.
Town at last, but not the town that I last saw two days ago. The whole town is a mass of twisted buildings, carpeted with glittering glass shards and a curtain of dust hangs thick over the whole place. Water fountains from the broken water mains in the streets, floods across the roads and through the broken houses and businesses. There are bricks scattered across roads and piles of rubble where buildings once stood. It's an hour after the earthquake and I see no movement from the rubble except for scared dogs and cats scuttling in and out of the broken buildings. John Creek, Australia has almost ceased to exist.
I head for the local Emergency Service Compound hoping that any survivors will have made their way there, only to be greeted by a locked door and silence. Pulling out my keys I open up and make my way to the banks of batteries and portable radios. The power is out and power lines lay in swathes around the town, but there are always charged batteries here and radios. When turning on the radio I am greeted with static and although I put out the call sign several times no one answers…. I am alone in a devastated landscape and now have to search for signs of life amongst the town. This is going to be a grim day for me as I know that so many of the town people would have still been in bed and would have had no chance to even brace themselves during the massive movements of the earth. I grab the keys to the fire truck from the wall; put the dogs on their chains in the shade at the back of the shed, fill their water and food bowls and give them a pat. Then I grab more radios and batteries, drive out of the shed and into the devastation.
I head straight to the local Doctors home to start the search. Doc Tom and his wife, a nurse, will be invaluable if they have survived this and we find others who need help. The house is a pile of twisted and broken wood and tin topped by Doc's beloved German Shepard dog Wally. Wally is trying to dig through the rubble to get to Doc and Sue and I join him after donning gloves and grabbing a crow bar and a jack from the truck. I am praying constantly now and praising Wally for his efforts to get to his beloved family. I realize that I am standing above the bedroom where Tom and Sue sleep and know that they would still be in bed at such an early hour so I am not hopeful of finding life, but Wally is determined to get through to them, so there may be a possibility that they are alive under the debris. We dig and I move twisted metal and broken wood and plaster away, choking on the dust rising all around us. The last piece of ceiling plaster is pulled from the ever growing hole in the debris and I discover both Tom and Sue there in the bedroom. Tom is sprawled half in and half out of bed, his arms around Sue as if he is trying to protect her from the falling roof and walls. I know that there is nothing I can do for either of them though. There is blood everywhere, too much blood. With tears in my eyes I watch as Wally worms his way down through the hole in the roof and curls around them both. Then I turn away and head to the next house in the street to begin again, head bowed and tears streaming down my face; knowing in my heart that I will face this same scene over and over again during the hours/days that it may take to search the town.
The search continues with frequent breaks for tears and sorrow as house after house reveal the same thing, broken homes, broken dreams and broken bodies. I return to the Emergency Service Compound many times throughout the day to rest, check for others around and to keep an eye on my dogs. Each time I return, there is hope in my heart that I will find someone there, maybe injured, but someone. The empty silence is getting difficult to deal with and the body count is rising. I have taken a map from the wall and marked each house that I have searched and listed on it the names of the people whose remains are buried in the rubble. This tallies with the tagging and marking, universal for Search and Rescue, that I have done at each property I have searched and becomes a reference for others who may come to search. It is all I can do at this time. I call frequently on the radio in hopes that someone somewhere will hear my calls for help and come to assist me, but all I hear over the air is the static and the silence of death.
Am I the only person who has survived this?
Is there anyone else around?
Late afternoon sees me driving the fire truck to each street and sounding the siren several times. I then leave the truck and walk with a megaphone calling out to the people there and telling them to make a noise, any noise. The silence is deafening though and I hear nothing in street after street. My voice is hoarse now with calling out to empty air and my throat sore from the shouting and the dust. I hear no movement in street after street; not one voice calls for help, no groans or cries from under the rubble. I am beginning to believe I am the only survivor in the area.
It's almost dark now and I return to the Emergency Service Compound for the last time today, there is no point in searching further through the night hours. It is too dangerous to walk the rubble strewn streets and I would be no use to others who are injured if I hurt myself.
Time for me to feed the dogs, and myself, then rest and recover enough to start searching again tomorrow. Searching, hoping and trying to find someone else, anyone else who has survived this earthquake. I lie down on the cot in the office and close my eyes and try to compose myself for sleep. Sleep, however, will not come, visions of the sights I have seen and the friends I have lost, the devastation and the blood dance behind my eyelids. The tears come, I cry rivers during the night, dozing off and on between bouts of tears and waking to the almost constant aftershocks that are making things so dangerous out there in the town. I hear damaged buildings tumble further down with each shake of the earth.
The hours of darkness pass slowly and with the rising of the sun I awake and through sore red eyes peer at a world that 24 hours ago did not look like this. Once again I feed the dogs, eat cold baked beans as I am too hungry to wait for them to heat through and make coffee on the primus stove in the back room. I am as ready as I ever will be to face another day in this hell hole that used to be John Creek.
The routine begins again with the siren on the fire truck sounding as I turn into the street and the megaphone calling, then the silence as I listen for sounds of life. I work through the town again, street by street, house by house, calling, ever calling and hoping for someone to make a noise, any noise. All the sounds are from the animals crying for food and water, I know I cannot feed them all, so sadly I just keep moving and hoping as I journey through the streets of our small town.
Hour after hour I scour the streets, slowly and thoroughly, I no longer record the names of the dead, there are too many, and it hurts my soul to remember that just two days ago these were living breathing people, my friends and my life.
The radio is still static filled and no voices are heard there either, I am beginning to believe that I am the only human to have survived the devastation of the quake. As the earth shakes yet again I begin to believe that my best chance of finding survivors is to head for the nearest large town and to check on the farms along the road. This I will do tomorrow, but for today I will continue my search of the town in the hopes that one person, just one has managed to survive……
The hours tick by and slowly I cover each and every street. My eyes are sore from the tears and my voice almost gone from trying to find others who are alive. I have blisters on my feet from my boots rubbing and sore hands from moving the piles of rubble that litter the streets to get the truck through and I am exhausted both mentally and physically. I have seen death before, I am a widow and I was also a nurse years ago and death holds no mystery for me, but to see death on this scale is something that I never anticipated. The horror is just starting to reach my brain.
I reach the end of the main street and turn into Short Street and hit the siren again. Sound echo's through the stillness of the town then silence as I turn off the truck, pick up the megaphone and start to walk down this quiet leafy street. Megaphone in hand I begin to scan the broken buildings, eyes moving left and right. Searching, ever searching.
There, I see it! Amongst the rubble is movement, slow, shifting of tin and wood as something or someone pushes against it. My eyes widen as I peer towards this moving pile of debris and wonder. The movement is too large for an animal and for the first time in more than 24 hours I am hopeful that I have found someone alive.
I move towards the area, slowly at first, disbelieving after so long. Then I move faster, my feet stumbling over broken bricks and pieces of wood, all thoughts of my own safety have flown, there is someone there. I know that this is the home of my friend Rhys Jones, his wife Wendy and their tiny baby Caren. Rhys owns the local supermarket and Wendy runs the only dress shop in town. Caren is only six months old. I don't know who is under the rubble, but someone has survived. Now to get them out of there and I hope that they have injuries I can manage.
Pulling my gloves and crowbar from my belt I work my way across the rubble pile that was once a home and calling out to let whoever is alive know that it is me and I am on top of the pile and going to help get them out. I am answered by the deep bass rumble of Rhys's voice, telling me he is only slightly injured and that Caren is okay, wet, grumpy and hungry, but her cot protected her. His voice breaks as I ask about Wendy. Wendy is gone, she did not survive the initial quake and Rhys doesn't know how long he was unconscious for, he heard the siren a while ago and had been working to get to the top of the pile of rubble, listening to me getting closer and closer and praying that I would not give up before I found them.
The earth shifts again as an aftershock rumbles through the town. The rubble pile moves with it and I hold my position and my breath hoping that it doesn't collapse any further onto my friend and his tiny child.
The shaking settles and I am so glad to hear the cries from Caren and Rhys gently soothing her as we both get back to work, one on the top of the pile of debris and one underneath.
Two hours pass and there covered in dust, through a gap in the twisted tin, I can see my friend! We both smile as we pass tiny Caren through the hole. Then I tie a rope to a tree in what used to be the front yard of the house and lower it down to Rhys so that he is able to climb out into the daylight.
There we stand, with this precious little life cradled in her father's arms and with our arms around each other. Rhys now looks at the devastation for the first time and tears flow down his face for Wendy and for the others in town who have not made it. His customers and friends of many years are no longer here and neither is the town where he grew up, married and started to build his family.
We walk slowly back to the fire truck with me answering his questions and explaining that I had been searching throughout the day before and today and had only found the two of them alive. We resolve to give it another twenty four hours of searching here and then to drive to the next town to see if there are others there who have survived.