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Shaken but safe

Of the hundreds of people still missing in Christchurch, New Zealand after last Tuesday's 6.3 earthquake, friends and family are thankful Riley McGibney is not one of them.

Of the hundreds of people still missing in Christchurch, New Zealand after last Tuesday's 6.3 earthquake, friends and family are thankful Riley McGibney is not one of them.

The former Didsbury High School student and Olds High School grad, survived the 6.3 earthquake and is continuing his backpack adventure in what he calls a rather interesting place with an almost fantasy landscape.

That landscape though, particularly the urban landscape of Christchurch, has changed dramatically since he arrived in the city nearly a month ago.

Some roads in the city remain closed either because they sustained such damage or because debris has made them impassable. Rescue crews were still searching through collapsed buildings on the weekend trying to find survivors.

As of Feb. 28, 35 per cent of the city - 55,000 properties out of a total of 150,000 - remain without water. An estimated 75,000 houses are without sewer services.

The quake struck the city at 12:51 p.m. in the middle of the workday. McGibney was sitting near the windows on the third floor of a library in the city centre where he was taking advantage of free wifi to catch up on computer correspondence with friends and family.

“Out of nowhere, everything began to shake,” he said.

His first thought, he said, was a train was passing by since it felt similar to trains passing his former place of employment in Olds, the Movie Gallery, that was situated close to the train tracks.

“Though when I noticed everybody else started getting under tables and how bookshelves were falling over I got the idea of what was actually happening.”

He did as everyone else and crawled under a table but not before getting hit on the head, not hard he said, by falling debris.

“I looked out the window from under the table and saw parts of road curling up and bits of buildings falling off. It didn't last too long, though it felt a lot longer.”

When the earth shaking had subsided, McGibney said alarms rang out signalling evacuation. He quickly grabbed what he could of his belongings and followed the rest of the people - maybe about 100 he estimates - outside.

He said the first thing he saw, aside from the amassing crowd of people, was a large pane of glass crashing down unsettlingly close to him.

“I also noticed down the street that the main church in Cathedral Square - the city centre of Christchurch - was crumbling down and with it dust poured out into the street like a wave.”

The following few minutes were ones of confusion, as few people seemed to know what to do, he said.

“It was something I'd rather not have to witness again. Some people had that look of despair in their eyes, that dead, empty look where they seem to be in a trance of sorts.”

He made his way down the street to a clearing next to a river that runs through the city where people where amassing in order to avoid any more falling debris.

Before he tried to make his way back through the city to the hostel he was staying at, several powerful aftershocks erupted.

The trip on foot would take him a few hours.

“It was rather difficult with roads being blocked off for safety concerns and breaks in the road and pipes causing flooding.”

As he walked back he watched as officials and others began taking control of the situation the best they could, he said.

Rescue vehicles were racing to aid those who needed it and he saw strangers giving first aid to each other.

As of Feb. 28, the Ministry of Civil Defense & Emergency Management confirmed 148 deaths. This figure was expected to rise. There are more than 200 people reported missing in the worst-damaged part of the city. This number will include many, or all of the fatalities, suggested ministry officials.

As of Feb. 28 ministry officials report there have been 70 people rescued.

As McGibney walked to the far side of city centre towards the hostel he was staying at, he saw entire buildings “flattened” and homes missing walls, causing him concern for what he was going back to.

“But I suppose I was fortunate in that the hostel, while it sustained some damage, was more or less intact with everybody inside safe.”

With the power out and the local Internet down, he wasn't able to contact friends and family back home for some time.

The first direct communication announcing his survival came through a Facebook posting the next day.

His mother, Bowden FCSS worker Corrie Monk, said she had been preparing for the worst after first being notified by McGibney's father who lives in Winnipeg, that an earthquake had struck Christchurch.

Because of the time difference between the countries, locally, it was Monday, Feb. 21 at 4:51 p.m. when the earthquake struck Christchurch Feb. 22 at 12:51 p.m.

McGibney had just e-mailed his father several minutes before the earthquake happened.

“I can't recall exactly what I said to him, though it was something along the lines of the usual, which consisted of me telling him I was doing well, looking for a job of some sort and probably going to see a movie that night.”

McGibney's family heard nothing about his circumstances until an e-mail was sent from the owners of a sheep farm where McGibney had applied for work.

The New Zealand family had contacted him out of concern and was able to relay the message back to Canada.

As any mother would, Monk said she wanted to tell her son to come back to their Red Deer County home immediately but said she understands if he wants to continue his backpacking journey through New Zealand.

McGibney said he remembers two thoughts he had during the actual quake. One was that his friend, along with assorted family and well-wishers would be worried and possibly angered that he would not quickly respond to confirm his safety.

“And the other (is) that I still had something very important I had to do, and that if by chance I did die here, it would make a pretty bad ending to my story of a life so far.”

He can stay in the country until Nov. 4 when his working holiday visa expires. Since arriving in Auckland on Nov. 4 of last year, he's travelled northwards along the coast of the North Island, all down the east side, making his way to Christchurch while stopping at all the major, and some minor, towns along the way.

When he does come back to Canada, he intends to pursue a bachelor's in English.