Real Life

Christchurch one year on: I know how lucky I am

Ann Browner was the only person on the number three bus to survive.

As the first anniversary of the February Christchurch earthquake approaches, Ann Brower can’t help feeling like one of the forgotten casualties of the devastating disaster.

The Lincoln University environmental policy lecturer was the only person on the number three bus to survive after it was crushed by a collapsing building and she suffered terrible injuries, which still cause her pain.

She’s one of many survivors still picking up the pieces of their lives after the quake and says at times it’s frustrating that there seems to be much more focus on damaged homes than those who were hurt.

“It’s hard to avoid thinking that people care more about cracked walls than broken bones,” says Ann, whose hand, leg and pelvis were broken when the brick building in Colombo St crashed onto the bus as the quake struck.

She says the first person to ask how she personally fared in the quake, rather than if her house was affected, was an Australian man at a recent conference in Brisbane. “People often ask me about my house and when I say it’s okay they say, ‘You are one of the lucky ones.’ I say, ‘Actually, no…'”

But Ann knows she was incredibly fortunate to survive the earthquake at all. The eight other people on the bus, including the driver (behind whom Ann was sitting), all died, and four people on the footpath also lost their lives when the central city building came down.

Ann was trapped for about an hour as bystanders dug her out of the rubble, which had

forced the roof of the bus down onto her hips. “That was the difference between me and everyone else on the bus,” says Ann, an American who has lived in New Zealand for seven years.

“The roof landed on my hips, not my head.” She passed out repeatedly from the pain, but has very clear memories of the times she was conscious. “There was an incredible amount of pressure on my hip and it kept getting worse.

I thought, ‘I’m not sure how much more I can take.’ “I remember my rescuers. A man called Mike came when I first started screaming, a man called Rob held my hand and told me stories, and a guy called Gary flagged down a driver to get me to hospital.

He stayed with me for a couple of hours. “Rob made it his job to distract me while they were trying to get me out – I knew not to look around at the other passengers. In many ways it was worse for the people who were rescuing others. They saw so much more than I saw and many of them have suffered more post-traumatic stress.”

Ann, who says she has since become “great mates” with herrescuers, didn’t know she was the only survivor on the bus until three days later. “It didn’t hit me straightaway. I do remember lying in hospital thinking, ‘Why me?’ I have a hard time when people say someone was looking out for me that day.

That means that someone wasn’t looking out for the other 12 people on the bus and

footpath. There isn’t any rhyme or reason to why I survived.” Ann believes the lives of

those 12 people could have been saved if the brick building that fell on them – which had been damaged in the earlier September earthquake – had been reinforced or cordoned off.

“I’m angry that all those people died – I don’t think they needed to. If it had been reinforced it would have slowed down the collapse. Other parts of Colombo St were cordoned off, but this wasn’t. It wasn’t the earthquake that killed those people – it was the building.”

Ann is quick to add that although she is angry and “tremendously sad” about the 12 who lost their lives along with all the other people who died that day, she is not bitter. “I am living my life – you can move on but still have sorrow,” she says. “I will always remember what happened – it becomes a part of you – but I don’t dwell on it.

So far I have been good from an emotional point of view and I’m gradually getting better physically. I can jog, I can ride a bike and I can walk for hours. I’m much weaker than I used to be and every other step I take hurts, but I rarely let it stop me.”

Ann, who doesn’t have family in New Zealand, says the quake hasn’t changed her outlook on life, apart from making it easier to let go of “troublesome little things you know shouldn’t bother you”.

“I’m glad to have survived. I’m glad to be mostly intact and to have all my limbs. And for that I know I am tremendously lucky.”

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