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Denise Ashton: 'I honestly don’t know how we survived'

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The ocean hadn’t changed.

That was the simple truth Denise Ashton relied on in the aftermath of the February 2011 earthquake.

Her house was damaged, the streets and lawns were covered in liquefaction, and she had no power, but every morning she found a way to make it all go away, at least temporarily.

“Every morning I’d hop in the car and take a loaf of bread down to New Brighton.”

“I’d sit at the beach for a couple of hours, feeding the seagulls.”

Looking out to sea, she says you couldn’t tell that anything was wrong with the city.

“That saved my sanity.”


“All hell broke loose.”

That’s how Denise describes the February 2011 earthquake.

Like everyone, she remembers where she was at 12.51, and how she got there.

“Shall I go left and lunch at the Palms, and do some shopping or shall I go right and go home?”

Denise chose home, for sandwiches and an episode of a soap opera. She made her lunch, and that was when it happened.

Denise’s daughter lives next door, so she made her way over there, and that was where she spent the rest of the afternoon, sitting under a tree and watching liquefaction bubble up.

“The neighbours where I live are absolutely marvelous.”

The ones who used their wood burner to provide fresh cups of tea. The ones who arranged to collect everybody’s cellphones and take them to Merivale to get them charged.

“We were all sharing food, we were all sharing facilities, whatever we could.”


“The biggest (problem) was being without power.”

Denise says you can cope without water, but you need power. Unfortunately, the two are so often intertwined.

Being without power meant making daily trips to friends who had some, for showers and to do the washing, broken up with visits to the local golf course, because “you felt guilty using other people’s power”.

She remembers coming home at ten o’clock one night to find technicians working on the power lines.

“Any chance of the power coming on in the not-too-distant future?” she asked.

“We’ll have it on in half an hour,” was the reply.

“I nearly kissed him.”


“I honestly don’t know how we survived.”

With phone lines jammed, Denise couldn’t reach her sister-in-law in England, to let her know they were okay.

When the sister-in-law hadn’t heard from them by Thursday, she contacted the British embassy, which added the Ashtons to the missing person’s list.

Denise says she was surprised to get a call from them, as well as the American embassy a week later.

Denise can’t remember what exactly happened with each earthquake.

“They all blur into one.”

There are some places where the damage is still too raw.

“I don’t go into town. I won’t go into town.”

“I don’t want to have to cope with it.”


“My house was cracked to blazes and it’s still exactly the same.”

Denise and her husband have lived in Christchurch since 1972.

Theirs is an Oamaru stone house. It used to have an archway over a path outside, but that was destroyed by the quakes.

It has cracks around the inside and outside, and it leaks when it rains.

Its chimney was deemed unsafe and replaced with a new one – the only work that’s been done on the place in two and a half years.

But, Denise says, as long as it is habitable, she doesn’t care.

“It’s my home, and I’ve been there for 40 odd years, and I don’t want to leave it.”

Denise no longer worries about the things she can’t change.

The earthquakes have made her realise it’s people that are important.

“It has really changed my outlook on life.”

_As told to Andrew Voerman

This story is part of a UC Journalism project to trial a new form of community journalism by recording and sharing people’s everyday stories about the Canterbury earthquakes and recovery. You can read more about the Connecting our Stories project here.