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Peter Hansen: 'It shocked our community together'

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When the shaking started early that Saturday morning in September, Peter Hansen wondered if it would have been easier just to stay in bed. He and his wife, Tressa, clutched onto each other in the doorway of their Sumner home, and struggled to stay on their feet.

When the ground stopped moving Peter knew the shaking was severe enough to warrant fleeing to higher ground in case of tsunami. So, keeping a calm head, he filled a thermos, got the dog and drove his family up the hill, where they waited until the all-clear was given.

After February, though, Peter realised going to higher ground was no longer an option. In that second quake, rocks were flung like “old projectiles in ancient battle”.

Orginially from Geraldine, Peter moved with his family to Sumner when he was a child so his older brother could attend the Van Asch Deaf Education Centre. Despite stints overseas and in various other New Zealand cities, Sumner has been “home’’ since.


In February, in between work meetings, he had gone to visit his mother in a Richmond rest home.

Parking outside the rest home at 12.51 pm, he thought he’d left the car in gear when it started lurching. “I just couldn’t comprehend it was an earthquake. I thought I was having a dizzy turn.”

The Holy Trinity Church behind the rest home collapsed and all around “it was like a scene from a horror movie’’, Peter says. “All the liquefaction and water was coming out among the graves.”

Once again, he kept his cool. When the shaking stopped, he went into the rest home to help staff deal with the resulting chaos. Despite the commotion, his mother was cheerful – she had already forgotten the preceding few minutes. “She had such a short memory span, she was glad to see me,” Peter says.

Once she was settled, Peter set off home to Sumner. He wound his way through Woolston, and  “shot under” the Heathcote railway underpass just as the radio announced that a train had derailed and the bridge was cracking.

“The closer I got to Sumner, the roads were like a concrete stormy sea,” Peter remembers. “It was as though the road had been twisted…and you were just going over these solid concrete waves.”

Upon reaching the causeway, Peter came across people walking home so stopped to fill his car with earthquake refugees before continuing through Redcliffs. He recalls the shock of seeing the hill collapsed behind Redcliffs School and Shag Rock “reduced to a stump”.

“It had been there forever…it was just mind-blowing that such a thing could ever happen to us.”

After each major earthquake, Sumner residents felt they were left to their own devices by Civil Defence and the council, he says. “We didn’t expect a handout, but we would have liked some support.”

But that didn’t stop them from stepping up and setting up their own hub to look after each other, provide information, food and source water. As a long-time member of the Sumner Residents’ Association, Peter volunteered at the hub.


 A few weeks after the February earthquake, Peter and Tressa headed off on a pre-planned trip to Northland. “We kind of felt we were running out on the place, but we needed a break.”

Returning from a day at the beach, they turned on the news and heard about a tsunami in Japan. “We were just totally overwhelmed because it was where our son lived, five kilometres from the Fukushima nuclear reactor,” Peter recalls.

All night Peter and Tressa tried to get in touch with their son, Tim. It wasn’t until the next morning that their other son in England managed to make contact with the family in Japan. A few minutes after that call, Tim and his wife, three children and in-laws were told to “flee for their lives”. They left their home with nothing.

Remembering those weeks, Peter talks about how strange it was to go through similar disasters so far apart. And, while his son’s family are safe and have been compensated for the loss of their farm, the memory is still distressing.


By early 2012, Peter was feeling unwell.

His job as a workplace chaplain had been “very stressful” since the first September quake. “I was dealing with a lot of clients in the workplace whose houses had been affected. It quickly became apparent that it wasn’t easy getting resolutions from insurance companies.”

He’d heard many heart-breaking stories and a lot of frustration. “I know in those few months that I got quite overwhelmed with the stories I was listening to, and my powerlessness to do anything about it.”

The cluster of earthquakes around Christmas 2011 was “the pits”. People had gone off on holiday and he was riding around looking at a “ghost town”. “It was eerie…it was like the end of the world had happened and we’d been left behind.”

Peter’s mother, whom he had been visiting at the time of the Februrary earthquake, died the week of the June 2011 earthquakes. “We couldn’t have the funeral in Sumner, because the churches were out of action,” Peter says, and some people couldn’t travel to the funeral.

“I couldn’t grieve for her.”

“It was about six months before I could even think about it. What you’re enduring at the time: you have to focus on living, surviving, getting through the next day.”

A visit to his doctor in January 2012 prompted his retirement. He had complained of a cough and wondered if it was caused by liquefaction dust, but his doctor suggested he retire, “otherwise you’re going to kill yourself”.

“I was overwhelmed, even more than I was the previous year,” Peter says. “There was so much disempowerment and frustration. And then you’d come home and your family would have the same problems, and all your friends had the same problems. It was impossible to escape. You were just totally immersed in it.”


Retiring, though, hasn’t stopped Peter from continuing to make himself useful in his community.

The earthquakes had a silver lining, he says. “It shocked our community together.”

“It’s been a bit like a new start and a new initiative.”

Some things are still hard. Peter and Tressa’s house is on a major bus route, and the building shudders every time a bus races past. “It’s not far below the surface,” he says, “The things that make you jump.”

But, while there are still people who won’t visit Sumner and who avoid the container-lined roads, Peter says you get used to living with it.

“It’s not forever.”

These days he keeps busy with roles on the Sumner Community Residents’ Association and the Sumner Redcliffs Historical Society, and he volunteers at the Sumner Community Hub and in the community garden.

Sumner’s home, and he still wants to contribute.

“Life has changed,” he says. “And I think you get used to that.”

_As told to Sarah-Jane O’Connor

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.