03/06/11 — Earthquake eyewitnesses

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Earthquake eyewitnesses

By Keith Taylor
Published in News on March 6, 2011 1:50 AM

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Sieg Schaberg and his wife, Gloria, were driving in New Zealand when the Earth shook during the recent earthquake that hit the country. Schaberg said he briefly thought the transmission had fallen from the car.

Siegfried and Gloria Schaberg of Goldsboro fully anticipated that their New Zealand vacation would be memorable. They didn't expect it to be earth-shaking.

"We were driving near the port of Lyttelton," Schaberg said. He and his wife had just finished lunch at a restaurant in coastal Sumner with a longtime friend, and they decided to take one more look around. The nearby harbor was tranquil. Cliffs and high hills hovered gracefully along the other side of the road.

The Schabergs were near the epicenter of an impending earthquake.

It was Feb. 22, the day before they were scheduled to depart for the United States after a month of sightseeing and catching up with old friends. Their vacation was Dr. Schaberg's fourth time in New Zealand; it was Mrs. Schaberg's econd.

It wasn't long before the serenity of their scenic drive near the coast abruptly turned to pandemonium. The deadly magnitude-6.3 earthquake shattered Christchurch, a popular tourist destination on New Zealand's South Island.

The restaurant they had just left was mere kilometers outside the city.

"All of a sudden, the car started shaking," Schaberg said. "It was like King Kong was trying to shake my car."

His first thought was that something was wrong with the car itself. He stopped the car. At that point, he and his passengers noticed rocks strewn all over the ground. Then more rocks began falling from an adjacent hillside, small ones at first. "Then the rocks started getting bigger and bigger," Schaberg said.

"That is when we realized we were in an earthquake."

For their friend Jocelyn Jarmey, a resident of Christchurch, what was happening was all too familiar. New Zealand had just experienced an earthquake the previous September, and the memory was fresh in her mind. She knew this was another one.

Schaberg said the initial shaking of the ground beneath them lasted about 11/2 to 2 minutes.

The Schabergs and Mrs. Jarmey were among the lucky ones. Lucky not to have been among those trapped in collapsed buildings. Lucky not to have been astride fissures that opened in the ground. Lucky not to have been hit by the rocks and boulders falling from higher elevations along the road.

The first thing Mrs. Schaberg noticed after the initial shaking stopped was a huge cloud of dust that obscured the valley below. "Just dust everywhere," she said.

Schaberg turned the car around and they began to make their way back toward Mrs. Jarmey's house in Christchurch.

Then came the aftershocks. "All of a sudden, the car would start shaking again," Schaberg said.

Rocks and boulders made an obstacle course of the roadway. Schaberg weaved the car around the rocks wherever possible, sometimes having to opt for driving on the sidewalk. At one point, a particularly heavy boulder of more than 2 feet in diameter had to be moved for the car to proceed. Schaberg stopped to move it, as did a motorist in the car behind them. "That was the part that scared me the most," because rocks were still falling, Schaberg said.

As they resumed their drive toward Christchurch, they found bridges impassable and police diverting traffic away from danger zones and the more heavily damaged sections of the road. By the time they made it back to Christchurch, large portions of the city were cordoned off.

A return 10-kilometer drive to Mrs. Jarmey's home that ordinarily would have taken about 15 minutes required five and a half hours.

During that time, the Schabergs saw firsthand some of the damage the earthquake wrought.

"As we drove back, we saw the devastation of the homes," Mrs. Schaberg said. She remembers seeing a house on fire. Trees were askew. Power lines were down everywhere. Water was gushing from the numerous broken water mains. "It was awful."

Schaberg told of seeing houses everywhere that displayed evidence of the disaster. Brick walls had fallen. Roofs collapsed. "We saw a lot of destruction," Schaberg said.

People were walking around everywhere, he said, many in an apparent daze.

Among the heavily damaged homes was Mrs. Jarmey's.

"The entire chimney had imploded into the house," Schaberg said. The living room and dining room were destroyed. "All of her beautiful antiques from the shelves were all over the floor, broken."

Water and electricity were off throughout the region. Authorities also were spreading the word that residents should stay off the telephones so emergency calls could get through. Some of the calls were from people trapped under buildings and rubble. Mobile phones probably saved some of those people's lives, Schaberg said. "I think in many cases it did."

Mrs. Jarmey was able to stay at a neighbor's house that was still habitable. The Schabergs helped to get her situated, then headed out in search of place to stay overnight. They looked for a motel. "We just started driving until we found one," Schaberg said. They were lucky to find a motel about 25 miles south that had one room available for one night. The electricity was out there, too, but it didn't matter. "Give me a candle, as long as I get a bed to sleep," Schaberg said.

They also managed to find food. The only restaurant that stayed open near the motel was a McDonald's. "They must have had a generator or something," Schaberg said.

His wife had some difficulty sleeping that night, but not Schaberg. "I was so tired," he said. "I had no trouble sleeping."

The next morning, they drove back to check on Mrs. Jarmey and to make sure she had adequate food and water before they said their goodbyes. "She did have all those things, so we felt more comfortable leaving," he said.

Later that day, the Schabergs arrived at the Christchurch airport and returned their rental car, a Toyota Aurion. The woman working at the rental site seemed both happy that the Schabergs were fine and almost surprised that the car was intact. "She was very happy about that," Schaberg said.

The Schabergs were able to get through to their daughter Yvonne Schaberg in Garner that day to let her and their other children -- John Schaberg in Columbia, S.C., Eric Schaberg in Rocky Mount and Annette Woodard in Goldsboro -- know that they were OK and to pass the word along to their grandchildren. Mindful of official directives the previous day not to use telephones except for immediate emergencies, the Schabergs had waited to call. "I just felt that those people trapped in those buildings needed priority," Schaberg said.

At the airport, the Schabergs were able to get water and sandwiches while waiting for their flight aboard Air New Zealand that evening. Their flight was running almost according to schedule. The Schabergs then began a succession of flights that took them from Christchurch to Auckland, New Zealand, then on to Singapore, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Charlotte and Raleigh.

The news from New Zealand is still unfolding. Bodies continue to be pulled from under rubble. The number of dead from the earthquake has climbed to 161, and officials say it could reach an estimated 240.

The Schabergs' love of New Zealand goes way back. Schaberg, a retired maxillofacial specialist originally from St. Paul, Minn., first saw New Zealand in the 1960s when he served in the Navy in support of Operation Deep Freeze, the United States' Antarctic research program. Shaberg was stationed at that time in Christchurch, traveling back and forth between there and Antarctica, practicing dentistry on U.S. personnel in both places.

The Schabergs' friendship with the Jarmeys goes back to the 1960s as well, when Siegfried Schaberg met the late Allen Jarmey, who also was a dentist in New Zealand. Allen and Jocelyn Jarmey began to invite Schaberg to their home for dinners and weekend visits. The two families became lifelong friends.

The Schabergs remain concerned about Mrs. Jarmey and have been in touch with her since they returned to Goldsboro. Mrs. Jarmey still is in temporary accommodations, but she has a son there to help her, as well some good friends, and she is safe. "He had his buddies over to help patch up that big hole in her roof," Schaberg said.

The Schabergs won't soon forget the ordeal of their most recent visit to New Zealand, but their love for New Zealand remains intact.

"It's a beautiful, beautiful country," said Mrs. Schaberg, a retired nurse.

"It's a gorgeous country," her husband agreed, "and the people are extremely friendly."

But for now, the suffering of the people there is what preoccupies the Schabergs' thoughts. They remain alert for any news about rescue and recovery efforts, and are still hopeful that more survivors will be found in the rubble.

"I just thank the good Lord that we got out safely," Schaberg said. "I really want to give my condolences for those who didn't survive, and their families. We have a lot of sympathy for those who were trapped in those buildings."