Dear guys :
JUST WANTED you to know, besides the fact that your kabayan (townmate, countryman) and family are safe, that just eight hours ago, I wasn’t so sure I would get out of this earthquake in one piece. Hyperbole and exaggeration aside, I’ve gone through a few tremors in my life, but this was quite a strong one. But as usual, I’m getting ahead of myself.
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Quarter to zero hour, that’s midnight, I was so looking forward (not!) to a week of night shifts, in unexpectedly chilly late spring weather, at work. My focus was starting up the network of old machines struggling against wear and tear, lack of maintenance and startup crankiness (common to all old factories) in the middle of night, when everyone else was snoring in dreamland.
I was therefore lucky : the factory had responded well to my ministrations and a recent lubrication project, I was starting the shift with a low-end product, not too much stress quality-wise and production-wise and, against the odds, the ebbs and flows, air pressure, and different settings of the more temperamental machines were holding and under control. Things were looking good.
Famous last words. Just when I was settling down to do my chores (unshuttering the windows to cool the rapidly heating machines), across the main production area, where by pure chance a door was opened showing me the adjoining area where packing machines and pallets of finished product were situated, I saw a scene that was straight out of Poseidon Adventure (a 1970s disaster movie, for those under 40).
All the hanging halogen-strength lights were swaying 45 degrees left and right, and the pallets of product, each weighing roughly a ton and stacked four high, were doing the Gangnam Style strut and starting to fall on each other. I swear Mom (if you’re reading this), never in my 51 years had I seen something like that.
The packer who did night shift, a katutubo (native) not in my department but of course my brother-in-arms, looked like he’d chugged a few cervezas, glugged a liter of milk, a tub of ice cream and then ridden a dozen roller coasters, was pale as the Balete Drive Lady: he was ready to bail out of the site, not even bothering to shut down his machines but alert enough to shout to me: EARTHQUAKE! JUST GET OUT!
Sound advice, in fact the best I heard that night. No arguments from me…
[For the record, I remember two biggie earthquakes, the July 1990 one that killed a few thousand in Baguio and regions, and the Christchurch one five-odd years ago that killed thousands, among them 11 kabayan nurses. None of them felt as strong as this one, mainly because I was much closer to the epicenter.]
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Two other guys were in the site, and as there were just four of us, a roll call was foolish: my shift partner Jacob, ready to retire in two weeks (he is in fact past the retirement age, being 70 years and barya), his trainee, another katutubo, the nauseous packer guy, and yours truly. We weren’t gonna wait for the obvious : aftershocks which on their own were scary and almost as strong as the original tremor, and even scarier, the potential tsunami, which brought to mind the tidal waves which killed more than 10,000 in Japan half a decade ago.
But a modicum of protocol had to be followed, and we each called our respective supervisors. The packing supervisor wasted no time : just pack up and get out of there, you’re less than a kilometer from the bloody sea, for jeez sake. My ops supervisor was somewhat vague, so vague that my call went to voicemail.
So that’s that, I had no choice but to call the overall site manager.
She was in Auckland out of town, an hour away by plane, but I hadn’t known it yet.
Because she knew my number, this was her first sentence:
Noel? Are you guys OK?
She already knew. The earthquake was that bad. The whole North Island was shaken (literally).
A few spouts popped out boss, Pallets fell on top of each other, one big machine off the moorings, but otherwise the site’s fine.
Never mind that, I mean, how are you guys? everyone safe and accounted for?
We’re OK all of us Boss, hope you’re safe on your end.
Turn everything off and shut everything down, and get the eff out of there OK? We’ll talk tomorrow. Stay safe.
And that, my friends, is why Boss is our Site Manager.
Less than an hour later, the inevitable tsumani alert is called by the local government, and the natural thing to do is to literally, head for the hills. Mahal my beloved, our two flatmates and Your Loyal Kabayan spend two hours in a car on the road up to Wainuiomata, which is the highest point on a 20 kilometer radius. Our instructions from the Civil Defense Office are simple.
Stay off beaches. Stay out of the water. Do NOT go sightseeing. And share this information.
Simple enough, but we are on a hillside, because we ALSO want to get down asap. And hillsides are also known for landslides. And guess what? We just had a 7.5 magnitude earthquake, just what you DON’T need for landslides.
As soon as the tsunami alert stops wailing, we head down. We don’t even think of passing by McDo or Burger King, as the employees have undoubtedly up and left their stores.
We stay by the radio and don’t go to sleep until 5 am.
For all its imperfections, New Zealand is razor sharp and steroids strong on safety alertness. Which is why, if even one life is lost from this latest earthquake, it will be regarded as a national tragedy.
Which is why Your Loyal Kabayan, as long as he is wanted, will work in New Zealand.