Chocolate saved their lives.
Wayne and Cecelia Carpenter really see it that way.
If they hadn’t delayed their drive north to visit a Cadbury chocolate factory in Dunedin, New Zealand, they likely would have been in downtown Christchurch when the Feb. 22 earthquake struck.
There’s even a good possibility they would have been at the large cathedral that was badly damaged in the quake.
“We were just late getting there,” Cecelia said.
“And we wanted to get to the cathedral at noon to eat,” Wayne added.
There was a café across the street they enjoyed on their way south and they really wanted one more meal there before flying home to Michigan.
But on their drive north from Dunedin to Christchurch, the 6.3 tremor shook the region, resulting in the loss of at least 165 lives, with more than 200 people missing. Buildings throughout downtown Christchurch were damaged or destroyed.
“The parking garage that we were going to use collapsed,” Cecelia said.
“And then part of the cathedral,” said Wayne. “We would have been right there.”
Within a few minutes, Cecelia said, it was known that lodging reservations throughout the region were canceled, including their hotel room. All available rooms would be used for those who were forced to leave the city of more than 375,000 people.
The Carpenters tried to find a room at four locations and they finally succeeded. The owner of the fourth hotel knew of a ski lodge that was closed for the season. He made a phone call and the travelers had lodging.
“Within 30 minutes they were booked full,” Wayne said.
The lodge owner was extremely helpful. He cautioned the Carpenters to buy gas for the rental car at their first opportunity and also to buy some food for their lunch.
“You won’t get it elsewhere,” he said.
“We should have saved some of our lunch for dinner,” Wayne said, because when they arrived at their hotel at the airport, there was nothing to be found. Even the vending machines had already been emptied.
“When we walked into the hotel lobby, it looked like a refugee camp,” Cecelia said. “People were sleeping everywhere. I felt a little guilty that I had a room.”
They experienced several strong aftershocks—one measured 4.0 and caused an evacuation of the hotel.
“There was a big effort to get all the visitors off the island,” Wayne said.
“This is a time to get to know your neighbors,” Cecelia remembers him saying. “Check on them. Invite them over for dinner.”
He was very reassuring, she said. He urged college and high school students to form a student arm get a shovel and wheelbarrow and help remove sand boils from soil liquefaction in safe places around the city. Tractors were driven in from area farms to help with cleanup.
“We learned from the New Zealand people how a society can function in a disaster,” Cecelia said. “People accepted help, but they had an attitude that we can take care of ourselves.”
The U.S. Embassy set up booths to help travelers whose passports were left behind in damaged buildings they could no longer enter.
At the airport, the Salvation Army was there asking if people needed money, food certificates or other assistance.
Free health care was to be offered for three weeks and $50 flights were offered to anywhere in New Zealand in an effort to get people out of Christchurch.
“Within nine minutes, we printed our boarding passes and luggage tags, went through security and were waiting for our plane,” he said.
“They didn’t even look at our IDs,” Cecelia added.
They flew to the north island where they still had a few days of their vacation remaining before flying home with some stories to tell—and a new appreciation for Cadbury chocolate.