'Don't think about the bad stuff': How the children of the quake survived and thrived

By Mike Scott, Olivia Carville

178 children have to share the anniversary of a parent's death with the nation. To mark five years since one of New Zealand's darkest days, Olivia Carville and Mike Scott honour the children of the February 22 quake.

On February 22, 2011, 178 children lost a parent.

Some were so young they have no memories of their mum or dad; some weren't even born.

It's been five years since the earthquake. That's 1825 days and five birthdays.

Christchurch has changed a lot over those years, but the ageing of a child represents the passing of time in a way that cityscapes do not.

Those who were crawling are now walking.

Those who couldn't talk are now writing.

Those who didn't understand death now talk candidly of heaven.

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The death of a parent will always feel unbearable to a child, but losing a mother or father in a disaster that claimed 185 lives and destroyed a city adds a rare level of complexity and confusion to that grief.

These children have to share the anniversary of their parent's death with an entire nation.
To mark five years since New Zealand's darkest day, the Herald is honouring the children of the quake.

• Remembering the three babies who died that day: 5-week-old Taneysha Gail Prattley killed in her pram on Lichfield St, 5-month-old Baxtor Gowland who died in his cot and 8-month-old Jayden Harris crushed by a television set.

• Remembering the children who almost lost their lives, such as 11-year-old Abbie Walls who was pulled from the rubble unresponsive and barely breathing.

• And, remembering the children left behind: Ashton, 4, and Jack, 8, Fisher who will be letting go of balloons for their dad on the anniversary and Matilda, 7, and Molly, 8, Maynard who will be taking sunflowers to their mum's grave.

Five years on, these are the stories of five children of the quake.

A miracle survival

A 6-year-old lifted out of the rubble of City Mall; lifeless.

A crushed and bloodied little girl, starved of oxygen, cradled in the arms of strangers.

Abbie Walls. Photo / Mike Scott
Abbie Walls. Photo / Mike Scott

Amid the carnage and hysteria of February 22, 2011, Abbie Walls was the first quake victim carried into Christchurch Hospital.

Looking at her today, you would never guess she cheated death that day.

Her smile belies any hint that five years ago her crush injuries were so severe doctors considered stopping treatment.

Hospital records show she had a limited response to resuscitation, a traumatic brain injury, liver lacerations, a broken jaw and cuts on her face and head.

Other than a minor scar along her hair line and partial loss of vision in one eye, Abbie has no lasting injuries.

She's wise beyond her 11 years.

"I do think it's changed me," she says of the quake.

"Now I sort of know how to deal with situations. Like when people are either sick or injured and then you comfort them; how they need comforting," she says.

Mercifully, Abbie's mind has erased any memory of the quake - or the three weeks which followed.

She knows she was on her way to the dentist with her mum, Olivia Cruickshank.

The pair were walking hand-in-hand through City Mall when "the building fell down and my mum protected me".

Ms Cruickshank used her body to shield her daughter from the debris and it wasn't until rescuers pulled her out of the rubble, that they saw a child hidden beneath.

Abbie was rushed to hospital immediately; her mum was declared dead and covered by a grey blanket.

Over the course of four hours, three different people pronounced Ms Cruickshank dead before a young man found a faint pulse and called for help.

Miraculously, she too survived.

Abbie doesn't remember the moment she woke up from a coma in Auckland's Starship Hospital. But she does remember having all her teddy bears on her hospital bed, learning how to walk and talk again and seeing her mum for the first time.

"I went to visit her room and went inside and I got a bit scared because she wasn't breathing properly and was making weird sounds so I just went outside and drew pictures of my mum," Abbie says.

She used to sit inside a cardboard box in her mum's hospital room so she could be near her, but avoid having to see the machines helping her breathe.

"I always used to feel emotional and sad and I'd never be happy, but now I'm always happy because I don't like to think when I'm sad because it just makes me think about all the bad stuff," she says.

This year, Abbie will attend the earthquake memorial to remember those who lost their lives and "celebrate that my mum and I are still here".

"I feel really lucky," she says.

Five years on from the day she almost died, Abbie's message to Christchurch is: "Stay strong and if there are good memories before or after that date try to think of them and don't always think about the bad stuff because it won't get you very far."


Balloon catcher

Adam Fisher is in the sky, his sons Jack and Ashton say.

He catches the balloons they send up to him every year by "stretching his hand out" from heaven.

And he also moves the clouds so he can watch them growing up.

Jack Fisher. Photo / Mike Scott
Jack Fisher. Photo / Mike Scott
Ashton Fisher. Photo / Mike Scott
Ashton Fisher. Photo / Mike Scott

Adam Fisher, 27, died in the collapsed PGC building, leaving behind his 3-year-old son, Jack, and pregnant fiancee, Becky Gane.

His second son, Ashton Fisher, was born 10 days after the quake; his birth notice ran alongside his dad's death notice in the newspaper.

Jack was "3, almost 4" when the quake hit; he's now "8, almost 9."

And, Ashton, who wasn't even born, is "nearly 5" - and battling leukaemia.

So much can change in five years, Ms Gane says.

"Everything is different now. If he was to come back, nothing is the same. We have a new house, he wouldn't even know Jack and he never knew Ashton," she says.

Adam Fisher wasn't there for Ashton's shock acute lymphoblastic luekaemia diagnosis last August - or for his 12 lumber punctures, 15 local anaesthetics or 45 overnight hospital stays.

"I can't believe how long it's been and what he's missing out on; what both the kids and him have missed out on," she says.

Ashton never have had the chance to meet his dad, but he knows who he is and where he is.

As a toddler, Ashton went through a phase of calling him 'Jack's daddy', until he realised he was his daddy too, Mrs Gane says.

When asked where dad is now, Ashton says "in heaven" matter-of-factly, while injecting his hospital doll, Bob, with fake medicine.

Chemotherapy has made Ashton's hair wispy and thin, but he doesn't mind the medicine because he knows it's pumping him full of muscles and "makes me strong".

The child cancer ward is now Ashton's second home; his Child Cancer Foundation beads of courage - a string of more than 500 beads representing every hospital treatment and process he has undergone - drape over his IV drip stand and he wears his Batman costume to bed.

He knows the names of all his nurses and has beaten most of them at arm wrestles.

Sometimes he plays tricks on the nurses by jumping out and yelling 'boo' or telling them to close their eyes and dropping cicada shells in their hands.

Last year, Ashton told his mum he wished he could go to heaven to see his dad.

"I wish I could see my dad and I wish I could be in heaven too. But then I wouldn't see you and Jack, so, no, I want dad to not be in heaven anymore," he said.

Once, back in 2012, Jack says he thought he saw his dad, standing beside the door in the toy room.

He mostly remembers him through photos now, but says he knows he goes to Harewood School, "just like dad did".

"I like playing soccer 'cos dad did too," he adds.

Jack knows his dad died in an earthquake - which he describes as "a thing where the ground shakes and like where half of the world wobbles".

In late January, for Adam Fisher's birthday, his two boys ate birthday cake in hospital and released balloons from a nearby bridge.

"We watched them for ages," Jack says. "They flew all the way up into the sky."


Brown-eyed girls

Molly Maynard stops talking and thinks for a moment.

The 8-year-old pushes a dark brown wisp of hair out of her eyes and leans down from her bed, holding her hand about half a metre above the ground.

"I was probably about that small then," she huffs, out of breath from bending down so far.
"I am quite big now," she says.

Matilda Maynard. Photo / Mike Scott
Matilda Maynard. Photo / Mike Scott
Molly Maynard. Photo / Mike Scott
Molly Maynard. Photo / Mike Scott

Her little sister, Matilda, nods, saying: "I'm a lot bigger now than the quake too."

The girls were only 2 and 3-years-old in February 2011.

Now they are 7 and 8 and can tie their own shoelaces.

Life has changed a lot since their mother, Kelly Maynard, died in the collapse of the PGC building - only a week after starting part-time work there.

For starters, the girls go to school now.

Plus, Molly renamed her favourite doll Kelly and the sunflowers lining their Bishopdale driveway have grown taller than Matilda.

They sing Van Morrison's Brown Eyed Girl to remember their mum "cause she had brown eyes too," Matilda explains.

Both girls talk to their mum in prayers.

They know the conversation is one-sided, but say it's okay because "she's up in heaven, busy with her friends".

"We ask if she had a good day or not... We tell her that we can't wait to see her in heaven when we die; probably a long, long way away," Molly giggles.

Their father, Mark Maynard, decided very shortly after the quake that he wouldn't hide anything from the girls about what happened to their mum.

"How you react is how your kids react," he says, watching Matilda fall out of a handstand while Molly laughs.

"The clock goes forward; it doesn't go backwards. You just need to soldier on."

The girls still remember a few things about February 22, 2011: Hiding in the tunnel in the playground when the world started shaking, how Uncle Pete and Dad went out looking for their mum late at night in the rain - and how they never found her.

Molly and Matilda say they feel happy and sad on the anniversary day.

Sad because they remember their mum is no longer here and happy because "at least she's okay and up in heaven".

This year, for the fifth anniversary of the earthquake, Molly's going to wear a brand new floral dress with a black bow and Matilda is going to cut down some of the sunflowers to take to their mum's grave.

- NZ Herald

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