It sounded like a train passing outside the office.
And it felt like one had passed clean through the office.
Anyone who has been in a big earthquake will, I’m sure, remember the feeling of helplessness as the movement and shaking becomes more and more violent.
I certainly remember feeling that way in Australia’s Newcastle earthquake.
The quake – Australia’s deadliest – killed 13 people when it hit the east coast industrial city of Newcastle mid-morning on December 28, 1989.
I was on the third floor of an office building in the heart of the city. It was the first day of work after Christmas and many were away on holidays.
The 40 or so people in the office mostly froze in their seats at 10.27am as the walls shook, swayed and cracked around us – and the rumble of the quake gave way to the crunching sounds of breaking masonry.
Neither the lightweight desks nor flimsy partition doorways offered much protection, so we rushed from the building down damaged stairwells into streets littered with bricks and swelling crowds of bewildered office workers.
No one had dared take the lift and, in the confusion, there wasn’t time for a headcount.
So it was that, after making it out of our office unscathed, I joined two colleagues in venturing back to free a woman trapped in the restroom and help a tradesman who had been working in the ceiling and had been temporarily knocked unconscious.
Minutes later, the building was declared structurally unsound.
Some inner-city buildings had disappeared in piles of rubble. Others had lost their facade, or had huge jagged cracks through the brickwork.
Royal Newcastle Hospital had been evacuated, with patients taken to the adjoining beach; the Returned Services Club was flattened; and people were trapped inside the damaged Newcastle Workers Club, where nine people eventually died.
The Newcastle earthquake caused damage to over 35,000 homes, 147 schools, and 3,000 commercial and/or other buildings, with significant damage caused to 10,000 homes (damage worth over $1,000) and 42 schools (structural damage), within the immediate Newcastle area.
Damage to buildings and facilities was reported over an area of 9,000 square kilometres.
With public transport halted , pay telephones mostly out of operation, mobile phones yet to come into general use, no electricity in much of the inner-city, and roads blocked by debris, I then walked out of the heart of Newcastle.
A few hours later, the Australian Army arrived to seal off the most dangerous areas.
On the way out of the crippled city area, I discovered yet another unAustralian impact of the quake – without electricity, even suburban pubs that had escaped damage were unable to serve cold beer.
Our home in the Newcastle suburb of Charlestown had suffered several thousand dollars worth of damage and large parts of the metropolitan area became a sea of scaffolding for many months as the city underwent massive reconstruction.