2010 Canterbury (Darfield) earthquake

Page 1 – Overview

Car crushed during the 4 September earthquake
Car crushed during the 4 September earthquake

At 4.35 a.m. on 4 September 2010, the Canterbury region was struck by a large (magnitude 7.1) earthquake. It shook Cantabrians, their properties, their land and their lives. But the region breathed a sigh of relief. Providentially, there had been no direct loss of life. Still, many thousands of people faced a massive clean-up, the rebuilding of their homes and businesses, and a lengthy process of physical and psychological recovery - while being jolted by aftershocks, and living in fear of another large earthquake. This threat became grim reality on 22 February 2011.

4.35 a.m.

Most Cantabrians were at home and asleep when the 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck the region before dawn on Saturday 4 September 2010. It was 4.35 a.m. when they were awakened abruptly.

During the first 30-second jolt, family members and flatmates called out to each other and parents stumbled out of beds and down hallways to get to their children. Rebecca, who was living in Aranui, shared this account of her efforts to reach her son:

September 4th 2010. I was woken by what I thought was the worst shaking I have ever felt in my life, my husband and I woke and sat up at the exact same time, he yelled earthquake at me, I knew it was but still for a split second I wondered if he was right. I stumbled from the bed and slammed into the door frame whilst trying to get to my son, I eventually made it to his room, I fumbled for the light switch and couldn’t work out why it wouldn’t turn on, I gave up and carried on to his cot. I tried numerous times to get my son out of his cot but the shaking was so violent it was difficult to grab hold of him. I eventually got hold of him and ran to his doorway and stood there until the shaking stopped.

As aftershock upon aftershock hit the region, beginning with a 5.6-magnitude shake at 4.56 a.m., families and flatmates comforted each other and began to venture out to check on their neighbours. Mark Darbyshire, who was flatting in Riccarton, was one of many people whose thoughts quickly turned to the elderly and vulnerable:

Our first priority was to check on our neighbours, so I donned slippers and a jacket. Our first neighbour – an elderly gentleman, whose wife is wheelchair-bound – was quite alright, but profoundly grateful that we came knocking on his door so soon to check on him. Next we thought we might be needed at the neighbouring rest home. There confusion reigned supreme. An old man sat outside; we spoke briefly with him, then my flatmate knocked on the door. An old lady came out. We didn’t get much sense out of them, but were informed that there were people crying inside. It didn’t seem that we could be of any assistance, so we left them to it; there were no doubt caregivers inside.

Those living near the coast soon realised that the earthquake might have caused a tsunami, and many headed for the hills or higher ground. As David mentions in his account on QuakeStories, driving out of Southshore posed its own risks:

During the September event our house was full as a friend’s wife had recently died and so we were hosting people on the Friday night. One guest had just flown in from the UK the night before the quake struck. At 4.30 am our family of three (two adults and one teenager) two guests and our two dogs ended up in the car driving for high ground after being shaken violently awake.

The initial shaking did not cause me to feel too much panic but as we drove and found roads to be splitting and the bridge across the estuary collapsing it became more alarming. We followed a 4×4 across the bridge and only just made it in our sedan with the car scraping over the gaps. Driving through town, lights were out including traffic lights. Some cars were speeding and the road was becoming more treacherous as tarseal lifted and gaps in the road grew.

Not everyone was at home. Some hadn’t finished their Friday night partying, while shift workers were already out and about. On 5 September the Herald on Sunday reported the experiences of people such as Daryl Collier, who was working at the South Terrace bakery in Darfield when the earthquake struck:

The railway line is behind us and I thought it was a train coming right through the back of the building.

Many people jumped out of bed and headed to work after the earthquake struck. Ambulance, fire and police officers, doctors, nurses and carers, council workers and those responsible for essential services, left their families, neighbours and properties to look after the wider community. Those able to reach work faced a hectic short-staffed shift and many more busy days ahead. For example, 3 News reported that between 4.35 a.m. and 7 a.m. the operators at Christchurch’s 111 Communications Centre, based at the Christchurch Central Police Station, took four or five times the usual number of calls – 788 rather than 172. They were to answer many more in the following days.

Cindy, who was working in a hospital at the time, talks about the many difficulties staff faced that day:

It was a long hard sad and frightening shift in the hospital … beds with air mattresses electric bed tilts with remotes … all useless without power … had to manually remove mattresses and put old ones back on beds, had to elevate patients in their beds with pillows and blankets so that they could eat safely, it was sad seeing patients who can't speak express their fear through sweating so much their bandaids would come off, we were extremely short staffed as the phone lines were out so we didn‘t know if our fellow colleagues were safe and the frightening thing was the waiting and uncertainty of was it going to happen again!

These workers didn’t go unnoticed, as Gary Manch, who was then the sergeant in charge of police in Lyttelton, remembered:

I think what stuck for me, I know it happened in other areas as well, myself and my staff were tied up at cordons on the street and working, and the reaction of the local people, we had people bringing in baking and I noticed a couple of postcards, written and drawn by children saying ‘thank you very much’, and it was really nice that the community cared and that we were appreciated. I know we are, but it was nice to be looked after. I know at both ends of the cordon of the main street the local coffee shops and bars made sure we had plenty of food and coffee. It was really nice to see everyone come together….

Felt reports

The epicentre of the 4 September earthquake was near Darfield, a small town 40 km west of Christchurch, but it was felt throughout the Canterbury region and beyond. Geonet, the country’s geological hazard monitoring system, received thousands of ‘felt reports’. While most came from the South Island, there were some from the lower North Island and Stewart Island.

Initially some Cantabrians worried that they were feeling an even more severe earthquake centred near Wellington – an area known for its seismic activity and where many New Zealanders expected ‘the big one’ to hit. As Margaret Jefferies notes in her Quake Story (one of a series of interviews carried out by Bettina Evans of Project Lyttelton):

My first reaction when the earthquake hit was ‘Oh my God, if it’s this big here, how big is it in Wellington?’ Because I have been so believing it’s Wellington that’s the earthquake place. And then I thought ‘My children are in Wellington! How are they coping? This will be terrifying!’ knowing with distance it will get smaller, so that was my first reaction. But I must have then found out it was local.

While many Wellingtonians did feel the earthquake, it was centred in Canterbury and experienced most strongly in that region. Contributors to QuakeStories describe what they felt and heard:

I remember waking to the distinctive sound of the rumble before the earthquake hit the surface. https://quakestudies.canterbury.ac.nz/store/object/526349
Our bedroom is upstairs and the movement of the room felt like it was going to collapse at any moment.  https://quakestudies.canterbury.ac.nz/store/object/526345
According to the earthquake drums [seismographs] it lasted about a minute, but it felt much longer! https://quakestudies.canterbury.ac.nz/store/object/526258
I remember vaguely thinking that the noise on our roof sounded like hundreds of heavy footed birds landing on the corrugated iron. Then there was a roaring sound, and terrible shaking which got progressively worse and worse. https://quakestudies.canterbury.ac.nz/store/object/526302
The room was being swayed from side to side so I couldn’t even stand. It was a feeling that you would normally experiences on a roller coaster on the Gold Coast. https://quakestudies.canterbury.ac.nz/store/object/526538


Aftershocks continued for months after the September quake. By the time a devastating 6.3-magnitude earthquake – itself, in seismic terms, an aftershock – struck Christchurch on 22 February 2011, the region had experienced thousands. Most were of magnitude 3 or below and caused no significant additional damage, but their constant occurrence took a toll on the region’s residents.

The aftershocks were so frequent that many households and workplaces made a kind of game of guessing their magnitude, depth and location. But they also caused real fear and anxiety – both for people’s own safety and that of their families, friends and neighbours, and for what they might mean for the future of their homes, businesses and community. Research about the effects of the September earthquake on a group of 191 Canterbury residents highlights the psychological impact of the aftershocks:

After the main earthquake, accounts of ongoing trepidation related to the aftershocks and concern of another earthquake happening were reported…. Reports indicate terror during the main earthquake, however, there was a sense that on-going aftershocks were more devastating and difficult to bear. Both elderly parents and young children were mentioned in these accounts highlighting fear as a common response across all age groups. [1]

In spite of their anxiety, most residents carried on as far as possible with school, work and leisure activities. Some went sightseeing in quake-damaged areas. Others stayed close to home, adjusting their routines to avoid sites they perceived as unsafe, such as unreinforced masonry buildings, or where they might be trapped among large crowds, such as shopping centres. That’s where Joan Curry was when the quake struck on 22 February 2011:

After the first earthquake, on 4th September, 2010, I declared that I wouldn’t want to be in a shopping mall should another one strike – but there I was, in a mall. Worse, I was upstairs, in a movie theatre, watching ‘The King’s Speech’ with a friend and a number of other people old enough to be in a theatre in the middle of a weekday. The screen went blank, and our world cracked and roared, bucked and swayed, and our city began to fall down and apart. We could only fling out a hand, clutch an arm rest, call out, exclaim, gasp, wait …

Even as people adjusted psychologically to the ongoing aftershocks, their practical consequences turned many lives upside down. After large aftershocks, or tremors which particularly affected a specific area, shops, schools and workplaces closed while buildings were assessed or reassessed for damage. Familiar travel routes around the region were constantly disrupted as streets, bridges and tunnels were closed for inspection and re-inspection.

The 4.9-magnitude aftershock that hit the region at 10.30 a.m. on Boxing Day 2010 hit retailers particularly hard. As Central City Business Association manager Paul Lonsdale told the Press at the time:

It's been hard enough getting back on our feet after the first earthquake and we were just starting to get some normality back into customers' psyche and getting a bit of positivity back and this is just a blow…. It just reopens all the fear that people were just starting to get over. [2]


The 4 September 2010 earthquake was the largest to affect a major urban area since the 7.8-magnitude shock that struck the Hawke’s Bay region on 3 February 1931. It was relatively shallow – around 10 km deep – and produced the strongest earthquake ground-shaking ever recorded in New Zealand. Ground near the Darfield epicentre moved at up to 1.25 times the acceleration due to gravity. As well as damaging properties and the local economy, the earthquake had both physical and psychological effects on Canterbury residents.


No one died as a direct result of the earthquake, and there were relatively few casualties. Most people were in bed, and many older buildings had undergone seismic strengthening.

Two men in their fifties sustained major injuries. One was hit by a falling chimney while the other was seriously injured by broken glass. The Canterbury District Health Board also noted an increase in admissions to cardiac services in the days immediately after the earthquake.

Earthquake fatality?

The family of Lillian (Lill) Daniels-Witika believe she was a casualty of the September 2010 earthquake. When the earthquake struck, Lill suffered a heart attack. Her family tried to revive her and to contact emergency services on overloaded phone lines. Despite their efforts, and those of the ambulance officers who soon arrived, she died on her way to hospital. Writing to Mana Magazine after the February 2011 earthquake, Lill’s sister, Gloria, told of the family’s pain that Lill’s death had not been recognised, even though an interim coroner’s finding stated that she ‘had died from sudden cardiac arrest caused by a major stress situation – the earthquake’. The coroner’s final finding was death by natural causes (sudden cardiac death), with the earthquake – a ‘high stress situation’ – a contributing factor. [3]

Several thousand residents sustained lesser injuries for which they sought medical help. Bruises, sprains and strains were most common, followed by cuts, dislocations and broken bones. The majority of these people were injured during the primary earthquake, for example by tripping or falling. Others were injured during aftershocks or while cleaning up their properties.[4]

Psychological effects

The earthquake, ongoing aftershocks and their impact on homes, businesses and communities affected the mental health of Cantabrians in a range of ways. Research undertaken with a group of 191 Canterbury residents identified a range of psychological impacts, including fear, anxiety, sleep disturbance, hypervigilance, feelings of ‘being in limbo’ or guilt, and the physical and emotional demands of tending to others.[5] Another study with a group of 295 middle-aged Canterbury residents found that both men and women were still suffering ‘adverse mental health impacts’ 18 months after the first earthquake. They scored significantly lower than the general population on a range of indicators - from mental health and vitality to social functioning and role limitations due to emotional problems. [6]

Writing a week after the September earthquake, Selena revealed that she found it hardest to cope at night:

So that’s my week so far, nights are the worst, I’m not sure if it’s because the earthquake hit at night or if it would be the same if it was during the day. I’m not fond of the dark any more, wasn’t its biggest fan before but I’m even less so now. Night brings on the nerves, the ill feelings and the need for adult company to feel safe. The littlest sound makes me jump at night although I am still a little jumpy during the day. I’m certainly not in a rush for Mark to start working nights again. At the moment I’m taking each day as it comes, there’s really not any other way to do it, you get better but every shake or noise sends you back a little again, not completely back to the start but enough to not want to be on my own.

Property damage

The September earthquake inflicted a wide range of damage on buildings – everything from minor spills and breakages to structural damage to foundations, walls and roofs. The earthquake shook apart some older unreinforced brick and masonry buildings, and many more lost chimneys, either during the earthquake or through subsequent removal because of the risk they posed. Marc Buckley, Lyttelton’s Chief Fire Officer, described how the members of the volunteer fire brigade became the ‘go-to people’ in their community, and the kinds of damage they encountered:

Once daylight came we started I suppose, for want of a better word, just floating around the streets, we sent the 2 trucks out and the van. One truck started at East, one started at West, and the van we sent around to Rapaki and Corsair Bay, just to do a circuit, to make sure no one was in dire straits of any degree. Everything was fine and then I suppose it took a good hour or so, even an hour and a half after daylight before people looked at their houses and realised there were a few issues, so that’s when we started our turnouts and we were doing chimneys, retaining walls, hot water cylinders, foundations of houses. So all of a sudden, the fire brigade became … not the experts, but the go-to people, to come and see if the cracks in my foundation or the cracks in my walls were all right or not. And we gave the best advice.

Luckily in the Brigade we’ve got builders, quite a few people that are involved with structural work, civil engineering, so we’ve got quite a good make up in the brigade as far as a cross section of people. That’s the beauty of being a volunteer brigade. So we started doing all those sorts of things.

We had, oh we had chimneys by the dozens and dozens and dozens. We did about 185 chimneys, we either made secure or we took down, so most of them had to be taken down, well probably a 50-50 split to be perfectly honest. They posed a risk, with another little aftershock or with a bit of high wind. The chimneys we took down were the ones that would fall over and go through someone’s roof or fall onto a pathway where there could be people walking, so we had all these sorts of things.

The Student Volunteer Army

Following the 4 September 2010 earthquake, Canterbury University student Sam Johnson set up a Facebook page on which he called for volunteers to help with recovery efforts. The page quickly gained thousands of fans, many of whom committed themselves to helping with the clean-up. Around 200 students turned up to the group’s first foray into the community – clearing up liquefaction in the south-western suburb of Halswell. Over the next two weeks the group, which began calling itself the Student Volunteer Army, ‘provided safe and organized volunteer placement, transport, food, and support for over 2500 students’. Focusing on ‘low risk areas during the immediate response period’, they ‘cleared over 65,000 tons of liquefaction’. [7]

A number of Canterbury’s most important heritage buildings were severely damaged by the September 2010 earthquakes. Among them were the main homestead at Homebush, near Darfield and the epicentre; Ohinetahi homestead at Governors Bay, at the head of Lyttelton Harbour; and Knox Church in the Christchurch CBD.

The earthquake shaking also produced liquefaction - ‘a liquid mush’ of soft sand and silt. This caused damage both above and below ground, rupturing water and sewer pipes, shattering roads, footpaths and driveways, and wrecking building foundations. Areas close to the coast were the most badly affected, especially the town of Kaiapoi in Waimakariri District and the suburb of Bexley in east Christchurch. Read more on Te Ara

Economic damage

A 2012 Reserve Bank report concluded that Canterbury’s economy had proved ‘reasonably resilient to the impact of the earthquakes’, and that ‘the spill over to other regions’ was limited. The region’s port and airport remained operational, and its manufacturing hub did not sustain significant damage, minimising the disruption to ‘industrial production and good exports and activity’. Before the 22 February 2011 earthquake, the cost of repairs and rebuilding was estimated at around $5 billion.

Some sectors were hit hard, ‘notably retail, accommodation and hospitality’. Immediately after the September earthquake, the number of international guest nights fell by 6 per cent. Individual businesses also suffered badly – whether from damage to stock or buildings, the impact of damage to infrastructure such as roads and utilities, or because of a decline in the demand for their services. [8] Rachel Harre and Frank Malone operated Fragments of Grace gallery in Kaiapoi, which was badly affected by the September quake. In an interview in Kaiapoi shakes, Rachel recalls seeing the gallery for the first time after the September quake, and the decision to close the business at the end of 2010:

I opened the door and completely lost the plot. I’d told the kids before that it would be all right but the reality was so different. A plinth in the middle of the room had three figures on it but two had fallen off and were lying amongst the smashed ceramics on the floor. I was so angry I picked up the surviving one and lifted it over my head ready to smash it but Frank saw me and yelled ‘That’s not broken!’ I didn’t smash it…. Business was really down the gurgler at this stage as I thought we were insured but by the time we paid excesses and whatever on the $30,000 of smashed work, well we got a couple of thousand, that’s all. We lost work at the Form gallery in Christchurch, so we thought Kaiapoi isn’t going to recover in a hurry. No-one’s going to come and visit the gallery in Hilton St any more, so at the end of 2010 we left the gallery. [9]


[1] Casey Rowney, Panteá Farvid and Chris G. Sibley, ‘I laugh and say I have “earthquake brain!”’: resident responses to the September 2010 Christchurch earthquake’, New Zealand Journal of Psychology, vol. 43, no. 2, July 2014, p. 7.

[2]Quake directly beneath Christchurch’, Press, 27 December 2010.

[3] ‘Acknowledgement for Lill’, Mana Magazine, April-May 2011, pp. 8-9; ‘Christchurch quake blamed for death’, Herald on Sunday, 12 September 2010; ‘First Christchurch quake victim’s family share the pain’, Herald on Sunday, 4 September 2011.

[4] David Johnston et al., ‘The 2010/2011 Canterbury Earthquakes: context and cause of injury’, Natural Hazards, January 2014.

[5] Rowney, Farvid and Sibley, ‘I laugh and say I have “earthquake brain!”’, p. 7.

[6] Janet K. Spittlehouse, Peter R. Joyce, Esther Vierck, Philip J. Schluter and John F. Pearson, ‘Ongoing adverse mental health impact of the earthquake sequence in Christchurch, New Zealand’, Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 48, no. 8, 2014, pp. 756-63.

[7] https://sva.org.nz/our-story/; Helen Tatham, ‘Social media key to “army” success’, New Zealand Doctor, 21 September 2011, p. 15.

[8] Miles Parker and Daan Steenkamp, ‘The economic impact of the Canterbury earthquake’, Reserve Bank of New Zealand Bulletin, vol. 75, no. 3, September 2012.

[9] Stan Darling and Jackie Watson, Kaiapoi shakes: interviews with Kaiapoi residents affected by the September 2010 earthquake, Jackie Watson, Christchurch, 2012, pp. 1-3.

Further information

This article was written by Imelda Bargas and produced by the NZHistory team. It makes extensive use of contributions to QuakeStories, a website established by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage in 2011.


The 2010 Canterbury (Darfield) earthquake (Te Ara)

CEISMIC (University of Canterbury)

Books and articles

Canterbury District Health Board, media updates, 4-9 September 2010

Christchurch City Council, media releases

Stan Darling and Jackie Watson, Kaiapoi shakes: interviews with Kaiapoi residents affected by the September 2010 earthquake, Jackie Watson, Christchurch, 2012, pp. 1-3

Earthquake, September 4, 2010, The Star and APN Print, Christchurch, 2010

David Johnston et al., ‘The 2010/2011 Canterbury Earthquakes: context and cause of injury’, Natural Hazards, January 2014

Miles Parker and Daan Steenkamp, ‘The economic impact of the Canterbury earthquake’, Reserve Bank of New Zealand Bulletin, vol. 75, no. 3, September 2012

S.H. Potter, J.S. Becker, D.M. Johnston and K.P. Rossiter, ‘An overview of the impacts of the 2010-2011 Canterbury earthquakes’, International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 2015

Geoff Rice, All fall down: Christchurch’s lost chimneys, Canterbury University Press, Christchurch, 2011

Casey Rowney, Panteá Farvid and Chris G. Sibley, ‘I laugh and say I have “earthquake brain!”’: resident responses to the September 2010 Christchurch earthquake’, New Zealand Journal of Psychology, vol. 43, no. 2, July 2014, p. 7

Scoop and Mediacom, media releases

Janet K. Spittlehouse, Peter R. Joyce, Esther Vierck, Philip J. Schluter and John F. Pearson, ‘Ongoing adverse mental health impact of the earthquake sequence in Christchurch, New Zealand’, Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 48, no. 8, 2014, pp. 756-63

Ian Stuart, Quake: the big Canterbury earthquake of 2010, Harper Collins, Auckland, 2010

The Press, The big quake: Canterbury, September 4, 2010, Random House New Zealand, Auckland, 2010

How to cite this page

'September 2010 Canterbury (Darfield) earthquake', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/canterbury-earthquake-september-2010, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 4-Oct-2021