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From the Magazine: Bus Number 3

New Zealand earthquake photo

The afternoon of Feb. 22, 2011, was fittingly sunny for midsummer in Christchurch, a city that looks out on the vast Pacific from New Zealand’s South Island. Ann Brower ‘94 was riding on the shady side of the No. 3 bus, engrossed in reading The Economist. She often took this route through the center of the city.

A senior lecturer in political science at Christchurch’s Lincoln University, Brower was on her way to a meeting with a collaborator at a university across town. Several minutes into her ride, she switched to a seat on the sunny side of the bus, which had fewer than 10 people aboard. The sunlight that day was inviting and its lure, she now believes, saved her life.

The shaking began shortly after she switched seats. “I don’t remember a noise,” Brower explains. “The bus stopped. I think maybe I looked up when it stopped. And then--the bus was shaking violently, really moving back and forth ... I thought, ‘ooh, it’s a big one.’ I saw bricks falling. My first thought was, ‘oh gosh, this is the first time I’ve seen anything.’”

New Zealand, Brower’s home since she accepted a Fulbright scholarship to pursue land-use studies in 2004, is known as the “shaky isles.” A 7.1-magnitude quake west of Christchurch in September 2010 had been followed by months of temblors. One of them, the shallow, 6.3-magnitude quake that struck in February of this year, turned out to be the nation’s deadliest in decades, leading to widespread destruction and frantic rescues epitomized by the scene on Bus No. 3.

Brower would be the only passenger to escape alive. After the facade of a building rained down on the bus, three brothers, masonry workers who had been working nearby, arrived first on the scene. They began tossing away debris that rose as high as the collapsed roof of the bus. Soon they were joined by a young man named Rob, who crawled into the crushed vehicle to comfort Brower. She knows it was “Nathan” who worked to splint her leg roadside. A group of men flagged down a passing SUV and lifted Brower into the back, then began waving away traffic through the open windows, yelling we have a casualty inside. Brower arrived to waiting teams of medical personnel outside the city hospital 59 minutes after the quake struck, thanks to the efforts of more than a dozen rescuers, none of whom were professional first responders.

One among them, a car salesman named Gary, remained with Brower for the first two hours of her hospital stay and held her hand. “Sometimes I would squeeze a bit hard,” Brower recalls. She suffered a broken shin, six fractures to her pelvis and a severed tendon in her hand. She underwent two surgeries in the first days after the quake.

The men told her she had let loose a “roar” that alerted them to her presence amid the rubble. “There was no doubt I would survive,” Brower says, laughing. Rob teased that he was around the corner and down the street, but when he heard that roar he was inspired to act. The scene inside the bus, he later revealed, was nearly unbearable. He knew he must keep Brower focused. He talked about anything--he asked for her name, wondered where she worked, and then provided a few fishing stories, Brower recalls. The two remained face to face until Brower was freed.

The scariest part of the experience was the weight on her body. “I remember feeling more and more weight coming onto my pelvis. And I remember thinking it was strange because it was coming in intervals and not sort of all at once. And I remember screaming, ‘no no,’ every time there would be more weight.” The men who freed her later explained that ironically, she screamed when more weight was removed. “To me if felt like it was more weight coming on, but because they were taking weight off, I guess I just had more blood flow to my legs. It felt like the opposite. But that’s why it was coming in intervals.” Brower remained hospitalized for seven weeks, including five weeks in a rehabilitation facility, with friends and colleagues visiting often. “It’s almost like watching my own funeral--in a good way,” she says.

Through it all, Brower has kept in touch with several of her rescuers and their families. Despite her reduced mobility, Brower took three of the rescuers to dinner, providing two of them their first experience of Indian food. Rob, the man who tended to her inside the bus, returned her bag and phone several days after the disaster and fielded calls from concerned family and friends in the meantime. There were some who worried that this unknown man had stolen Brower’s possessions. She assured them he was among those who had come to her side, a man of a far different caliber. “If you pull a kid out of the ocean, you know that you can swim. It’s not a risk to your own life,” she says. “But staying in the shadow of those crumbling buildings--they really were putting their own lives at risk.”

She can’t help but notice who came to her aid--and who didn’t. “It was the people in suits who just walked on by,” she says. Even friends later acknowledged that they had done nothing to assist the victims, believing that rescue workers would have the recovery efforts well in hand. Laments Brower: “If everyone were in my white collar class, you know I might still be on that bus.”

Brower had made news before all this. Not long after she arrived in the country seven years ago, she began researching--and criticizing--government land-use policies that she found amounted to giveaways to wealthy farm interests. For this she drew the ire of some who disagreed with her and bemoaned their "chirpy"" antagonist.

New Zealanders often use “chirpy” to describe someone who is especially buoyant, a cheerful soul. Chirpy now in the midst of her ordeal, Brower returned to her academic pursuits before exiting the rehabilitation hospital, renewing work with the colleague whom she’d intended to visit on the day of the quake. Her recovery, including home visits from a nurse and physical therapy sessions three times a week, has been “not quick, but relatively uncomplicated,” she says. Her calendar includes plans for a return to her faculty position, short trips to nearby quake-free places such as Australia and throwing what she calls a “rescue party” to celebrate the efforts of her unhesitating cadre. “I have nothing to complain about,” she says. “I got off very lightly.”

This article originally appeared in the spring/summer 2011 issue of Pomona College Magazine [pdf] .