Derek Cheng: Alien landscape after quake

Damaged shops in the centre of Christchurch after the earthquake. Photo / NZPA
Damaged shops in the centre of Christchurch after the earthquake. Photo / NZPA

Between the giant rubble littering the rain-drenched Colombo St, police pull another dead body and lay it down on a black tarpaulin. Four civil defence workers look down at the body, one shaking his head.

It's just after 11pm and the Christchurch CBD is eerily deserted. Ghostly security alarms wail from buildings and cars towards the night sky, but the only other sound is of the soft rain falling, hampering the efforts to rescue the 100+ still buried somewhere amid the crushed central city.

What an alien landscape this is. Some 10 hours earlier, before the 6.3 earthquake struck, it was bustling with life and commerce and vitality. Now it is empty. A scene from a horror movie, according to John Key.

I take a short detour down some side streets, past the library, its floor strewn with books and CDs and its chairs scattered like the remains of an overly aggressive game of musical chairs.

Up another street, a giant hole in the brick road is fenced off, while large pools of water slowly swallow the sidewalk. A heritage building is scarred with multiple crosses fracturing its once flawless face. Other buildings lean on each other, as if they have opposing views on the direction of gravity.

On another corner, an empty car remains crushed under the weight of the corner of a building, surrounded by salad of rubble and debris and glass.

The wall facing the street from Christchurch Central MP Brendon Burns' office has completely fallen away, making it resemble a giant doll's house revealing nothing but harmless content: an up-turned pot plant, some desks (is this the most boring electorate office ever?). Only the giant billboard of his face has been left unscathed, only now it's lopsided.

Back on Gloucester St, I walk past a truck to a gruesome sight: a man's body draped lifelessly over the dashboard of a truck. The top half of his head is missing. Rescue workers hurriedly wave away a group of onlookers.

Earlier in the day, we had choppered into Christchurch to the sight of a city burning. Giant plumes of grey smoke rose from the skyline, as helicopters ferried water to and fro in monsoon buckets.

Golf courses, tennis courts and entire streets were underwater due to liquefaction, and in the suburb of Bexley, roads were reduced to rivers; cars crowded grassy verges as residents left their vehicles and made the sludgy trek home.

While much of the suburbs looked a picture of normalcy, in the CBD the PPG building seemed like it had tripped over itself, and then imploded from the inside. The iconic cathedral, without its spire, was like a unicorn without its horn. Churches in particular had fared poorly, many reduced to bomb sites.

And still the aftershocks refuse to relent. While interviewing Canterbury DHB head David Meates in the Art Gallery - where civil defence headquarters has been set up - a particularly strong shake rattled the walls and sent our gazes skyward in that unique expression of dread and complete helplessness. As unnerving as that was, Christchurch people have been through some 4000 aftershocks since the September 4 quake.

The city's fear is palpable, John Key told me earlier. Mayor Bob Parker said the city should brace itself for more bad news. Who knows how many people will have spent the night imprisoned in a collapsed building, dark and alone, sending a final text before the battery fails. More dead bodies are inevitable.

Despite the tales of bravery and courage and around the clock dedication that emerge from a crisis like this, Christchurch is tonight a picture of heartbreaking despair.

And it is only day one. They have an enormous recovery - which they're already gone through once - still ahead of them.

- NZ Herald

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