Christchurch earthquake: Journeys through a shattered city

By Barry Clarke

The collapsed Pyne Gould Guiness Building in central Christchurch. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The collapsed Pyne Gould Guiness Building in central Christchurch. Photo / Mark Mitchell

I was in a Star managers' meeting when it struck with a brutality and savagery I've never experienced. There was no hint it was coming.

The boardroom shook as though it was about to collapse and the lights went out. We yelled to get under the table and all we heard was banging and crashing.

It was all over pretty quickly and we assembled outside, a bit dazed and struck by what we could see downtown - dust and collapsed buildings.

Reporters and a photographer were sent downtown and others left quickly for home to find family as the liquefaction started to turn our building in Tuam St into a river.

I headed towards Mt Pleasant to check on my elderly parents. The Ferrymead Bridge was closed and like many others I walked across to warnings that the cranes being used to rebuild the bridge could fall at any time.

Sumner and the bays were cut off and all sorts of people were walking home to check on their loved ones.

My parents were whisked away and I tried to get back to the central city, but by this stage the Ferrymead area seemed to have flooded.

The traffic jams were incredible - journeys that would normally take 15 minutes were lasting two hours. And the wail of fire and burglar alarms was adding to the surreal atmosphere. Cellphone and text coverage drifted in and out.

I couldn't get back to the Star and central city so went out east where I live, knowing full well that it had taken probably one of the biggest belts of this demon quake.

I was in Auckland when the September 4 quake hit and had a ring from my terrified wife about 5.45am. She was away for this one and I'm glad she was.

I had to head out towards Burwood and Avonside, which had suffered hugely in the September quake. After about an hour and a half I managed to get to the Dallington Bridge, still about a 3km walk to home.

I knew as I walked along the banks of the Avon River that the damage was far worse than it had been in September. There were people walking everywhere.

An elderly persons' home that had been emptied after the September quake had been abandoned again. The rowing clubs across the river, damaged and unusable since then, were now on a lean.

As I got closer I could see the liquefaction in my stretch of houses - something that hadn't happened in September. My house looked solid and standing but, just like thousands of others in the city, inside was a mess.

My dog, having weathered the September earthquake pretty well, was in a different state altogether.

People were walking everywhere in a strange state. There weren't too many pleasant "hello, how are yous". People were in their own worlds.

As darkness began to fall traffic was flowing so I took a punt on going back to get my car to bring it closer to home for what would be an early start the next morning.

Unfortunately the rain, like the earthquake, showed no mercy and after a walk of more than 40 minutes I was drenched, only to find the roads again jammed.

It took another hour to snake back towards home nose to tail through side streets steadily filling with water from burst mains and sewers.

I was listening to the radio telling the country of the devastating and tragic events unfolding in the central city: buses crushed, people missing and the death toll rising.

Tuesday night was awful. Like many Cantabrians I slept in clothes and shoes, close to the door ready to abandon ship if another big one arrived.

Several came, and you could hear them coming like a wind with almost worrying regularity. But after three or four hours you could judge what was going to be a big one and shake the house and one which would be a gentle zephyr.

It will take Cantabrians a lot longer to bounce back from this monster than it did for them to recover from September. Whether the city will ever be the same is hard to say.

But already the Canterbury spirit is evident as neighbours and neighbourhoods get together to clear properties of the awful silt that coats many suburbs.

Many Cantabrians are sitting in their homes in darkness with no way to cook food or make a cup of tea. Sunrise will bring another day and more tragic stories. But we must look forward to rebuild our city and our lives.

* Barry Clarke is the Editor in Chief of the Christchurch Star

- NZ Herald

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