Christchurch earthquake: On two wheels through the rubble

By Phil Taylor

Herald writer Phil Taylor takes a heartbreaking journey through his shattered hometown

Phil Taylor takes a bike ride along the damaged roads. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Phil Taylor takes a bike ride along the damaged roads. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Places in the heart, you might call it. Christchurch was my home for 20-odd years. Family live there. Born there, raised there, its highland and marshland geography is in me. So is a strong regard for its people.

Sent south with the Herald's team covering this devastating earthquake, I took my bike. I planned to see what has happened to the bits of the city I knew so well.

That included the hill suburbs running east to beachside Sumner. I'd been warned that they had been hard hit, that roads were bad. A bike might be better than a car.

The immediate focus has been the city where so many lives have been lost and the damage is so apparent. Widen the lens and we find many suburbs devastated, whole streets evacuated. The scale of the damage across the city is immense.

It's 7am, on the second day after the quake and only a few cars are about.

My mother's street in Opawa, east of the central city, looks okay, though piles of silt line the road.

Liquefaction. The word that became part of our vocabulary when the first quake occurred in September. Shaken until it turns liquid, the earth oozes from its own pores.

A kilometre away, at Linwood College, where I went to school, a single car sits in the staff carpark, marooned belly-deep in sludge. Two Civil Defence volunteers load mattresses on to a truck. School okay? "No, it's buggered," says one.

It may prove to be fine, they add, but it's been deemed unsuitable to be an emergency centre.

I arrived in darkness the night before and so the first crumbled facade I see is nearby - the last building of the Edmonds company that produced the famous cookbook and once had landmark headquarters and grounds here. That beautiful property was replaced with a petrol station. The people showed what they thought by boycotting it and putting it out of business. I liked that they wouldn't stand for it.

Nearby is the street I grew up in.

Apart from walls of silt that residents have shovelled on to the road berms, it seems not too bad. Sue Crichton and two children have been staying with a friend here.

She was in town when the quake hit, couldn't get her car out, so walked the few kilometres to a friend's home.

They are now biking across the city to their Burwood home for a huge clean-up. Her family cleared 50 tonnes of silt last time but this is worse. The home is no longer habitable.

Further east in Woolston, all the grand old brick buildings have crumbled except Holy Smoke, a two-storey restaurant and meat-smoking company that was strengthened during an extensive refurbishment.

Holes appear in the road and get deeper as I ride towards Ferrymead. Near the Ferrymead bridge a hole has virtually swallowed a car and a tour bus. It's a bizarre sight but then this city known for its parks, rivers and English beauty, is full of unimaginable sights.

Kieran McErlain, a glazier, was on this road when the quake hit. He tells me of seeing a building facade collapse and people emerge running for their lives. He then turned towards the bridge. "All you saw was a big dust cloud rise up over the hill."

He helped staff at a nearby pre-school as water rose to knee-deep in 20 minutes. "The kids were hysterical. We just tried to calm them."

McErlain was back to assess damage at his company's yard.

The bridge is closed to vehicles but workers repairing it let me pedal over, zig-zagging through the cracks.

Further on I meet a man coming the other way on a handcycle. He's a tetraplegic. The bike is his legs and his liberty and he's out now because he was going stir-crazy in the house without power or water.

He warns that Redcliffs, at the other end of the causeway, is bad. The cliff came down, there's a body in a crushed house.

I climb the hills to my sister's place in Mt Pleasant. It's moved and dropped and there are bad cracks. Like so many, they must wait to see if it can be repaired.

Next door, the front wall has gone. A heavy ceiling beam has come down across a sofa. From this vantage point, I can see tile roofs wrecked and chimneys gone, everywhere.

Higher up the hill the front of a house is gone, revealing a string of soft toys hanging from ceiling to floor. This is the newly renovated home of Anne and Ian Harris. They held on to the kitchen bench for dear life while their new kitchen came apart.

A builder has been in and told them the house is unstable, so they are sleeping in their car out front.

"Our place is completely munted but we don't know anyone who is dead."

It's an adjective I hear many times. Many of their neighbours on Santa Maria Ave are similarly affected. I'm told an EQC inspector was visiting one at the time, there to assess damage from the September quake.

There are many such streets. Major Hornbrook Rd and Cannon Hill Cres are others nearby. Over on Clifton Hill, Kinsey Tce has been evacuated.

People have broken out the camping gear. Little Parnham Reserve near Santa Maria is full of tents.

As if to emphasise some gross randomness, a house will suddenly appear unscathed among those that certainly are not.

The quake was centred shallow 5km under these Port Hills, between where I am and Lyttelton. September's was 40km away near Darfield and deep. These hill suburbs were hardly affected.

I descend on the next arm of these hills, down Moncks Spur Rd, squeezing the brakes, dodging the debris. I see a red car with Labour MP Ruth Dyson's name on it.

Turns out they live here and they have a by-now familiar story. Her husband, Martin, gives me a tour of the damage. He also uses the word "munted". It seems accurate.

At the top of this road, a man whose property looks show-home perfect tries to explain by suggesting it might be that it was sitting on an enormous rock.

The Dysons are sleeping under canvas in the backyard and look well-organised. Tables, a dozen chairs, the barbecue are set out. It looks inviting, an oasis amid the chaos. They and their neighbours have managed to salvage enough glasses and they get together each evening for a wine while they cook meat from their defrosting freezers.

Such neighbourliness keeps spirits up.

These hills are in Dyson's electorate. Christchurch people had been ready to rebuild the city after the September quake and were getting frustrated about delays with the bureaucratic decisions needed to let them get on with the job. "And then this happens," she says.

She was at Parliament when the quake occurred. With Christchurch Airport closed, she took the ferry to Picton and drove from there, weaving through city roads sometimes at no more than a crawl, reaching home at 2.45am to comfort her partner.

"I was thrown to the ground," says Martin. "Then I ran to the window and saw massive plumes of dust coming off the hills above Redcliffs School. How someone wasn't killed [there] I don't know.

"It was shock and fear. There was a terrible hour of aftershocks, thump, thump, then neighbours poured out on to the street and we checked on each other."

Maybe one or two houses on this hill had minor damage in September, whereas whole suburbs were effected in swampier parts of the city.

This time the hill suburbs have copped it but many on the flat have been hit again. Dyson tells me three-quarters of a new suburb near Ferrymead are awash in sludge created by liquefaction.

I wish them luck and make my way through Redcliffs to Sumner. Big sections of cliff faces have come down. I can see parts of houses hanging in mid-air.

This is such a beautiful part of the city, a sought-after place to live, with views over the sea and towards the Kaikoura Mountains far up the coast. I can't help wondering whether it will be again.

In Sumner village, the familiar Hollywood Cinema looks okay. So, too, Coffee Culture next door, a favourite of cyclists on the Bays rides that loop around the hills through Lyttelton and here, but 10m away ornate old buildings are ruined.

The upper floor of one of them housed the restaurant the Ruptured Duck, where I ate with friends after the Coast to Coast multi-sport race a few years ago. Good memories.

A hundred metres further on, a huge boulder has come off Richmond Hill and flattened the RSA. There is concern that there may have been a builder working in a neighbouring building hit by a slip.

There is no power or water on in these suburbs; no shops open, save one in Sumner selling bottled drinks and a few vegetables on trestle tables out front.

I weave up the steep and damaged Clifton Tce above Sumner. Walkways up to houses have fallen away. I pass a car almost completely submerged in rubble. I meet a man in his 50s pushing his bike.

He tells me he was evacuated and is back to pick up a few personal items. Bad? "Yes," he says, "from a million to zero". He has an engineering company near AMI Stadium and that is also badly damaged.

Higher up the road I find Robin Judkins, the creator of the Coast to Coast, at home in his stately kauri and rimu 1904 house. The relatively normal appearance from the street belies the chaos within these houses.

Chimney rubble is strewn about, doors won't open because everything is on the floor. The stair railing is smashed where two heavy sculptures came down. Many paintings from his extensive collection are badly damaged.

He is working his way through the house, room by room. Buckets of broken glass sit outside the back door. There is cracking in the walls. He fears for the fate of his home of 33 years.

He has lost his cellphone. I ring it and it chirps in his outdoor office among a mountain of a papers which have cascaded from shelves.

"This is what happens to an office [in an earthquake]," he says. The phone has 28 missed calls.

Communication, reassurance that friends and family are safe comes first in a disaster because so much is in the hand of fate. Judkins was 20m from the Ferrymead Bridge. "It leapt into the air," he says. During a second shock soon after, he saw the popular climbing area of Castle Hill "explode".

"That's the only way I can describe it. This huge rock formation just shook apart." Huge rocks leapt 30m in a single hop.

His mother Dot, who is 101, was thrown out of bed at her resthome and cut her leg, but is otherwise fine. Some resthomes have been evacuated because of damage and with that comes the logistical nightmare of finding places to transfer them to.

Judkins shows me pieces of a solid glass artwork he's picked from the debris in his house. Inscriptions within the work read: "the home", "the heart" and "God help us".

"It's heartbreaking," he says. His daughter is too unnerved to stay in the house. She spent the night after the quake 100kms away in Hanmer, the next few in her car and has now left for Wellington.

Someone mentioned to me that even if they did stay, did get power and water back on, "it's just going to be a ghost town".

Judkins and I discuss what it might mean for the country's second biggest city long-term. Many people are leaving for somewhere safer. The question is whether they will all come back. San Francisco rebuilt and never looked back, but New Orleans is a different story.

On my way back, I divert north to make my way to my elderly father's place in Bexley, a liquefaction area. I'd spoken to him on the phone from Auckland 20 minutes after 12.51pm on Tuesday, so knew he and his partner were all right - but the phone connection had gone down soon after.

After a few detours, I find my way there. Their house has no power or water but is intact. Floodwater has engulfed their neighbour's but they are dry. The other end of Bexley, he tells me, is much worse.

Riding back from Sumner, waiting to pass through a damaged stretch, I talk to Ian from Ashburton, who has ridden a motorbike the 80kms to Christchurch to check on family. "They are okay, their house is not."

I venture that it will take years for the city to recover from this.

"I don't think it ever will," he says.

- NZ Herald

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