Christchurch earthquake: City unites on day of healing

By Catherine Masters

Hayley Westenra performed during the service. Photo /Getty Images
Hayley Westenra performed during the service. Photo /Getty Images

The girl in yellow teared up, just for a bit, when Hayley Westenra sang Amazing Grace.

For others it was when How Great Thou Art echoed across Hagley Park. Or it might have been during prayers - perhaps the Muslim prayer, or the Buddhist prayer, or the Hindu one, as all nations were represented at Christchurch's earthquake memorial service yesterday.

People were emotional and a few cried quietly, but the emotions didn't spill over into much wailing and weeping.

There was a dignity in the crowd, a self-control.

The girl in yellow, who was only 16, said so many tears had already been shed.

This service was about standing together, shoulder to shoulder, and grieving and healing together, she said.

Prince William might be here, the girl said, but she hadn't come for him.

She had come for Christchurch.

Hagley Park had never been so full. Before the service began trails of people walked in, some carrying chairs or a blanket to sit on, some with provisions tucked under an arm, some holding the hand of a child or a loved one.

They packed Hagley Park to the brim under a hot sun and sat with relief on the soil of a quiet earth which finally held no surprises.

No aftershocks marred this day of mourning, held for both those who died and for the sea of survivors all around.

As they listened to the pre-service music, awaiting the arrival of Prince William and other dignitaries - including Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and our own Prime Minister John Key, with other local and national politicians - the first of the clapping broke out.

On the big screens dotted around the park the crowd could see the arrival of rescue workers up the front. As one, the crowd stood and clapped.

A few minutes later, as the Woolston Brass Band played, they stood and clapped again for the arrival of the fire rescue men. When mayor Bob Parker arrives on the stage, the girl in yellow lets out a cat call, claps hard and takes photos. He has been tremendous, she says.

Parker begins, telling the crowd: "I honour first of all the people who have stood on this ground for over a 1000 years. I honour the families of those we have lost.

"I honour the special guests from all around the world. I honour the men and women who have in our hour of need stood beside us in a selfless way - and I honour all of you for being here today."

He is interrupted by clapping then acknowledges - as many of the speakers do - the devastation in Japan, before warning the crowd they are about to be shown a confronting video of the damage in the city which is still unreachable for most people in the city.

For 14 minutes, people sat silent and stared as the camera panned across their broken inner city with sirens wailing in the background. A woman nearby holds a hand to her face. This indeed is painful to watch.

Prince William knows this from his tour of the city. He is escorted on to the stage where he shakes hands and hongis and receives a korowai, or cloak, then the crowd claps again, but there's a little light relief to come.

Ngai Tahu elder Henare Rakiihia Tau performs a mihi whakatau (welcome) - he talks of a gathering of leaders from the four winds of the world.

He talks of ancestors and whakapapa, of migration and how the Maori family tree relates to every nationality in the world, "and the young ones are very fruitful and they have been nibbling at the apple for many years now and so our family tree is like the rainbow, it ... embraces everyone that is here, it contains every ethnic group ..."

He finishes by saying "and so greetings to you, Prince William, the grandson of the Queen of the Commonwealth, and may we offer our greetings to you from our family trees to the family tree of the House of Windsor, remembering that our trees shall blossom and be fruitful, so to you, Prince William ... may you nibble at the apple and be fruitful."

There are chuckles in the crowd and a smile from Julia Gillard at his words. The girl in yellow giggles and the crowd stands and sings God Save the Queen.

When Prince William speaks he sounds warm and sincere.

"My grandmother," he says, "once said that grief is a price we pay for love. Here, today we love and we grieve."

He brought a personal message, he said.

"It is a message about strength through kindness, about fortitude.

"For you who are so close to these events and who have lost so much, it must be hard to grasp the degree of admiration, indeed awe, with which you are regarded by the rest of the world."

Courage and determination had always been the hallmark of New Zealanders, of Cantabrians, he told the crowd, and he had been humbled to see it.

"Put simply, you are an inspiration to all people. I count myself enormously privileged to be here to tell you that ..."

Kia Kaha, he told the crowd: Be strong.

Soon it was time for the two minutes of silence and heads dropped down around the park.

This service, said Peter Beck, Dean of Christchurch, was not closure but just another step on the journey.

Towards the end of the service another video was screened, this time set to the rousing music of the Crusaders, Conquest of Paradise, and this time the images on the screen of rescue workers and policemen with masks on are all in slow motion.

People again jump to their feet and cheer clap at various times.

Then it's time for Prince William to stand while our National Anthem is sung.

It's stirring stuff and the girl in yellow sings out strong.

Her name is Rebekah Laird, from Spreydon, and as the service ends she sums up what so many are thinking.

"I think a lot of people really needed that - to stand shoulder to shoulder with Cantabrians who have all experienced the same thing and we haven't been able to do this because we haven't been able to go into town.

"It felt really nice. It's not complete closure but it is enough for us to ... say okay, we can help rebuild Christchurch now without breaking out in tears the whole time."

- NZ Herald

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