Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Year in review: A day that changed Christchurch forever

February 22: The day Christchurch shook for 12 deathly seconds; 182 people dead, a cityscape devastated. Kurt Bayer looks back on the months that followed.

The landmark Christchurch Cathedral became a symbol of the devastation. Photo / Sarah Ivey
The landmark Christchurch Cathedral became a symbol of the devastation. Photo / Sarah Ivey

No one saw it coming, but most people heard it - a low rumbling, growing louder. Those lunching on the banks of the Avon River looked towards the sprawling Canterbury Plains.

Others stopped on Cashel Mall and looked around to see where the noise came from. Then it hit.

In those moments, Christchurch changed forever. The magnitude 6.3 earthquake tore buildings down and families apart.

Once the dust cleared, the sirens, babies and car alarms wailed as a desperate, ragged rescue effort ensued.

Unlike the September 4 magnitude 7.1 earthquake, this one did not strike at 4am on a Saturday. This time, it was a busy lunch hour, when the streets and CBD buildings were full.

A total of 182 people from 15 countries were fatally injured.

More than half died in the collapse of the six-storey CTV building and the subsequent fire that tore through the TV station, medical clinic and English language school.

Eighteen were killed in the collapse of the PGC building.

The epicentre was later identified as being 2km west of the port town of Lyttelton - also heavily damaged - and 10km southeast of the centre of the city, the Christchurch Cathedral.

Images of the cathedral's snapped spire came to symbolise the devastation.

The CBD was ruled off limits. The Army was called in to patrol the "red zone". And within days, rescue operations had turned to the recovery of bodies. As many as 10,000 homes were seriously damaged, and whole areas inundated with silt, the effects of liquefaction.

Nine months on, the events of February 22 are still very much fresh in the minds of the city folk - and the aftershocks, such as those just before Christmas - keep the nightmare rolling.

Evidence is on every corner - holes where buildings once stood, famous shops and institutions gone, and the ongoing rumbles that make everyone fear another "big one".

Some are getting on with their lives. Many can go to and from work, skirting around the central red zone, without seeing the scale of devastation.

But others are not so lucky and live in it every day. Portaloos are still seen on the cracked and gaping kerbs of many eastern suburbs, while their roads resemble rally circuits. Some are still living with relatives or in temporary homes.

Some areas are destined to become ghostlands, possibly eventually being converted into native bush areas or wetlands - and perhaps that is what the land is best suited to, rather than urban development.

However, the overall attitude of the city is one of incredible positivity. Christchurch was ranked in US magazine Foreign Policy as one of the world's top 10 cities to watch, with the magazine stating: "A massive rebuilding effort following this year's New Zealand earthquake is a unique opportunity to rethink urban form."

The draft central city recovery plan - which attracted more than 100,000 ideas about how the city should be shaped - was lauded internationally as being a visionary blueprint for the reconstruction of the city over the next 20 years.

The plan is being described as a once-in-a-millennium opportunity to reshape a city - a description supported by Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker who was, for many, the spokesman of the post-quake city.

"It has been an extraordinary year," Mayor Parker reflects. "When we signed off 2010, we were coping with a very significant seismic event but we thought we had survived the big one.

"And then, from being a miraculous story of how a city could absorb a 7.1 magnitude earthquake with no loss of life, it all changed on February 22.

"People may have experienced such events in World War II, it's not something that people have had to withstand on this scale in any significant Western country in recent times.

"But this is a province with a great future. We're a city to watch.

"The preparation of the central city recovery plan was one of the most inspiring pieces of public planning that any of us will ever be involved with - a great coming together of vision, and a community that is very close now to setting forth on the redevelopment process to build a 21st century city, that is inspiring and wonderful."


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