The final cordon around Christchurch's quake-damaged city centre was lifted today, bringing to an end the Defence Force's longest-ever domestic deployment.
Hundreds gathered as the last barrier to the CBD red zone was officially lifted at a civic ceremony at Worcester Boulevard this afternoon.
The cordon has been continuously staffed by soldiers in the 857 days since the city centre was closed following the deadly February 22, 2011 earthquake.
Prime Minister John Key thanked about 120 members of the Defence Force in person as the soldiers were dismissed from duty today.
He said the soldiers had been a "reassuring presence" for the people of Christchurch as they came to terms with the disaster and set about rebuilding.
The ceremony was attended by Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee, Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman, Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker and Defence Force chief Lieutenant General Rhys Jones.
Mr Brownlee said the occasion brought to a close the service of the hundreds of soldiers who had staffed the cordon.
But it was also an opportunity to thank members of the Navy and Air Force who had helped ferry people and much-needed supplies in the aftermath of the quakes.
"This is a physical and psychological milestone of great significance, with the official cordon now gone and large parts of the city which have for so long only been viewed at a distance open to the public."
Dr Coleman said the Defence Force deserved appreciation for its longest-ever domestic deployment, which began with regular forces and was later staffed by reserves.
"Working on two-month rotations and shifts of 12 hours a day, five days a week, has been a challenging task ... I acknowledge the impact their service has had on their families."
General Jones said the Defence Force's response was the biggest humanitarian assistance mission it had ever undertaken, with almost 1800 personnel on the ground at the height of the response.
"Every one of those people, wherever they were in New Zealand, stepped forward and did here what they are trained to do anywhere - serve the people of New Zealand. I am enormously proud of them all."
Genera; Jones said it was an end of an era for the Defence Force and a milestone for Christchurch.
"I thank the people of Christchurch for their support and friendship as we worked alongside them and I admire the courage they have shown in the face of such disaster," he said.
"We wish this wonderful city the very best possible future."
BY THE NUMBERS
* 4: Navy ships used to carry 1707 tonnes of vehicles and equipment and 375 personnel in and out of Lyttelton
* 10: Air Force aircraft used to carry 4278 passengers and 122 tonnes of freight in the initial response
* 129: Singapore armed forces personnel who initially helped the Defence Force and police on the cordon
* 152: Army vehicles used in the response, including 77 Unimogs, 47 Pinzgauer light operational vehicles and 28 light armoured vehicles
* 857: Days the CBD red zone cordon was in place
* 1796: Uniformed personnel on the ground at the height of the Defence Force response on March 2, 2011