Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Chaos as frightened people flee city

Motorists asked to pick up hitch-hikers after train services forced to a halt, stranding thousands

A worker directs commuters to alternative transport after train services were cancelled. Photo / Getty Images
A worker directs commuters to alternative transport after train services were cancelled. Photo / Getty Images

When the earthquake hit, Jason Dennison found himself in a difficult spot. The Wellington rigging company director was 60m above the ground on the outside platform of a crane at a Wellington demolition site when the 6.6 magnitude tremor rippled across the Cook Strait from Marlborough, nearly knocking him off his feet.

The quake and a series of thumping aftershocks prompted anxious Wellingtonians to flee the city in taxis, cars, bikes, ferries, buses and on foot, creating a citywide gridlock and cramming footpaths with CBD workers.

Some walked along the motorway shoulder to get home.

It was a slightly larger rumble than the Seddon quake on July 22, which was until yesterday the largest in the central region since 1942.

"It was violent," said Mr Dennison, on a site at Bolton St. "We weren't in the (cab) of the crane, we were outside. We had to cling to the handrails, and we could see buildings swaying in the background.

"It felt like we moved one, maybe two metres. There are 10-tonne weights up here that were swaying side to side like crazy."

As he descended to ground level, "people just came pouring on to the street".

The footpaths of The Terrace, Lambton Quay, and other city streets were five-people-deep with workers looking skywards at buildings for damage as emergency sirens began to fill the air. Some looked ashen-faced, others held back tears, and all were on their phones.

A woman with a cardboard splint is carried to a police car at the railway station. Photo / SNPA
A woman with a cardboard splint is carried to a police car at the railway station. Photo / SNPA

Most injuries were minor and caused by people making over-eager dives under their desks and knocking their heads. A woman in the Ministry of Social Development building on Bowen St was taken to Wellington Hospital with a suspected broken ankle.

Bruce Pepperell, group controller of Civil Defence Emergency Management, said the quake damage in Wellington was minimal.

"There has been the occasional fire, a little tiny bit of facade damage, but nothing much to speak of.

"The big damage is in people's confidence at this stage but the city is continuing to go about its business.

"We need to assess the cumulative effect of shakes on the buildings here. Obviously (the jolt) is relatively significant and the impact coming on top of the previous 6.5 and the other series, so we have some engineers here and they'll start putting their minds to the potential impact there."

The BNZ building on the waterfront, which was damaged by the magnitude 6.5 quake in July, had a large scar on its front facade where the quake had torn an interior wall.

Fragments of cracked concrete littered the ground around the Westpac Stadium. Two events there were cancelled for it to be inspected this weekend. It will have to be cleared by engineers before the All Black test next weekend.

By 3pm, people were abandoning their workplaces and scrambling to get out of the city as the fault line near Seddon continued to shake out its stress into the evening. Magnitude 4 and 5 aftershocks struck as the traffic ground to a halt. After northbound trains were cancelled for the day, commuters lined Waterloo Quay to hitchhike out of town. They held signs saying "Paraparaumu", "Bulls" and "Palmerston North".

"I've never hitched in my life," said Timothy Donovan. "There's some very generous drivers but we're trying to let the old people go first."

He was picked up within seconds, and handed over his "Otaki" sign to another hitchhiker on the footpath.

"I just want to get out of the city as soon as possible," said Maggie Crooks, 24, from Otaki.

Police began pulling over cars to urge them to pick up hitchhikers.

The Transport Agency said pedestrians stranded in the city were walking along the motorway to Petone, and motorists on SH2 were warned to take extra care.

- NZ Herald

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