Bob Parker: My earthquake story

By Catherine Masters

Christchurch mayor Bob Parker doesn't pull any punches in a personal account of the earthquakes that rocked his city - and the often bitter in-fighting that followed. Catherine Masters reports

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker has written a book about his experiences during the 2011 earthquake. Photo / Supplied
Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker has written a book about his experiences during the 2011 earthquake. Photo / Supplied

With a moody sky behind him, Bob Parker makes direct eye contact with the camera. His hair distinctively white, the arms of his jacket distinctively orange, he wears a "munted" T-shirt and stands in front of the munted cathedral.

This is the cover of the mayor of Christchurch's book Ripped Apart: A City in Chaos, a (self-published) personal account of his earthquake.

At times a tell-all and at times a read-between-the lines summation of a traumatic two years, the book is told via a series of interviews to old friend and former journalist, Tony Farrington.

Much of the time it's an emotional purging, which goes well beyond his personal recollections of the quake on February 22, 2011 that left 185 people dead and many more badly injured. Parker also spills on behind-the-scenes struggles for power and control as the city lay in rubble and his council imploded.

This is Parker's story; his version of events. It's a safe enough bet his opponents will find much to criticise in the book, which goes on sale today.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee, who earlier this year called Parker a clown, then apologised, may not like some of it. Parker also makes plain his feelings about those he perceives as engaging in petty politics on his council and sticks up for the controversial chief executive Tony Marryatt.

Parker used to be best-known as a television presenter and game show host. He grew up in Christchurch, left for some years, then returned. In 2007 he was elected mayor of the country's second-largest city. For the rest of the country he reached prominence again after the 7.1 earthquake in the early hours of September 4, 2010, which killed no one but was terrifying and caused much damage.

Parker had not been doing well in the polls prior to that and says in the book that Jim Anderton may well have trounced him in the coming mayoral elections.

The television exposure Parker received, however, enabled him to talk directly to people, he writes. "Before 4 September they may have thought I was a flash Harry with a gorgeous wife, too big for my own shoes. For the first time, they saw me as a human being."

When the fatal earthquake struck six months later, Parker, himself shaken and hiding broken ribs, impressed with his calmness. He spoke at a press conference after press conference as the media throng grew and volunteers from around the world flocked to the city to help.

He points out NBC compared him to New York mayor Rudy Giuliani after 9/11 and sometimes his stories are written in a rousing, mayoral style.

"Every accidental meeting was a small bright oasis of family in a dark and often desperate time," he writes of bumping into his TV3 reporter son Dan on the city's broken streets.

As Parker and his wife Jo drove around the city after the first earthquake "we heard its pain. It howled and screamed in a cacophony of car alarms, burglar alarms and fire sirens."

Even then, there were power struggles. Environment Canterbury wanted to take control of parts of the operation: "I was determined not to accede."

The book twists between politics and earthquakes. Parker gives his side of the story about why his team had bought properties from broke developer Dave Henderson prior to the earthquakes, for example, and tells what it was like to be in the earthquakes.

The February one sounded like a freight train, he writes. He was in the Civic Building and tried to run but couldn't. He was tossed in the air and suspended in space as if levitating on his back.

The building suddenly dropped and he and executive manager Sarah Owens crashed with it. He landed on a wooden table, smashing three ribs.

He writes how they looked out at the city and saw smoke and dust and heard people screaming and crying. Sirens wailed and he tells of his fears for his own family members, including two sons and his elderly parents whose home was near the epicentre.

He describes the chaos and carnage at Latimer Square, opposite the crumpled CTV building where rescuers were searching for survivors.

"Corpses and injured and bloodied people surrounded us. Desperate families milled about hoping for news of loved ones. And all the time the earth shook and rumbled and rolled without pity."

Parker often writes about how humbled he has been by the reaction of the people towards him, saying strangers today still hug and thank him.

He covers many controversial aspects of the earthquakes and aftermath, such as portaloos in the wrong streets - not the council's fault, he says - and talks of the petty jealousies, rivalries and "nasty small-mindedness" which existed in some quarters behind-the-scenes.

After the February 22 earthquake a National State of Emergency was declared but again the recurring theme is a wrestling for control. Parker says the head of Civil Defence, John Hamilton, wanted to take over the big picture communications.

He writes that Wellington bureaucrats wanted to sideline him and says Auckland mayor Len Brown lent him his media manager, Glyn Jones, whose assessment was Wellington "was trying to muscle in on communications and they were concerned they were unable to control me".

All this was taking place as relentless, merciless, aftershocks would rumble through: "En masse we would catch our breath and wait expectantly ... The ensuing silence made a powerful statement ... None of us was immune to fear ... Just a few blocks away people were entombed in tumbled buildings ... They lay in the buildings, the streets, the tracks and the places we all used. It could have been any of us ..."

Parker recounts some of the stories of outstanding bravery, such as council worker Joe Pohio who had tried to lift stones and slabs off a woman screaming in pain, only to die when he threw himself over her to protect her during an aftershock.

He describes the Japanese volunteers who recovered the remains of the 28 Japanese English language students at the CTV building.

"Every time they retrieved a body, or part of one, they would lift it so gently, with immense dignity, and carry it to a stretcher on the street. They would form a circle around the remains of a young Japanese student and pray."

Parker says the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act 2010, passed by Parliament after the September quake, placed unprecedented power for running the city in the hands of the minister, Brownlee. It made him the most powerful man in New Zealand, he writes, in some ways with more power than Prime Minister John Key.

Those powers would have expired in April this year, but after the February earthquake the act was replaced by the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act which extended those powers, stripping the mayors of Christchurch, Selwyn and Waimakariri of their authority in regard to rebuilding their damaged areas.

Nothing can be done, says Parker, without the approval of Brownlee or Cera, the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority.

He and every other councillor in the region are "politically impotent."

"The Government's strategy was to set up their own system and tell everyone else what to do."

He speaks about attempts to sideline the council in planning the city's future and describes how at a meeting between the CCDU (Christchurch Central Development Unit) and his own team, he noticed a woman taking notes.

He had snapped,"is she a spy from the minister's office? We're here for a frank discussion, not a report to the headmaster. I'm simply asking the questions that my council and community will want answers to."

Some weeks later at a business breakfast, when cooler heads prevailed, the head of the CCDU, Warwick Isaacs, pointed out the woman in question and said: "She's from the GCSB - the Government Communications Security Bureau. She's a bloody spook, mate! When you called her a spy, we all cracked up. That's exactly what she is."

Parker writes that they had a good laugh, but that he never fully understood her role or the point of having her there.

"None of us were subversives."

When the Weekend Herald spoke to Parker about his book, the proceeds of which will go the the New Zealand Spinal Trust, he said the interviews with Farrington had been a cathartic process.

He, like everybody in Christchurch, still carried a huge amount of emotion, he said.

"I can be reduced to tears, like I find a lot of my fellow Cantabrians can when we go back to these events and discuss them.

"There's a lot of trauma that I think many of us are still dealing with, if we're really honest, and it may take years to work our way through it."

Life is becoming more normal but Parker points out there have been 12,000 aftershocks. He says he is getting some counselling now and that he, like others, probably has some PTSD (Post-Traumatic Shock Disorder).

The earthquakes had changed him, he said.

"We all lost people we knew and then there was the underlying thought that this was such an extraordinarily random way to lose your life. The places that people died, well, there would't be a person in the city who hadn't stood in those places, and so what came home was this incredible feeling of the randomness of this event and how ill-equipped we are to find the answers."

The counselling was helping, he said.

"Yep, absolutely, and I'd recommend that for anybody. I just think there's a time in which we all need to actually come to terms with this."

What had contributed to the past two years being the hardest of his life was the politics and factions on the council which had been "very vicious and very sad".

But the plan for the inner city had ended up a good compromise of ratepayers' ideas, involving a lot of green spaces.

Christchurch had been facing urban decay before the earthquakes and the city now had to take the opportunity to make bold decisions.

"We have the chance to do something nowhere else in the world has the opportunity to do but we need to be bold ... we have a chance to build a city that resonates with the 21st century."

With a moody sky behind him, Bob Parker makes direct eye contact with the camera. His hair distinctively white, the arms of his jacket distinctively orange, he wears a "munted" T-shirt and stands in front of the munted cathedral.

This is the cover of the mayor of Christchurch's book Ripped Apart: A City in Chaos, a (self-published) personal account of his earthquake.

At times a tell-all and at times a read-between-the lines summation of a traumatic two years, the book is told via a series of interviews to old friend and former journalist, Tony Farrington.

Much of the time it's an emotional purging, which goes well beyond his personal recollections of the quake on February 22, 2011 that left 185 people dead and many more badly injured. Parker also spills on behind-the-scenes struggles for power and control as the city lay in rubble and his council imploded.

This is Parker's story; his version of events. It's a safe enough bet his opponents will find much to criticise in the book, which goes on sale today.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee, who earlier this year called Parker a clown, then apologised, may not like some of it. Parker also makes plain his feelings about those he perceives as engaging in petty politics on his council and sticks up for the controversial chief executive Tony Marryatt.

Parker used to be best-known as a television presenter and game show host. He grew up in Christchurch, left for some years, then returned. In 2007 he was elected mayor of the country's second-largest city. For the rest of the country he reached prominence again after the 7.1 earthquake in the early hours of September 4, 2010, which killed no one but was terrifying and caused much damage.

Parker had not been doing well in the polls prior to that and says in the book that Jim Anderton may well have trounced him in the coming mayoral elections.

The television exposure Parker received, however, enabled him to talk directly to people, he writes. "Before 4 September they may have thought I was a flash Harry with a gorgeous wife, too big for my own shoes. For the first time, they saw me as a human being."

When the fatal earthquake struck six months later, Parker, himself shaken and hiding broken ribs, impressed with his calmness. He spoke at a press conference after press conference as the media throng grew and volunteers from around the world flocked to the city to help.

He points out NBC compared him to New York mayor Rudy Giuliani after 9/11 and sometimes his stories are written in a rousing, mayoral style.

"Every accidental meeting was a small bright oasis of family in a dark and often desperate time," he writes of bumping into his TV3 reporter son Dan on the city's broken streets.

As Parker and his wife Jo drove around the city after the first earthquake "we heard its pain. It howled and screamed in a cacophony of car alarms, burglar alarms and fire sirens."

Even then, there were power struggles. Environment Canterbury wanted to take control of parts of the operation: "I was determined not to accede."

The book twists between politics and earthquakes. Parker gives his side of the story about why his team had bought properties from broke developer Dave Henderson prior to the earthquakes, for example, and tells what it was like to be in the earthquakes.

The February one sounded like a freight train, he writes. He was in the Civic Building and tried to run but couldn't. He was tossed in the air and suspended in space as if levitating on his back.

The building suddenly dropped and he and executive manager Sarah Owens crashed with it. He landed on a wooden table, smashing three ribs.

He writes how they looked out at the city and saw smoke and dust and heard people screaming and crying. Sirens wailed and he tells of his fears for his own family members, including two sons and his elderly parents whose home was near the epicentre.

He describes the chaos and carnage at Latimer Square, opposite the crumpled CTV building where rescuers were searching for survivors.

"Corpses and injured and bloodied people surrounded us. Desperate families milled about hoping for news of loved ones. And all the time the earth shook and rumbled and rolled without pity."

Parker often writes about how humbled he has been by the reaction of the people towards him, saying strangers today still hug and thank him.

He covers many controversial aspects of the earthquakes and aftermath, such as portaloos in the wrong streets - not the council's fault, he says - and talks of the petty jealousies, rivalries and "nasty small-mindedness" which existed in some quarters behind-the-scenes.

After the February 22 earthquake a National State of Emergency was declared but again the recurring theme is a wrestling for control. Parker says the head of Civil Defence, John Hamilton, wanted to take over the big picture communications.

He writes that Wellington bureaucrats wanted to sideline him and says Auckland mayor Len Brown lent him his media manager, Glyn Jones, whose assessment was Wellington "was trying to muscle in on communications and they were concerned they were unable to control me".

All this was taking place as relentless, merciless, aftershocks would rumble through: "En masse we would catch our breath and wait expectantly ... The ensuing silence made a powerful statement ... None of us was immune to fear ... Just a few blocks away people were entombed in tumbled buildings ... They lay in the buildings, the streets, the tracks and the places we all used. It could have been any of us ..."

Parker recounts some of the stories of outstanding bravery, such as council worker Joe Pohio who had tried to lift stones and slabs off a woman screaming in pain, only to die when he threw himself over her to protect her during an aftershock.

He describes the Japanese volunteers who recovered the remains of the 28 Japanese English language students at the CTV building.

"Every time they retrieved a body, or part of one, they would lift it so gently, with immense dignity, and carry it to a stretcher on the street. They would form a circle around the remains of a young Japanese student and pray."

Parker says the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act 2010, passed by Parliament after the September quake, placed unprecedented power for running the city in the hands of the minister, Brownlee. It made him the most powerful man in New Zealand, he writes, in some ways with more power than Prime Minister John Key.

Those powers would have expired in April this year, but after the February earthquake the act was replaced by the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act which extended those powers, stripping the mayors of Christchurch, Selwyn and Waimakariri of their authority in regard to rebuilding their damaged areas.

Nothing can be done, says Parker, without the approval of Brownlee or Cera, the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority.

He and every other councillor in the region are "politically impotent."

"The Government's strategy was to set up their own system and tell everyone else what to do."

He speaks about attempts to sideline the council in planning the city's future and describes how at a meeting between the CCDU (Christchurch Central Development Unit) and his own team, he noticed a woman taking notes.

He had snapped,"is she a spy from the minister's office? We're here for a frank discussion, not a report to the headmaster. I'm simply asking the questions that my council and community will want answers to."

Some weeks later at a business breakfast, when cooler heads prevailed, the head of the CCDU, Warwick Isaacs, pointed out the woman in question and said: "She's from the GCSB - the Government Communications Security Bureau. She's a bloody spook, mate! When you called her a spy, we all cracked up. That's exactly what she is."

Parker writes that they had a good laugh, but that he never fully understood her role or the point of having her there.

"None of us were subversives."

When the Weekend Herald spoke to Parker about his book, the proceeds of which will go to the New Zealand Spinal Trust, he said the interviews with Farrington had been a cathartic process.

He, like everybody in Christchurch, still carried a huge amount of emotion, he said.

"I can be reduced to tears, like I find a lot of my fellow Cantabrians can when we go back to these events and discuss them.

"There's a lot of trauma that I think many of us are still dealing with, if we're really honest, and it may take years to work our way through it."

Life is becoming more normal but Parker points out there have been 12,000 aftershocks. He says he is getting some counselling now and that he, like others, probably has some PTSD (Post-Traumatic Shock Disorder).

The earthquakes had changed him, he said.

"We all lost people we knew and then there was the underlying thought that this was such an extraordinarily random way to lose your life. The places that people died, well, there would't be a person in the city who hadn't stood in those places, and so what came home was this incredible feeling of the randomness of this event and how ill-equipped we are to find the answers."

The counselling was helping, he said.

"Yep, absolutely, and I'd recommend that for anybody. I just think there's a time in which we all need to actually come to terms with this."

What had contributed to the past two years being the hardest of his life was the politics and factions on the council which had been "very vicious and very sad".

But the plan for the inner city had ended up a good compromise of ratepayers' ideas, involving a lot of green spaces.

Christchurch had been facing urban decay before the earthquakes and the city now had to take the opportunity to make bold decisions.

"We have the chance to do something nowhere else in the world has the opportunity to do but we need to be bold ... we have a chance to build a city that resonates with the 21st century."

Parker: Keep cathedral's spirit in modern building

Bob Parker reveals his thoughts on the future of Christchurch Cathedral and strongly defends the Anglican Bishop of Christchurch in his new book.

He writes that when Bishop Victoria Matthews announced the deconstruction of the landmark cathedral, which was badly damaged in the February 2011 earthquake, "the decision brought upon the gentle, pious lady odium I previously considered reserved only for mayors".

The site of the cathedral is sacred and iconic, Parker says, but he does not believe it should be rebuilt.

Instead, he says the loss is a unique opportunity to make a bold statement and he likes the idea of retaining part of the ruins and incorporating them into a modern structure.

"I would like to see the base of the steeple kept as the stump to which it was reduced when its spire crumpled. That image, I believe, is really symbolic."

He would like to see as much of the walls kept as possible - "we could then enshrine the original building's ruins in a glass case.

"The remains of the cathedral, perhaps the west end, with the most sacred part - the sanctuary, which contained the altar - could be entombed within that glass case. Perhaps, because it is so holy, it could be enclosed with the roof and walls."

Many parts of the old cathedral could be incorporated, such as the tiled floor which he says is similar to one you would find in a Roman ruin.

He also proposes precious artefacts such as stained glass windows and other religious icons be salvaged and when a new edifice built, should be suspended within an invisible structure.

He goes further: "People who lost their lives in the earthquake died on a beautiful, warm day. Why not keep the temperature inside the space at the same temperature as it was at 12.51pm on February 2011?

"Why not make the atmosphere inside similar to an Eternal Spring?"

Parker goes on to say that elements of a "vociferous battle" to halt demolition of the cathedral had been anything but Christian.

"Bishop Matthews has been subjected to vile and disgusting abuse from individuals involved with the campaign to save the cathedral. She has been treated extremely badly.

"If Christchurch has become a city in which the public will attempt to destroy a person with an opposing view to theirs, I do not want to be part of that society."

- NZ Herald

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