Sir John Key was Prime Minister when his hometown, Christchurch, was devastated in the February 22, 2011 earthquake. He was dropped into the still shaking, cracked chaos of "New Zealand's darkest day". Ten years on, he reflects on those horrific first 24 hours, and how a rebuilt Garden City could become our own Silicon Valley. Kurt Bayer reports.
The meeting, high on the ninth floor of the Beehive paused to ride out the shaking. Everyone stopped talking, looking at each other. Once it stopped, discussion resumed.
But moments later, Prime Minister John Key's trusty chief of staff Wayne Eagleson stuck his head in the door.
"Wow, that was a big shake," Key remarked.
"Yeah," replied Eagleson. "The problem is, it was Christchurch."
Key knew then it was a big one. If it felt like that in Wellington, what must it have been like in the city where he was born and raised, some 450km away.
He thought of his sister, who lived on the Port Hills, and who had phoned him at 4am just five months earlier, when a giant earthquake shook the place awake, seemingly out of nowhere.
The meeting was wound up. Information started flooding in. Horrific details, from Civil Defence, police, scrambling officials, and other government departments.
While the September quake was enormous – magnitude 7.1 - and caused widespread damage in Canterbury, it had happened in the middle of the night. This was a weekday lunchtime, people at work, children at school.
Key phoned Christchurch mayor Bob Parker. He sent a text message to his sister, asking if she was okay. Yes, she replied, but it was really bad.
The TV was turned on. Incredible scenes of terror-stricken faces ghosting through thick dust and smoke. A magnitude 6.3, but shallow, directly beneath the city, and incredibly violent.
An emergency Cabinet meeting was held.
Key wanted to get down for a first-hand look straight away, assess the situation and identify exactly what resources were needed to mobilise at a national level to help.
An RNZAF King Air twin-engine aircraft from Ōhakea was commandeered to take Key directly to Christchurch.
While he was in the air, Deputy Prime Minister Bill English gave a press conference at the Beehive, alongside Civil Defence's John Hamilton and Civil Defence Minister John Carter, to update the nation. They were unable to answer most questions posed by journalists about those killed or trapped in fallen buildings.
Details were still sketchy, rumours rife. After touching down on the deserted Christchurch International Airport tarmac, Key was ferried into the central city. A Civil Defence emergency centre had been set up at the art gallery.
He was soon met with sensory overload. Roads split open, sirens blaring, helicopters with monsoon buckets buzzing overhead. People in an obvious state of shock and panic. Dust was heavy in the air, a thick, choking smell of smoke.
And then there were the relentless aftershocks.
"They were something I didn't really fully appreciate with earthquakes until then. The ferocious nature of them… the noise," Key says.
After speaking to police and Parker, Key went to Latimer Square where he was to give an update to the media.
It was even worse down there.
The square, a once peaceful inner-city park, had been transformed into a makeshift triage centre.
Just metres away was where the six-storey CTV Building once stood; now a pancaked pile of twisted metal and crushed concrete. A fire had started beneath it all and frantic rescue attempts were under way to try and free trapped survivors from inside the rubble.
"My lasting impression was that it really felt like a war zone," Key recalls.
"You knew it was horrendous."
'If we've got this number wrong, I'll have to resign'
He ventured as close as he could get to the CTV Building scene.
There, he asked a top police officer his thoughts on the scale of loss.
"He replied there were at least 50 people dead," Key says. He asked him if he was sure because everyone had been reporting 15 or 16 up until then.
"I asked him, 'What makes you think that?' He said, 'Because we had 50 body bags.' I said, 'If I come out and say that, once I say it, I've said it and I can't unsay it – I've got to be right.' He said, 'Well, we've counted the body bags so… you're right.'"
On a live TV national news broadcast soon after, with the smoking CTV site behind him, a clearly shaken Key spoke down the camera: "I don't think we can go past the fact that we may well be witnessing New Zealand's darkest day."
The latest "very fluid" advice was that the death toll stood at 65, Key told the nation, "and that may rise".
It was clear that people were trapped inside buildings. Already, there were efforts to try and mobilise international Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams.
And Key was fielding calls from a number of foreign leaders including Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and United States President Barack Obama, as well as the Queen and the Prince of Wales all offering their sympathies and support.
Later that day, Key was whisked out of the city back to Wellington. His head was swimming.
At about 10pm, he recalls, officials "started having a bit of a wobble" on the death toll.
"I said to Wayne [Eagleson], 'If we've got this number wrong, I'll have to resign. You can't go out and say 65 people dead, and it's 20.'"
The next day, another emergency Cabinet meeting was held.
Fellow Cantab and one of Key's most trusted ministers Gerry Brownlee told him there were a lot of badly hit businesses which would need fast financial assistance.
"[Brownlee said], 'Frankly, if we wait for the bureaucrats we're never going to get there,'" Key recalls.
"We had a lot of faith in Peter Townsend at the [Canterbury Employers'] Chamber of Commerce - we thought he was a straight shooter and knew what was going on.
"We went right over the official advice. By definition, you're giving away lots of public money and you should have a robust process but it just wasn't possible.
"So we agreed [to a wage subsidy scheme], that [businesses] would get this cash for six or eight weeks. People got looked after, businesses managed to pay wages or rent, and to the credit of the people of Canterbury, they didn't abuse it."
And then he flew back to Christchurch. It was still an incomplete picture. The full scale of the dead – later to be confirmed at 185 – was some way from being confirmed. Massive rescue efforts were still under way.
Key visited Christchurch Hospital. He met an exhausted surgeon who had operated through the night.
When Key asked how she was, she burst into tears. She had been at home, on a day off, when the quake struck. Her fridge got tossed into the lounge. She felt lucky to be alive.
"But she was just an utter professional, gone into work and started operating. There were a lot of stories like that," Key says.
In the early days after February 22, Key tried to make it to Christchurch every day, where commitments allowed.
Later, he visited every other week, something he continued for the rest of his tenure, which ended in 2016.
But when the aftershocks still thundered through the broken city, and liquefaction oozed up through the earth, with soldiers patrolling checkpoints, locals were glad to see him.
"People used to come up to me and say, 'It's great you're here, it's fantastic', and I'd say we were doing our best, it's a big programme helping to rebuild… and they'd go, 'No, no it's great because they wouldn't send you if it wasn't safe,'" says Key, who describes February 22, 2011, as "the most significant event, by far" of his three terms as prime minister.
"They genuinely thought it was a sign it was all okay. Because they were quite frazzled, worn down actually, by the enormity of it all over time."
When Key's Government came to power in 2008, amid the global financial crisis (GFC), he was trying to balance the books. Zero budgets, a tight ship.
But those future plans were blown apart by the rupturing of the earth beneath New Zealand's second-largest city.
The rebuild was going to cost billions, tens of billions.
"But I never got the impression that anyone thought we should do anything other than the right thing. We never got pushback, even years and years later," Key says.
Initial reports said the city would suffer a mass population exodus and that the city might never recover.
And then there were the constant aftershocks, which slowed down and complicated demolitions before any rebuilding work could begin in earnest.
July 2012 saw the launch of an official rebuild "blueprint", devised in just 100 days, which aimed to map out the city's big-ticket anchor projects, including a new convention centre, metro sports facility, Avon River precinct, and the eastern "frame" - a wide L-shaped park-like space wrapping around the southern and eastern sides of the new core.
At the much-anticipated blueprint's glitzy release, Key said it was a push to make the revitalised city "very much like Melbourne".
A decade on from the city-changing quake, the city can proudly celebrate a string of successes: a new city library; Justice and Emergency Services Precinct; bus interchange; a nearly finished convention centre; rebuilt town hall; world-class cricket oval; Riverside Market and revitalised Cambridge Terrace bars and restaurants.
But it also rues a stark lack of progress in other areas: a still crumbling, broken Christ Church Cathedral; still awaiting a new covered sports stadium; no mass rapid transit network; a half-built Metro Sports Facility; a long-delayed performing arts precinct; boarded-up, fenced-off inner-city damaged buildings.
Key, knighted in 2017, returns to Christchurch "reasonably regularly", visiting family. He too has his frustrations, particularly over the lack of a new covered sports stadium and landmark cathedral building in the heart of the city.
"I was, and remain, a fan actually of dealing with the cathedral," he says.
"To me, the cathedral sitting as an eyesore is just too harsh a reminder of what the city has been through and actually you'd just be better to deal with it."
But on the whole, he believes that, by international standards, "tremendous progress" has been made.
Early visions for Christchurch to become the most liveable city in New Zealand have transpired, he believes.
He cites The Terrace and Riverside Market developments along the banks of the winding, picturesque Avon River, along with other big private initiatives, as prime examples of progress.
"Whenever you look around the world, there are lots of examples where there have been large earthquakes and things and all they've done really is just demolish what was there," Key says.
"And I think that is true in parts of Japan which had the earthquakes and tsunami [also in 2011], where some areas have been rebuilt but some of it has effectively just been flattened and left.
"So, given the complexity of trying to do that in an environment in the country's second-largest city, lots and lots of gains have been made."
He added: "It's got some beautiful buildings now and built to a safety level that will hopefully do the right thing if the situation ever comes about again."
One of the lasting legacies of the quakes is the number of issues around some residents battling insurers and the Earthquake Commission (EQC), which handled Canterbury quake damage up to $115,000, for years to try and fix their broken homes.
Key understands the frustration and anger for those embroiled in long-running repair and pay-out sagas but believes his National Government was always well-intentioned in its dealings.
"I remember on numerous occasions having discussions around the Cabinet table saying, 'Can't we just pay this stuff out and make it work?'" he says today.
"But it's not always that easy. Some people might say we got that wrong but at the time we were trying – we'd bought every house in the red zone – so we felt like we were doing things to try and be fair to everyone.
"In the end, you want people to have their lives put back together as whole as they can. It's not easy. A lot of times, like all these things, it becomes an issue of expectation.
"From the information we had, and the advice we got, trying to take into account all of the precedents we were setting, I think we did the best we could."
The city's future
People want to live in Christchurch. It's a lifestyle: the sea and mountains, everything in-between. High standard of living, relatively cheap property prices, staggering natural beauty, a gateway to the South Island.
Its unique landscape – coupled with his alma mater, University of Canterbury – holds the answer to the city's future, an optimistic Key maintains.
"Lots of people end up in Auckland because that's where their job is, not necessarily because they want to live there, and when they get a chance to leave they do," the 59-year-old Key says.
"But I've always had the impression that people actually elect to live in Christchurch and that's because of the quality of living."
If you accept his hypothesis that people want to live in Christchurch, then it follows that it should be easy to attract people - especially given the city's emerging reputation as a global technology and engineering leader.
Key cites two examples: Boston, which boasts high numbers of fund managers who graduate from the esteemed Harvard University and end up staying; and Stanford University, one of the world's leading teaching and research institutions in California, which helped establish the nearby tech mecca of Silicon Valley.
"University of Canterbury has to sit at the heart of being the magnet for attracting people to the city, and therefore businesses that come off that," Key believes.
"You've got to keep driving how you make the city the most liveable and attractive place to retain talent.
"That's why things like the stadium and stuff matter – not just because every person wants to go to a Crusaders' game on a Friday or Saturday night … but because really good places to live are really good places to play, meet, and all those things. Those indexes from around the world say the quality of living comes from all sorts of factors – recreation, arts and culture. It's a great blend I believe."