Photographer John McCombe and wife Cheryl dreamed of growing old in their two-storey Southshore villa.
Their life on Rockinghorse Rd was closely tied to four generations of family, an enviable water's-edge location and a community with a small-town feel.
McCombe, 69, says there wasn't a black mark in their idyllic existence. It took just 53 seconds for everything to change as the magnitude 6.3 earthquake shattered their house, their business, and their lives.
"In an instant all our dreams were wiped. We both thought we would be buried in Canterbury. There was just nothing in our plans that would see us ever moving back to the North Island."
Despite liquefaction and fracture lines running through their crippled home, the pair were loath to quit the southern city.
"We survived the February quake and knew that we would have to leave our dream home so we planned to build a new home on the same site.
"Then the June quake occurred and that traumatised members of our family. It was almost like the straw that broke the camel's back."
McCombe says it was during a trip north relocating his elderly father to Thames that they made an impulsive - and life-changing - decision.
He and his wife, 68, spent a night in Whangamata and, on a whim, called a real estate agent to see what their money might fetch in the area.
They only looked at one property. "It was a typical Coromandel morning - beautiful blue skies, the tui were singing and the tide was in - it was straight out of a real estate video.
"We looked at each other and said, 'We'll put an offer in'."
McCombe got on the phone to his insurance company and asked for a settlement on his red-zoned property as soon as possible. The company settled in seven days.
"The rest is history. This August we will have been here four years."
He says the speed of the decision left a few friends and family a bit stunned.
"It was quite hard for the family when we moved because we're quite close-knit and I think they must have thought we'd gone off our rocker a little bit, but they appreciate it now when they see where we are."
There were bouts of homesickness in the first months. "We wondered whether we had made the right decision.
"But it was the state of mind we were in. Unless you have been through the quakes, you don't understand what it is to live with a constant turmoil of never knowing when there's going to be another huge quake and the fact you have no control over it."
McCombe says moving north proved to be the best thing that has happened in their lives.
"There's a magnificent group of people here who go out of their way to be friendly. It's a unique place."
He has joined the local golf and boating clubs, enjoys hosting visitors and finds that life moves at a relaxing pace - all thanks to a decision made on gut instinct.
"We seized the moment. If we had hopped in our car and not made an offer that morning we would still be in Canterbury, but the fact that we made an instant decision has meant we have changed our lives forever."
There are moments when Sacha Holloway feels she deserted Christchurch in its hour of need.
It has been three years since the teacher aide relocated to Auckland.
The family of five lived through the first year of violent aftershocks, leaving at the end of 2011 when Holloway's husband Jamey's central city business could no longer operate.
Holloway says the decision to move was easy - the hard part was leaving friends and family.
"We felt like we were traitors in a way.
"We're the sort of people who would want to stick around and see it through and you feel like you're not doing the right thing. You're kind of abandoning a city and your friends and your life at a bad time rather than seeing it out the other side."
Despite those reservations, Holloway was worried about the constant shaking and the psychological toll it was taking on her family.
"I was quite anxious about earthquakes and one of our children had become very anxious and had to have counselling, so that made it easier to make a decision.
"It felt like they had been through enough and we didn't know at that point that there wouldn't be any more earthquakes. It just seemed like they could happen any day."
She said the absence of quakes in the north brought immediate comfort. "I was on edge all the time that there might be another earthquake so it was a relief to not have that feeling any more."
Holloway says the children, Frano, 9, Maya, 12, and Lily, 16, have adjusted to life in Auckland.
"It was really hard for them to start with - especially Lily going into high school and not knowing a single face, but she soon made friends. It was easier for the other kids because they tend to look at life as full of exciting opportunities."
They have resettled on Auckland's North Shore and love the beaches and the climate.
"It's sort of exciting to live in a different place having always lived in the South Island and in Christchurch for 20 years."
Holloway, who now works at Murray's Bay Intermediate, says they still have to cope with the stresses of dealing with the EQC and sorting out repair work on their Christchurch home, which had only recently been completed when the quake struck.
She says her heart goes out to those living in quake-damaged homes who are still waiting for them to be repaired or rebuilt.
Today, four years on from when the southern city was brought to its knees, Holloway will remember the tumultuous moment that set their lives on an unforeseen path.
"My husband was in the centre of town that day. I didn't know where he was and we couldn't call each other and I couldn't get hold of Lily. I remember this terrible feeling of panic. We remember what that day was like on February 22nd.
"For some people it was a truly horrendous tragedy. We're really fortunate in comparison."
Real estate agent Steen Nielsen, 46, says he doesn't regret his failure to buy a family home in Christchurch.
Had one of two offers he made at the start of 2011 been accepted, his life may have taken a different road.
Instead Nielsen, wife Jane and daughters Emma, 17, and Celia, 15, packed their bags and quit Christchurch within three months of the February earthquake as his business struggled in the post-quake economy.
"We had made offers on two houses in January and February to purchase. We were lucky the vendors wanted too much.
"I was also looking for a premises to open up a franchise with Ray White down there. So you can imagine if everything happened six months later, I could have been a franchise owner, bought a house, had a mortgage and then there was no way we could have just packed up our bags and moved."
Until that February, the former semi-professional cricketer who fell in love with New Zealand nearly 20 years ago was enjoying life in the garden city.
"Christchurch was fantastic. I had a really good business and was number one real estate salesman in the South Island. We absolutely loved Christchurch. We had no intentions of moving but the earthquakes changed everything."
He says the September 2010 quake had taken a toll on his wife who refused to sleep in the couple's second-storey bedroom.
When his business was hit by the February quake the decision to head north was swift.
"Because we were renting, we could pack our bags and move to Auckland."
Nielsen said he wasn't relishing the prospect of starting from scratch in the competitive Auckland market but viewed it as a new opportunity.
"It was a huge success for all of us from day one. Our girls were fantastic. They loved the schools and made new friends so quickly. My wife Jane loved Auckland and my business just grew so fast."
He says Aucklanders have also been incredibly generous.
"It was one of the things that impressed us when we came up here in May 2011; how much focus from Aucklanders there was on making sure we were feeling good and comfortable.
"Even at schools, when they had fire drills, our girls were taken aside and told they didn't need to participate because they didn't want to risk taking them back to some of those traumatic experiences in Christchurch in the earthquake."
He says the family still have fond memories of Christchurch but their future is in the North Island.
"We loved the climate and we still have a lot of friends and relationships in Christchurch but we would never go back."
A hopeful future
Today's memorial will be a chance to remember those who were lost and the city that was changed forever - but also to look to the future with hope.
Organisers of the civic memorial say the visiting Scottish cricket team will take time out from the World Cup to mark the fourth anniversary of the Christchurch earthquake, joining about 500 people for an hour-long service to pay tribute to the 185 people who died.
Others who will attend include about 150 people who lost family members and a host of foreign dignitaries including the Japanese and Israeli ambassadors, local civic leaders, politicians, emergency personnel and representatives of humanitarian agencies.
A minute's silence will be held at 12:51pm.
At the end of the service, people will be invited to cast flowers into the nearby Avon River in tribute.
As part of the healing process, six designs for a permanent memorial were unveiled this week.
The public has a month to give feedback before an expert panel, including representatives of bereaved families, will announce its preferred multi-million dollar design. Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlie will make a final decision in May.
The winning design is expected to be constructed in time for next year's memorial.
The city is now into its fourth year of rebuild after large sectors of the central city and eastern suburbs were severely damaged.
To view the shortlist of memorial designs go to: ccdu.govt.nz/ideas-to-remember