Christchurch, 22 February 2011

Christchurch Cathedral 2008A slightly longer photo post this week. This was Christchurch Cathedral as it stood when I arrived in New Zealand in 2008. I have many happy memories of walking through Cathedral Square; it was then the hub of the city, sitting smack bang in the middle of the CBD. It was also the drop-off and pick-up point of the Hanmer Connection shuttle bus, so, before I bought my car, whenever I popped into town I would always nip into the cathedral café for a latte and a bagel with cream cheese and jam before going about my business. Sitting by the window I would happily watch life passing by. In my memories the sky is always a vivid blue and the square is always bustling with activity, with commuters heading for their offices and tourists taking photos of the cathedral and coronet, or shopping at the many stalls on market day.

At 12.51pm on 22 February 2011 I was just about to start my first shift of the week at the thermal pools in Hanmer. I was in the staff room when everything started shaking, having to hold on to the wall so as not to be thrown off my feet. Having already experienced the 7.1 September quake, fortunately from the safety of my Hanmer bed, it was obvious that if what we were feeling was another Christchurch quake then it was a bad one. Hanmer is situated about 130km inland and to the north of Christchurch, but even from that distance anything above a 5 in the city would rock the foundations of our sleepy little town. Of course, it was possible that it was one of the Hanmer fault lines taking its turn to shift. If you type ‘Hanmer Springs fault lines’ into Google it’s quite frightening how many pass by the small town, but I guess that’s why we had lovely thermal water. This would, perhaps, in retrospect have been preferable; Hanmer may have been violently shaken but at least nothing was really damaged, nobody was damaged.

I had to get out on deck to start my shift, but as time passed information started to filter out from the office that Christchurch had experienced a 6.3 earthquake, at the busiest part of its working day. I’m not quite sure what I felt right at that moment; it was strange to be going about my day as usual whilst reports filtered through of what was happening less than two hours’ drive away. Being a small town, most of Hanmer’s residents have strong links to the city, my Kiwi colleagues were nervously tracking friends and family, whilst the pools were also tracking any colleagues who would likely have been in town on their days off. On any other day I might have been through there doing my shopping.

February was usually a slow month at the pools. Just after the school holidays numbers would drop off dramatically, giving us all a welcome breather from the madness of the NZ summer holiday season. People started arriving later that day. We heard stories of dramatic escapes through streets where liquefaction had turned the roads to mush. A couple had been in the wine section of their local supermarket, only to find themselves showered with glass bottles. One man had dodged masonry, found his car and just driven away, eventually stopping in Hanmer. Not knowing what to do with himself he had come to the pools. Each and every person had a dramatic and alarming story to tell. By 9pm when it was time to close up and go home I was exhausted, but the UK was just waking up to the news so I needed to get on the phone and let my family and friends know I was ok. I spent the evening at a friend’s house. Her partner worked at the pools and was on a course in town. I can’t imagine how awful her day had been until he finally got a message to her that he was ok. Fortunately he was also in the St John’s ambulance so he rapidly volunteered and spent the next 12 hours helping out in the aftermath.

It was a strange and upsetting time. I was far enough away from the event geographically not to have been immediately affected by it, but at the same time it was so close. TV coverage was full of the rescue efforts in the days following the quake and then as hope waned of finding any more survivors reports of those who had been lost were televised. When I wasn’t at work talking to those who had lived through it, I was at home watching the coverage on TV. Mayor Bob Parker was incredible. I can’t imagine for a second that if something similar happened in London Boris Johnson would step up and be such a calming and articulate voice.

When I talk about those days now most people in the northern hemisphere seem unaware of what followed. I think for them the events were partly overshadowed by the Japanese Tsunami and the dramatic loss of life associated with that event. However, it wasn’t just one earthquake, just one day of horror. The total number of earthquakes in the Canterbury region above a magnitude 3 from 4 September 2010 to 3 September 2012 was 4423 (thank you to Wikipedia/GeoNet.org for that frightening statistic). By the time I left NZ in September 2011 I could no longer work out whether the earth was shaking below me or whether I had developed some sort of weird inner ear problem. My housemate and I had become addicted to GeoNet.org, which tracks all of the earthquakes in New Zealand, probably not the best way to live. And yet, the Kiwis persevere. I am overwhelmed by their resolve. I would like to say that it didn’t play some small part in my decision to leave, but looking back I might have struggled more with my decision if it hadn’t happened. In retrospect I wish I had had more of that Kiwi courage.

So, however inarticulate, this post is dedicated to that day and the enduring resilience of the people of Christchurch. The final image was taken at new year by a friend who lives in the city. It was announced in March 2012 that the cathedral would be demolished because it was far too damaged to be repaired without excessive cost. Bit by bit it started to come down, but its story might not be over yet. In November 2012 a High Court judge stepped in and halted demolition. Hopefully the cathedral too will endure and one day in the future I will again marvel at its beauty as I stand under that bright blue New Zealand sky in Cathedral Square.

Christchurch Cathedral 2013

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