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Two years ago to this day I was about to head to Suvarnabhumi Airport after an unfortunate and unscheduled hospital stay in Bangkok had meant that 2011 was The Trinity Forum ‘that never was’ for me.
I was at the Pullman Bangkok King Power hotel, checking my e-mails before taking breakfast with an old school pal Barry Winter from my home town in Christchurch, New Zealand, who had kindly flown over to keep me company as I recovered from the surgical complications that had hospitalised me.
‘Breaking news, devastating earthquake hits Christchurch’. As I looked up from my laptop screen, the CNN tickertape on my television grabbed my intention. Surely not? How could this be, less than six months since the 4 September 2010 quake that had pulverised the city?
It was real, alright. Terrifyingly so. I rushed to alert Barry, who was due to fly home via Australia a few hours after my departure to London. He tried repeatedly to call his family, without success. As apocalyptic images took over the airwaves, it was clear that this was worse, much worse than the September quake.
Half the city seemed under water or mud, buildings were contorted to Dali-esque proportions, and harrowing film taken from helicopters showed desperate workers trying to escape from office buildings that had collapsed as if they were made of paper machet.
Barry and I said our goodbyes and I silently prayed that his family was safe, pledging to keep calling them and to let him know if I made contact with them from the airport while he was en route later in the day. I remember vividly speaking to another friend in Christchurch by phone, who stopped the conversation suddenly and said “Listen to this.” It was an aftershock but it sounded like an A380 flying through his house. I heard the sound of glass breaking and my friend saying, “I’ve got to go, my wife’s crying” and ringing off.
By the time I reached the business lounge at Suvarnabhumi, my home town was generating more news coverage in a single day than it had in all the 163 years combined since it took its name on 27 March 1848. The scenes were beyond description. Christchurch was falling, people were dying.
Local newspaper, The Christchurch Press’, whose historic building in the city centre collapsed during the tumult, would later capture the moment in words that will remain imbedded in the minds of all Cantabrians (Christchurch’s province): “At 12.51pm the fault… can no longer resist the immense pressure. It ruptures, dispatching shockwaves upwards through the oblivious city and through the Port Hills to the sea beyond. In the seconds which follow, the earth writhes and roars like a wounded animal, gripping Christchurch in a web of destruction. This will be a day unlike any other.”
Just before my flight left for London, I got through to Barry’s wife. She and the children were safe. Others were not so lucky. 185 people died on that terrible day. The entire central business district was devastated, cordoned off for months and much of it eventually flattened. The city’s famous rugby stadium, all dressed up for the Rugby World Cup due to take place a few months later, was twisted and buckled like some cheap tin can.
From the bowels of the southern earth tonnes of gooey mud and sand-like substance called liquefaction spewed upwards through the streets, gardens and houses. Huge rockfalls sent houses tumbling from cliff-tops and left others tottering, permanently inhabitable, precariously near the edge.
Whole streets, whose houses looked serenely over the city’s tranquil English-style rivers, fell several feet below water level in the brutality of the earth’s movement, necessitating flood barriers that remain to this day. Massive chunks of the hapless eastern suburbs, already bent and undermined by the previous quake, were twisted, contorted and ultimately ruined by the sheer power of nature’s vengeance.
A few months later, I would visit my hometown, not for the Rugby World Cup as I had hoped (all the games had to be moved from the ruined stadium to the far northern city of Auckland) but to see my family and friends and to come to terms with what had happened. The house I had been brought up in, perched on the lovely hill of Clifton (below) overlooking the Pacific Ocean, had simply crumbled, gone, been cordoned off with white tape. Whole suburbs had become urban wastelands.
New Zealanders are stoical types, often hiding their emotions under their famous ‘She’ll be right’ (everything will be ok) mentality. But she wasn’t right and everything wasn’t ok. Life went on but life was different. Because for one day in February a sleepy garden city had become a killing field.
I hated seeing the city as it was, yet I hated leaving it. And it gives me immense pleasure to see it bouncing back as strongly as it is today. “We are home, Christchurch lives on,” read a paint-scrawled sign at the end of a driveway in the ravaged suburb of Bexley as I drove around all those months ago, a magnificent statement of defiance in the eye of nature at her most brutal and unforgiving.
At the recent Trinity Forum in Abu Dhabi, I was delighted to welcome Christchurch Airport Manager Retail Development Julie-Ann Beattie (and her husband David, pictured below with me and Moodie International shareholder Rebecca Wampler). I think, and hope, that they enjoyed the splendid facilities of Abu Dhabi. And they deserved to, for almost two years earlier they had found themselves in a very different environment.
At 12.51 on 22 February 2011, Christchurch Airport was not a place you wanted to be. Here’s how Simon Stansfield, General Manager for airport food & beverage concessionaire HMS Host described the scene to me during my last visit home: “We didn’t get an opportunity to stop and think. I was in the office with my Chef. There was a degree of controlled panic. We knew it wasn’t good. Going down the stairs next to the escalator, the glass panelling was popping. There was smashed glass everywhere. The terminal was evacuated and the response of the airport was very good. We made sure everyone was accounted for.”
I will never forget that interview, nor Simon’s restrained emotion as he said: “We opened what we could, including three outlets the next day. People did those long shifts, without question. They didn’t have to be asked, didn’t have to be told. They just did it. Because that’s what they do. It almost became a cheerleading exercise thanking people every day for what they had done. Yet no-one was asking for thanks.”
I know Julie-Ann won’t mind me sharing with you her e-mail to me from February 2011, after I had asked about her well-being. It makes sobering reading and just revisiting it makes me happier for the hug I gave her in Abu Dhabi for coming all the way to Trinity.
“Thankfully we are all well. There is still tremendous pressure on the airport with many additional flights laid on, and Royal New Zealand Air Force operating free flights to Wellington. Many international travellers who were staying at central business district hotels found themselves without their passports and just the clothes they were wearing, so these flights were particularly useful at getting the tourists to their Wellington-based Embassies and consulates. Our International Terminal project opening has been delayed a month… the new terminal has survived two earthquakes before it’s even open!
“Our property is on the Redcliffs cliffs [pictured below], and whilst our home looks to be structurally ok, the risk of falling rocks and the failure of the access road saw us relocated at 10pm last Thursday. We consider ourselves to be so lucky to have options.
“Unfortunately our beautiful city will never be the same, but the Cantabrian spirit remains strong and the camaraderie in communities to take control of very bad situations and band together is very inspiring.”
It was indeed. HMSHost’s Simon Stansfield memorably quoted one female worker who said: “I’m not strong enough to lift concrete. I’m not a nurse so I can’t help the hospital. But I can make coffee and that’s what I feel have to do.”
So many people did what they felt they had to do. Today, two years on, Christchurch is beginning its rebirth, its wonderful airport thriving, its reopened central business district slowly, painfully yet gloriously finding a voice that had been quietened but never quashed. From a place of nightmare, Christchurch somehow remains a city of dreams, of greatness, graciousness and guts.
Footnote: Nature, with all its terrible power to destroy as well as to marvel, has it seems no place for emotion, nor mourning, nor loss. For last night, on the eve of the second anniversary of that “day unlike any other”, a magnitude-3.9 aftershock rattled Christchurch.
Though no-one needed it, the tremor was a terrible reminder of the moment when, as the Christchuch Press put it, “The earth heaved and tossed and entire swathes of the city crumbled and fell. Modern high-rise buildings appeared to sway and twist in a surreal dance amid the tremor’s violence. The city felt a monstrous physical blow, as if you were punched by a heavyweight boxer.”
Let us remember today the lives that were lost in the beautiful garden city of Christchurch on this fateful day two years ago.