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“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.” – Earthquake (Published by The Christchurch Press).
Meet Jo Pennycuick and Simon Stansfield. They have remarkable stories to be told.
Simon is the General Manager for HMS Host in Christchurch, a city that has been ravaged by three major earthquakes in the past 13 months and more than 8,000 aftershocks.
Jo is the Founder and Managing Director of Redesign Group, a Christchurch-based international design company that specializes in the food & beverage, retail and hospitality sectors.
I caught up with Jo and Simon yesterday at Christchurch Airport. Redesign works exclusively for HMSHost in the food & beverage sector, and at the airport’s startlingly impressive new first-floor landside dining area (below) I saw first-hand the quality and spirit of the collaboration.
You can read about that F&B offer in a forthcoming edition of The Foodie Report e-Zine. But for now I want to concentrate on the experience both Jo and Simon, and their respective teams, went through on 22 February this year, the day a massive earthquake (the second in five months) struck the place fondly known as the Garden City. But on that cool Christchurch afternoon the garden would turn into concrete killing fields.
Jo and Simon’s respective experiences are typical of those faced by many people on 22 February and the days that followed. But they are no less extraordinary for that fact.
The quake came just one month before the scheduled opening of stage one of the airport’s new terminal building, including seven HMSHost outlets. Both Jo and Simon had their hands full on a complex, demanding project.
Then, at 12.51pm the quake came, striking the city “a monstrous physical blow, as if you were punched by a heavyweight boxer” as the Christchurch Press evocatively described it.
Jo’s office was on the top floor of the National Bank Building in the central business district that would take the most terrible damage of all.
“As the earth heaved and tossed, entire swathes of the city, especially older brick buildings, crumbled and fell,” said the Christchurch Press. “Modern high-rise buildings appeared to sway and twist in a surreal dance as the tremor’s violence shattered windows and sections of external walls.”
When the quake struck, Jo was in the gym, completing a work-out session. Suddenly the building started to shake violently. “I got out, down the stairs, and as I did a big gust of dust came out from the CTV building next door… down.”
She pauses at the memory.
“My cousin, Andrew Bishop, was in that building. All I saw was people out on the street grief-stricken. Unfortunately people died in that building.” One of them was Andrew, aged 33, a respected and highly popular local media cameraman.
“And then my friend said to me ‘Don’t worry about that building Jo, what about your building?’” The realisation was instant. Jo’s mother was in the Redesign offices.
“So I sprinted,” she recalls. “It was like one of those Terminator movies where you’re running over rubble; there’s things falling down; there’s people slamming into you; there’s sirens everywhere. But Mum was ok, she got out of the building.”
Others in the six-storey CTV building were not so lucky. 115 people died there. Jo evacuated her team, who assembled in nearby Latimer Park. Then, like thousands of their fellow citizens, they each began the slow, bewildered walk home across a twisted, tangled, flooded and still violently shaking city.
Jo’s journey, with her mother, took around two and a half hours. “There was liquefaction everywhere and every now and then you would see a plume of dust as another building collapsed.” Her world, and the world of Christchurch, had changed beyond comprehension.
“You don’t really know how it affects you until you step back from it,” she recalls. “I’ve actually taken a long look at my life moving on from here. I’ve made a lot of changes and I’m spending a lot more time with my children and being a good mother to them, for example.”
Like many of her fellow citizens Jo spent the first day in shock. By the next day she was working out what to do with her business. Having rescued her server, by day three she had the whole office up and running in a temporary location. Redesign has since gone from strength to strength, and has a flourishing international business portfolio including India, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam. Talk to those in the business who know her work and you’ll hear the highest praise. She is quite some woman.
Simon’s experience was very different but no less profound. “We didn’t get an opportunity to stop and think,” he recalls.
“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.”
Once the staff had been evacuated and got to their homes, Simon focused on getting vital supplies such as bottled water into the city where they were desperately needed. Christchurch was now in full-scale emergency mode.
Incredibly, the airport – and HMSHost – reopened for business the next morning, despite a fair amount of structural damage. One outlet, dealing with the overflow from others that could not be opened, had a queue of 100 people over a ten-hour stretch.
All the time there were examples of human goodness. Simon recalls people who had resigned weeks before from their jobs turning up to help. For the first few days the operation functioned on just 18% staff availability, only reaching 30% after two weeks. “It was a case of very few people doing a lot of long shifts.
“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.”
Simon quotes 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.”
He notes: “There was something incredibly normal about getting a cup of tea or coffee through what was a mass exodus.”
And yet the company got all its new outlets open by mid-May. Everywhere there were stories of good, decent folk, Simon recalls. The main contractor lost half his house; the joiner lost his workshop and along with many of the near-completed fit-outs. Both turned up on site to keep the HMSHost project on schedule.
“There are so many good positive stories,” he says. “No-one wanted to burden others with their own circumstances, you almost had to extract it.”
Jo pays rich tribute to how Simon led his team through the most difficult and painful of times. “He’s a remarkable person in general,” she says. “He put full energy into everything and his ability to manage and be with people was incredible.”
Simon, an Australian who came to Christchurch “for six months and ended up staying ten years” smiles constantly and chats engagingly about what he and others went through. But there’s no mistaking the impact.
“I’ve never laughed so much, I’ve never cried so much. They were some of the greatest bonding experiences with people you could ever have. It is indelibly engrained on the psyche here now, it is a poignant time that you will never forget.”