Aerial footage of the damage in Christchurch, New Zealand (courtesy of RT News)
Just before one o’clock in the afternoon today, one of my partner’s colleagues in Dunedin had been on the telephone speaking with another company employee up in Christchurch, when the phone line suddenly went dead. At that same moment, I was at home, working in my office, startled when George, the neighbour’s cat which had been sleeping on top of a bookshelf behind me, suddenly jumped down and ran around the house frantically. A few moments later, we all understood why. Like the earthquake last September, the house began to shudder hard enough that I could see our deck rocking and the high tension power pylons down the hill swaying, the bricks and mortar of our house groaning loudly in protest. It lasted long enough for me to wonder about trying to grab George and get us both outside when it finally stopped. I turned on the radio, and it didn’t take long before reports started to come in. Christchurch was hit again by a devastating earthquake. Although this time it measured 6.3 on the Richter scale compared to the September quake’s magnitude of 7.1, it was at a shallower depth than the September quake, five kilometres rather than ten, and much closer to New Zealand’s second largest city, a mere ten kilometers south in Lyttelton, rather than the September quake’s epicentre in Darfield, forty kilometres west of Christchurch. This time, rather than at night when most people were in their homes asleep, the quake hit at lunchtime, the streets and office buildings in the city full of people.
Our time-share kitty couldn’t settle, refused to go outside, and hid behind the bookshelf. Fifteen minutes later, another 5.5 aftershock rocked the South Island, hard enough for us to feel it yet again all the way south in Dunedin. At twenty to four, another big 4.6 aftershock hit, followed five minutes later by another nearly the same magnitude, all violent enough to be felt nearly the entire length of the South Island. Within two hours, the count of aftershocks was up to ten, most of them quite powerful. It’s now late afternoon here, and aftershocks in the magnitude 4 range continue to shake the entire South Island, ten more in the past four hours and more predicted to come, the latest a magnitude 5.0 at 7:43 pm, again near Lyttelton, which has been declared as ‘unliveable’, most of the town’s buildings destroyed or badly damaged. But the time-share cat finally settled back down and sauntered off home, ruffled but unscathed, making me hope that he knows more than I do. To give you some idea just how powerful this quake was, passengers on board boats in the Tasman Glacier’s Terminal Lake, miles away on the other side of the Southern Alps, were rocked by waves up to three and a half metres tall over thirty minutes as thirty million tonnes of glacial ice calved off into the lake, aftershocks causing huge icebergs to roll.
In September, only two people were seriously injured, and one person later died of a heart attack. We all counted ourselves extremely lucky, breathed a sigh of relief and thought the worst was over. Lightning and earthquakes don’t strike twice. We were so very wrong.
TVNZ has reported that up to 200 people still remain trapped in damaged buildings all over the city. The Pyne Gould Guinness building, built in the 1960s, has completely collapsed, killing at least one person. The collapsed floors of the building look like pages in a book left face down on its spine. Thirty people trapped in the rubble were rescued, including one woman who managed to climb out onto the roof of the pancaked building, lifted down by fire engine ladder. Many more buildings have either completely collapsed or have been severely damaged. Roofs of department stores and malls have collapsed, the glass shattered out of windows, facades and crumbling with each aftershock. There are reports of casualties in the Cashel Mall, where people had been shopping on their lunch hour. More bodies are being pulled from wrecked cars and the rubble of shops. The church across from Radio NZ, the station itself badly damaged, has now completely collapsed. The Press Building has largely been destroyed. The Provincial Chambers Building, the Forsyth Barr Building are in ruins, the historic church of the Blessed Sacrament on Barbadoes Street half collapsed and the rest of the building riddled with cracks. The city’s iconic Christchurch Cathedral, which had barely survived the September quake, has been destroyed, the interior resembling Canterbury after the Blitz, the beautiful spire toppled and the walls of the church collapsing. The list of buildings either partly or completely destroyed or damaged beyond repair is growing.
Communication systems are still struggling, landlines cut, mobile phone transmissions hampered by fallen transmitters and overloaded with worried callers. Telecom had begged people not to use their phones except for emergencies, their systems crashing. The land around Christchurch is largely sandy and flat, and the earthquake has liquefied the ground, creating massive floods and mud boiling up from cracks in the roads. Buildings collapsed onto two buses, killing several of the passengers. The roads have been so badly damaged by liquefaction and surface flooding that doors have been pressed into service as make-shift stretchers and four-wheel drive cars are being used as ambulances to transport the injured. Several bodies of backpackers were carried out of the local youth hostel. 80% of Christchurch was without power after the quake, with engineers reluctant to reconnect electrical lines for fear of gas ruptures. People trapped in the Canterbury Television Building have been rescued after part of the building collapsed, but it’s not known yet if there are any other casualties, rescue efforts hampered when the building caught fire. There’s little water to fight fires, helicopters using monsoon buckets dipped into the river to try to fight the flames. Massive clouds of dust from fallen masonry have coated the city in grit.
So far, the death toll stands at 65, with Christchurch’s mayor fearing that number could double by tomorrow. The sun has gone down, rain and temperatures falling, as search and rescue teams carry on looking for survivors trapped in buildings. Google has set up a site for people to locate friends and relatives. Thousands of people are crowding into evacuation centres, with water, food, blankets, tents and beds in short supply.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister, John Key, left the capital at three thirty this afternoon, accompanied by Christchurch MPs and a member of the diplomatic protection squad, and flew into Christchurch where he was in time to appear on Channel One’s six o’clock news. Finding it ‘hard to know what to say’, he still managed to come up with a suitable enough sound bite, pronouncing that ‘we may well be witnessing New Zealand’s darkest day.’ Incredulous, I wondered aloud what on earth could he be thinking of, rushing down to Christchurch to give television interviews while the city was still reeling in chaos, emergency workers stretched to the limit trying to rescue the injured and trapped. My partner, with typical succinct Kiwi wit, noted that it is, after all, an election year. I just shook my head in disbelief.
Tomorrow morning the death toll will no doubt be higher, information a bit clearer, and Christchurch gearing up, yet again, to deal with the destruction of one of New Zealand’s loveliest cities. But until then, I can only worry, hoping my friends in Christchurch are alive and well, and wait for someone to respond to my texts.