Sunday, 27 February 2011

There are heroes everywhere - Christchurch earthquake

The are so many stories being told, and so many heroes identified. This article written by Andrew Holden, Editor of the Press is one that moved me.

When the first quake hit I was halfway out of bed. Our six-week-old baby was squawking, and my shift was the early hours.

As the house wrenched, my partner Dairne got to Raffi first. We huddled in the doorway as the 7.1 quake slammed Christchurch.
Much has been written since about our good fortune – that the quake hit when few people were up, and that no one was killed. In the months since, we've endured thousands of aftershocks. We had a plan for rebuilding the city. We were lucky. We are not lucky now.

On Tuesday, general manager Andrew Boyle popped in for a chat. It took only seconds to know this one was massive. The building jerks violently, and we hear crashing stone and brick. Andrew dives under a table, while I head to the corridor and stop a fleeing colleague as splintering glass falls around us. We cower next to a wall, the newsroom a cloud of dust.

Andrew Holden (left) talks to Robert Fisk

When the quake stops, journalists are heading down rubble-littered stairs. Andrew comes out. I dash back in and grab my things. At the building's entrance there's stone lying smashed on the footpath. Staff shout at me to run, worried more stone will fall. I can see the cathedral's spire has collapsed and I know there will be many killed this time.

One reporter has a head wound but says he is OK. The first-aiders gather and start helping. I send a text to Dairne to let them know I'm all right. I look at our lovely old building. Most of it is still standing but half of the top floor has collapsed, the turret hanging. Another jolt has people screaming, and the turret swings and smashes into Andrew's office.

There are heroes everywhere in Christchurch. Here, workers who are building us a new seven-storey home we are due to move into in three weeks, climb on to the roof and dig injured staff out. The finance department is worst hit, and Andrew will spend all hours on the roof with search and rescue, freeing three staff. But they have to leave one behind, and Andrew has to speak with her husband and son, out on the street. But long before then, as I stand with my colleagues, someone touches my shoulder. Dairne is standing in front of me with Raffi. I'd forgotten she was coming to town. We hug, both of us crying: "We're OK, we're OK."

In the next half hour, we move to a parking lot to do a check of names and a clumsy journalistic triage – who can and wants to work, what equipment they have. I try to send them in pairs. Olivia Carville heads to the main pedestrian mall, passing bodies on the way, where she finds a badly injured friend who she comforts until her husband arrives, and later writes an astonishing first-person account.

I drive my family home, the decision to grab my keys now vital. I'm in some kind of cheap disaster movie, only this time it's real. The roads heading into town are clogged, but heading away it's a question of watching for dips or rises ahead, until we get towards the estuary, where Christchurch's particular earthquake weakness, liquefaction, has ripped the roads apart. The bridge is broken, the road a lake. We join a procession of cars finding the only way home, over one hillside with broken homes, and on to the Causeway.

At Redcliffs, rocks have crashed into the back of the primary school and crushed homes. Around the corner to Sumner, the cliff is shattered, its multimillion-dollar homes horribly close to the edge. In Sumner the returned services club has a massive rock lying beside it.
Our home is miraculous – no broken windows, the floor even more creaky than after the first quake, but, by and large, little damaged. We have no power or water, but we have a home. I start the drive back to our new printing plant, just 18 months old. Twice we have had to evacuate there. I spot Olivia. I don't know yet what she has seen but I give her a hug.

All of us know we want to put out a newspaper. Everything we've collected has gone straight to the web, but a paper gives people solidity, a touch of normality. We don't realise it, but with power out few people can watch television, or use the internet. The old media stalwarts – print and radio – are all many have.

I'm writing this on Friday morning, in a whole new world. We are refugees staying with friends out of town, where life is normal. Ours is a story being repeated across Christchurch, as people realise that if they can't help, they are better off somewhere else.

Our newsroom is now swelled by staff sent in from around New Zealand and Australia to help. Yesterday photographer Iain McGregor was in tears. I hugged him – he is seeing things in his home town that no one is prepared for. Our paper is now just a slim volume and we know we'll never go back into the old Press building.

For the moment we'll produce a paper out of a canteen, a couple of offices and a conference room. We don't know the cost yet, there are names of the people who have died, and we know them. Colleagues and friends have homes that are ruined. Rebuilding will take years.

I've been crying – at the experience, and at what I see. They are a tough people here, and it is a beautiful place, but we're in pain just now. But that's no reason to stop.


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