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Shook up on vacation near Christchurch

Knox Presbyterian Church, wrenched from its members without permission.One of many historic stone churches that may never rise again.

Article and photos by Joe Gschwendtner

While wrapping up a New Zealand trip near Christchurch on February 22, my wife and I started a light meal in a Little River café. Moments later, at 12:50 p.m., our table shook violently from side to side. In seconds, the danger registered. We quickly vaulted to the door to escape the still-shaking two story building.

After the quake’s tremors stopped, we retrieved our gear and the remainder of lunch. Bottles, ceramics, and shelved items had toppled, crashing to the floor everywhere. Fortunately, our wood and galvanized steel building was low and flexible enough to tolerate the grinding, whip action.

On the road to Christchurch, evidence of greater violence was everywhere. The asphalt had buckled in places and cracked in others with some gaps as large as two feet. There was also liquefaction, a process by which sub-surface water and clays had pressure-pushed themselves up to the surface in whirling masses of grey goop.

For us, the earthquake was a scary delay; for the citizens of Christchurch it was a living hell. The inner city was in shambles. The day’s headlines would read “The Moment the City Shook to Pieces.” Death stalked tall masonry buildings. The Canterbury TV and PGC Buildings, high rises of glass and concrete, had collapsed on themselves, concentrating destruction and despair. The iconic Christchurch Cathedral steeple detached and came apart, crushing everything below. Store after store had its inventory shaken from its shelves into piles everywhere.

In what fashion the city survives is yet to be seen. Christchurch must first put the disaster in perspective, its second quake in six months. It will not be easy. Tragedy does not rewind and the pain is indelibly etched. Are two quakes a pattern? Not good for residents and real estate values. Will Christchurch forever carry an invisible mental asterisk? Tourism is big in New Zealand. Will more tourists eventually come to town than not because of the earthquake? I know I’ll be back….

Those touched by such calamities are affected long-term. Forced to spend two more days in a motel until the airport reopened, we endured aftershocks that came and went like freight trains. One never knew if it was the beginning of another big one. When our plane finally went wheels up forty-eight hours later, it was a feeling of blessed escape and remorse, like leaving Vietnam in 1970.



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