CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand – As I write this from in front of the TV, watching footage being filmed not two kilometers away, and still swaying with aftershocks, bodies lay trapped in rubble. The aim of the rescue teams has shifted –efforts to save lives discontinued, as the focus now turns to the recovery of bodies.
Last year, I wrote an article for Haps following the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that struck Christchurch. In it, I related how fortunate Christchurch’s inhabitants were to escape the scenes of mass destruction that we witnessed during the weaker earthquake that destroyed Port-au-Prince. Not content with this irony, Nature has sent another even weaker, but incredibly more destructive, earthquake the way of Christchurch. Officially an ‘aftershock’ of last September’s earthquake, the 6.3 magnitude quake struck at 12:51 p.m. Tuesday. Centred both shallower and closer, the earthquake has caused such a totality of destruction, that this formerly so-familiar city has been rendered unrecognisable. As footage of ruined buildings, body bags, blood-soaked survivors, and well-known streets float across the television screen, I find myself asking, “Where is that?”
The destruction of infrastructure, of course, is only really important in that with it has also come the destruction of life. The official fatality count now stands at 76 with 238 people still unaccounted for. Both of these numbers are expected to rise, and Prime Minister John Key has already warned that this may turn out to be New Zealand’s “darkest day”, and has declared this country’s first National State of Disaster.
As aftershocks continue, already weakened buildings are becoming more vulnerable. One of the hardest hit, the Canterbury Television building, is a mess of fallen concrete and twisted steel that has been declared ‘unsurvivable’. There are up to 120 bodies trapped inside. In the Pyne Gould Corporation building, scores of people are presumed dead. An estimated 16-22 bodies lie in the ruins of the iconic, 130-year old Christchurch Cathedral. And looming over the central city is one of Christchurch’s biggest structures, the Hotel Grand Chancellor, which sits precipitously at an unnatural angle and seems doomed to bring its 26 stories crashing down on the surrounding environment.
Due to the closeness of the Christchurch community – and the diversity of the expat community in Korea – it is easy, even in Busan, to find someone with a direct connection to Christchurch’s carnage. One time Christchurch resident, Christy Swain, who now lives in Busan, grasps only too well the extent of the damage. Watching footage on stuff.co.nz, Christy saw her old flat above the central Cashel Mall being completely destroyed.
“I saw my old flatmate jump out of the wreckage grasping some of his photography equipment,” Swain said. Even in the face of such disaster, however, she is resolute. “Christchurch has always felt like my second home town – I’m so sad to see it in this state. But I do have faith in the Kiwi spirit. We are strong, stoic, resilient. Kia kaha (be strong) Christchurch.”
As overwhelming as this tragedy is – and it really is, being so far outside any frame of reference that I can employ – sentiments like the ones Swain espouse are everywhere to see. As shell-shocked as we all are, a sense of community remains. While remaining conscious of the clichés that swirl around after an event of this magnitude, there has been an enormous outpouring of goodwill and selflessness. From the office workers who risked their lives by returning into devastated buildings to attend to their stricken co-workers, the offers of help from neighbours, or even just the friendly reciprocation of sorrow that one gives and returns walking down the street, the Christchurch community has never seemed closer. But then tempering this sense of intimacy is the awful fact that the trapped and deceased are so far away.
In the article last year, I wrote how blindly lucky Christchurch had been to escape the dire consequences visited on Haiti. A combination of sturdy architecture and geographical luck saved Christchurch last time. On Tuesday, Nature reminded us that, if she so desires, she can remain brutally blind to these factors.
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