22 Feb 2017

Backpacker's family's first visit to Chch for quake memorial

From Checkpoint, 5:15 pm on 22 February 2017

Earthquake victim Rachel Conley's family has flown to Christchurch for the first time, for today's unveiling of the Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial. They are staying with the New Zealanders whose son, Matthew McEachen, died along with Rachel on 22 February 2011.

On the day of the earthquake, American backpacker Rachel Conley was marking her last day in New Zealand with a tattoo.

She had spent the previous 15 months travelling, stopping off in South East Asia and working in Wellington for a year. She and her travelling partner were due to fly back to the United States the next day, on 23 February 2011.

Rachel died in the earthquake, alongside New Zealand tattoo artist Matthew McEachen.

This week, their families met in person for the first time, six years on from the tragic event that tied them together.

Rachel's step-mother, Deb, and step-sister, Lauren, are staying with the McEachen family, and they attended the memorial service together.

"It is very overwhelming but the people we have interacted with here in Christchurch have been very warm and welcoming. And our hosts, Bruce and Jeanette, have been very helpful for us and have guided us through this whole week," Mrs Conley said.

Lauren Conley said visiting Christchurch had allowed her and her mother some closure.

"It is hard to imagine, especially being the whole half the earth away, but it's wonderful and this is exactly what we were hoping for, coming here, to find some peace, to find some comfort after six long years."

Not a day went by for Matthew's mother, Jeanette, where she didn't think about him, she said.

"You learn to live with it, but it doesn't get any easier at all... it's a journey that we just need to take," she said.

Bruce McEachen worked on the memorial and said it was great having it on the banks of the Avon, which had a special place in the hearts of so many people.

Bruce McEachen lost his son, Matthew, in the 22 February 2011 earthquake.

Bruce McEachen lost his son, Matthew, in the 22 February 2011 earthquake. Photo: RNZ / Andrew Collins

"Anyone coming from out of town, coming to Christchurch, this will now become part of the feature. You come to Christchurch, see what used to be a cathedral and now you can come and have a look at a memorial wall, and this will stand the test of time. It'll be here as a feature for a long period."

Each of the names of the 185 people who died in the earthquake are carved into the marble wall.

The tactile nature of the memorial had already had the effect Mr Conley was hoping for.

"That's the key. That's when you know you've got it right. Family members coming along, stopping, spending a minute looking at the name and actually touching it. It's that touching that creates the bond between the individual and the wall."