'It wasn't just broken buildings, shattered nerves, but lives lost' - RNZ reporter recalls Christchurch quake

8:45 pm on 22 February 2021

The experiences on 22 February 2011 of three Radio New Zealand reporters who were working in Christchurch on the day the earthquake hit.

Rubble and damaged buildings line a deserted Colombo street in central Christchurch after the quake.

Pictured is Colombo Street which neighbours Chester Street West where the previous RNZ office was located when the Christchurch quake hit. Photo: AFP

The air full of dust, sirens wailing from every direction and a road, which you normally can only cross by darting across before the next car arrives, brought to a stop - that's what comes to mind when I think of that day.

The earthquake hit at nine minutes to one in the afternoon.

I'd been at my desk working away on a story about how Christchurch was recovering six months on from "the big one" the 7.1 magnitude earthquake which had hit near Christchurch on 4 September the previous year.

Christchurch had come through that September earthquake remarkably well, we had congratulated ourselves.

The vast majority of buildings had stayed up, damage to infrastructure had been relatively limited, and life was beginning to get back to normal, except for those ongoing aftershocks.

The aftershocks had been relentless, annoying, unnerving, sometimes several in a day, then a gap just to let you drop your defences and then they would start again. They had tended to be just enough to shatter your nerves, not enough to cause damage.

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I know I'd started to think those who leaped under the desk at every shake were unnecessarily nervous. After all, we'd made it through a 7.1 earthquake, surely nothing worse would happen. Turns out I was wrong.

On 22 February we were hit again.

A 6.3 magnitude, but this time very close to the city. It was over pretty quickly, 10 seconds apparently. It certainly felt like a very long 10 seconds, and it was 10 seconds that changed Christchurch forever.

Our Radio New Zealand building on Chester Street West stood up pretty well, thankfully. Once all in the office had gathered themselves up, we were able to get out fairly easily, with the only hiccup that the front door of our building was twisted. The door wouldn't push very far open, so one by one we squeezed through the gap, all of us no doubt hoping another aftershock wouldn't hit just then.

Then we were out on the street. The blessed street. Open air was what we all craved that day. Open space and some firm land to stand on. Not much to ask for.

Our office was on Chester Street West, near the corner of Durham Street.

We'd got out of our building and stood catching our breath on Durham Street. Trying to get our heads around what had just happened.

The suburb of Brooklands had about 500 homes prior to the earthquakes, now about 20 remain with people living in them.

The suburb of Brooklands had about 500 homes prior to the earthquakes. (File photo), Photo: RNZ / Rachel Graham

The dust filling the air was particularly thick because we were close to the old stone Methodist Church building, which now lay in ruins. A classic heavy stone church, made of Port Hills basalt and Charteris Bay sandstone. It had been badly damaged in the September earthquake and had been out of use since then.

Unknown to us on the day of the earthquake it was in use.

Four people had happened to be working in the building attempting to remove the organ. One of the four had stepped outside for a break when the earthquake hit trapping and killing the other three within the building.

I only learnt that weeks later.

And sometimes it is a thought which lurks in my mind when I think of that day. How different would that day have been for us if we'd known that there were people dead, or badly injured and trapped, within one of the first buildings we walked past.

Instead, it was a growing dreadful realisation as the day progressed, that the day had been so deadly.

But we didn't know, so we walked on.

On to the street, all cars had stopped and we walked down the middle of the road to be as far away from buildings as possible.

Another reporter, Bridget Mills, and I soon headed on to the Christchurch Regional Council's Civil Defence bunker. It was here around an hour after the earthquake hit that we got confirmation that there had been deaths in the earthquake.

I was about to go to air for a live cross into the 2pm news bulletin when the Fire Service confirmed to Bridget that there had definitely been deaths.

I went back to them to confirm just to be completely sure. It was an unusual and unnerving confirmation, as the emergency services are often reluctant to confirm anything too early. Their certainty that there had been deaths, plural, but no other specific details, gave us a glimpse of the numbers that would follow. They knew people would be dead, but couldn't say how many or where.

For me, that was when I realised how serious the situation was.

It wasn't just broken buildings, shattered nerves and roads which would need to be fixed yet again, but lives lost.

I was quite conscious as the news went out that this would be the news people feared, those who still hadn't reached their loved ones. Those who were stuck in the huge traffic jams listening to the radio far from home.

The numbers were to grow throughout the day. By 5pm it was 65 dead, but we knew there was potentially a couple of hundred people missing, particularly in the two main buildings where people were trapped, Pyne Gould Guiness and the CTV building.

A day which had started for me talking to people for what was proving to be an upbeat piece about Christchurch's recovering after the September quake ended with me sitting at Latimer Square near the collapsed CTV building as night fell, with emergency workers battling to save what lives they could, and devastated family members sitting in little huddles waiting for word of their loved ones.

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