The day the earthquake hit: Hamish Clark recalls devastation, 10 years on

The NZ Herald’s South Island head of news, Hamish Clark, remembers in vivid detail how the 2011 quake devastated Christchurch.

The TV3 newsroom clock stopped at 12.51 pm when the earthquake struck.

I dived for cover under my desk. It was the first time I had sought refuge beneath my workstation.

The earth groaned loud and long, the ground accelerated two times the force of gravity as it rocked the centre of Christchurch to its core.

On Kilmore St the roads buckled, catching cars mid-drift. Liquefaction bubbled out of the ground, spewing on to streets, filling carparks and flooding Victoria Park opposite the Town Hall.

It was a dreary Tuesday, that February day in 2011.

The prevailing northeasterly wind blew coolly off the sea.

There were hardly any pedestrians and shoppers in the city.

And, being lunchtime, there were fewer office workers inside buildings.

We ran towards Cathedral Square through the clouds of dust and the wail of sirens as people searched for a way out.

The streets were alive with screams. The cries of humans and of alarms pierced the dusty air.

The alarms of parked cars crushed under shop frontages screeched out their location.

Building alarms roared as passersby called out from the footpath for any sign of survivors inside.

Cathedral Square was just three blocks away. I arrived with TV3 camera operator Rebecca O’Sullivan just as another big shake hit. It brought down more of the church spire.

In the mayhem, I had completely forgotten about aftershocks. They came every minute, like clockwork, but I didn’t feel them beneath my feet.

It was at that moment we spotted a miracle perched in the cathedral’s belltower window: a woman sitting tucked up inside the lead frame, her clothes and hair covered in dust, her hands and face smothered in blood, trapped but alive.

The cathedral had been a big part of my life.

As a child, my mother would religiously lead me and my two younger brothers, up the 133 worn stone circular steps, past the 13 bells hanging in the tower and out on to one of four tiny balconies 30 metres high. I did the same with my children.

It had the best view in Christchurch – overlooking the Square, out to the sea, and the snowcapped mountains.

But the once-proud steeple was smashed in pieces, scattered on the church steps below.

Those monthly cathedral excursions held a strong memory, and I wanted to go back inside for one more look.

On the south side of the cathedral, opposite the Bank of New Zealand building, I spotted an open wooden door. I said to my camera operator,”Let’s go in”.

“No,” she sternly replied.

“It will be fine,” I said.

“No, it won’t.”

After a brief moment of convincing, we agreed to walk in the door on the count of three.

“One – two – three”, I called. Rebecca hit the record button on the camera, the microphone turned on, and we walked in.

What we saw shocked us.

The 20-metre high wooden sanctuary was a mess.

Massive chunks of masonry – some as big as cars – had been carved off and lay crashed in the far corner. Seats, where the congregation sat, were blown across the century-old tiled floor, all caught in the cold light of the afternoon that washed through a gaping hole vacated by the steeple.

While we were inside, there was no sense of panic.

There was no noise, just quiet, no one trapped, just a scene of utter destruction. An image forever etched in my memory that was both startling and confronting.

We spent 45 seconds inside the church. It felt like five. It was enough time to film the destruction that would be beamed around the world.

We never felt in any danger for our lives.

I didn’t worry the entire cathedral would come down.

We were doing our job. For journalists and photographers, our role is to capture events as they happen, record what we see, feel and hear.

In this instance, our job was to run towards the danger, the centre of the earthquake, as others made their escape.

As we made our way out of the square, we stopped opposite a pharmacy.

Rebecca was wearing light shoes and was in pain. For over an hour she had carried a heavy TV camera on her shoulder, walking, filming, with blisters tearing at her heels.

The chemist on the corner of Colombo St was deserted. Its doors wide open, the staff went in the rush to escape. For 10 minutes we tossed up if we should enter the shop, find some Band-aids and take them.We didn’t.

In the rush to leave the office, we didn’t grab any money. We couldn’t pay for the Band-aids and didn’t want to be caught looting.

It is a story I often tell, a mad moment of crazy honesty, the pang of our consciences kicking in over Band-aids, in the middle of a disaster.

The day of the quake quickly turned into a long night.

The TV3 newsroom churned out live crosses, interviews, video as the death toll rose.

Police cleared the city centre, the TV3 office the only one allowed to stay open inside the destroyed CBD.

For hours, there were crosses to London, Australia, Los Angeles and Hong Kong.

Everyone wanted the latest update on the situation and the number of dead.

The drizzle from the morning returned in the night.

The television lights used in an alleyway beside the newsroom to shine on reporters’ faces dimmed as camera batteries ran out. We resorted to using car headlights to beam on the live spot, and finally, a camera operator’s headlamp to light my face.

We all got home close to midnight that night, weary but alive. The day’s memories turned to sadness as we learned of people we knew who had died.

The cathedral is one of the few remaining relics left for all to see in Christchurch from the February 22 earthquake. It is a ghost of its former self, its heartbeat silent.

It’s ironic that the cathedral – one of the first to fall – will be the last to be reinstated and complete the rebuild of a city that came crumbling down 10 years ago.

One vivid memory of that day, as we walked the streets, is everyone we passed asked, “Are you okay?”.

In the midst of the crisis, we were looking out for each other.

Ten years on, we still look out for one another, still talk about where we were that awful day.

For me it’s the people of Christchurch, not the city centre, that are the beating heart of the city.


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