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Published February 22, 2019

Photo: Japanese urban search and rescue team in Christchurch 24 February 2011. Credit: Gabriel – Flickr: 20110224-IMG_9640.jpg, CC BY 2.0.

Vienna Richards

Flashback to a part of New Zealand’s earthquake history.

Where were you when you heard the news on Tuesday 22 February 2011? I was in Auckland. In my office at the Auckland Regional Public Health Service (ARPHS) where I worked as the communications manager. ARPHS is the largest public health service in New Zealand.

I was sitting reviewing the morning, shaking my head. It had been one of those mornings that I’d rather forget. Then lunch hour strikes but as usual I’m at my desk. I seldom took lunch breaks.

My landline rings. It’s one of the medical staff. She says in a whispered voice that I can barely hear: “Can you help me with your contacts to find out what’s happened to a friend’s flight to Christchurch? Christchurch’s had another earthquake. It sounds bad.”

The moment she said that, I go into overdrive in search of information. I go straight to Facebook, Twitter before I go to the country’s main news site. I know that people on the ground will tell social media first. I pick up my phone and start making calls.. I’m multitasking knowing that in an emergency or natural disaster, if this proves correct that it is bad, like really bad, every second counts.

Checking the NZ Herald site and it’s showing a breaking news flash. But not much information. One short story about the quake. Googling, reading twitter updates. One of my staff is online monitoring news sites and giving me minute by minute updates of anything that’s being reported, which at that stage was minimal.

At that point, we didn’t know the magnitude of the damage and destruction in Christchurch. By now, all my team are checking our Facebook news feed for any sign of posts from colleagues, friends and family in Christchurch. Nothing at all.

The lack of posts from people in Christchurch on our news feed and the lack of information coming from traditional media outlets tells me that power lines or phone lines may be down. People may not be able to ring out or get on the Internet. That’s exactly what happened on the ground in New York, USA, during the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001. I know because I was the foreign news producer at TVNZ the day that happened. It was the 12th in New Zealand.

Back to Christchurch, Tuesday 22 February 2011. I call the New Zealand Herald newsroom. A helpful reporter picks up the phone and I ask in a business as usual tone:

“Can you tell me if the Air New Zealand flight from Auckland to Christchurch, which was due to land at the same time the quake hit, is safe?”

A million thoughts rushing through my mind, knowing we’re not seeing any of our Facebook contacts posting from Christchurch. Meanwhile, I’m silently praying for Christchurch and those on the plane.

The reporter is super helpful and directs me to the Christchurch Airport website. Apparently, they’re updating. But no one knows which flight we’re tracking. I go to the website for Christchurch airport.

The big bosses come by while I’m on the phone to check that I’m aware of what’s just happened in Christchurch. Few words are spoken. I know right at that moment that this quake is a major one and that the country’s health sector and emergency services is getting ready to go into emergency response. I nod my head to acknowledge that I know, and keep working the phones. Hard to reach anyone in Christchurch. We soon find out that phone lines are down.

Social media was the first to get information from people on the ground in Christchurch. I found that twitter, then Facebook, were the first to alert online about the quake. Still no status updates from Christchurch friends. So I post, are you okay? Keep checking back into Facebook to check if they have checked in and posted. That’s a sign of life. Yes, they did.

I quickly post this status update

Prayers for Chch: please let Christchurch survive this. Another major earthquake. If you are concerned about family or work mates on flights when the quake struck, Chch airport has been evacuated. No flights landing or taking off.

At 3pm, I follow bosses into the national emergency response teleconference to Wellington with the full complement of senior doctors, senior management and emergency response managers. Having followed every media update since the quake, there are no smiles and no small talk in the room. The mood is solemn and tense. Concern etched on people’s foreheads and eyes.

Professionalism kicks in so that people can do their jobs and help save lives and support colleagues in Christchurch.

Joining the teleconference is every other responding agency from around the country – St Johns, Civil Defence, Aviation, Air New Zealand, Airport management from each main airport, all DHB hospitals and public health units.

The magnitude of the work ahead hits. Evacuation routes for critical patients when there’s a no fly zone imposed on the South Island and the roads and infrastructure is so badly damaged or destroyed…The people in the room respond with a dedication and commitment that makes me proud and humbled to be part of New Zealand’s emergency response.

The rest is now a part of the country’s sad and tragic history.

At 12.51 p.m. on Tuesday 22 February 2011, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake caused severe damage in Christchurch and Lyttelton, killing 185 people and injuring several thousand.

The earthquake’s epicentre was near Lyttelton, just 10 km southeast of Christchurch’s central business district. It occurred nearly six months after the 4 September 2010 earthquake.

The earthquake struck at lunchtime, when many people were on the city streets. More than 130 people lost their lives in the collapse of the Canterbury Television and Pyne Gould Corporation buildings. Falling bricks and masonry killed 11 people, and eight died in two city buses crushed by crumbling walls. Rock cliffs collapsed in the Sumner and Redcliffs area, and boulders tumbled down the Port Hills, with five people killed by falling rocks.

New Zealand History

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