Topic: A day in the life...and death

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Christchurch chartered accountant Stephen O’Connell, whose offices were based in the BNZ building at 137 Armagh Street recalls 24 hours from around midday on 22 February 2011

Christchurch chartered accountant Stephen O’Connell, whose offices were based in the BNZ building at 137 Armagh Street recalls 24 hours from around midday on 22 February 2011


Lunch beckoned.

Working in our offices located in Armagh Street in the Christchurch CBD had its advantages with many cafes, sandwich shops, fast food outlets and Asian and Indian restaurants to choose from. What would it be today? While client Robert’s tax return was being finalised by staff member Erina, client Robert and I decided to seek out Manee Thai restaurant on Manchester Street which I thought had probably reopened after a brief closure in September 2010.

As I put on my jacket to head off to seek out lunch there was the usual splendid view from my office on level 2 of the BNZ Building which overlooked Oxford Terrace and the picturesque tree lined banks of the Avon River and the Edmund band rotunda. Satay beef with a peanut sauce was to die for; number 11 on the $10 lunch menu my stomach reminded me.

We took the lift to ground level crossed Armagh Street and walked down the lovely New Regent Street following the tram lines. Bagels and coffee were on offer on the corner; our accounting practice founder’s daughters were working diligently in their Tiger Eye beads boutique shop as we strolled past. A few coffee lovers sitting at tables in New Regent were enjoying the day. The New York deli was opened and its cibata bread with beef and onion relish was a lunchtime winner. I must have that for lunch one day soon my stomach telegraphs. We pass my optometrists Paul Dunlop and associates. I did not know at the time as we passed but in less than one minute Paul Dunlop would be killed in a church in Durham Street while working on restoration of the Church organ. We could always have a meal at Little India situated at the end of New Regent Street on the corner with Gloucester St. No its Manee Thai in Manchester St today.

Turning into Gloucester Street I see on our left Westende Jewellers that had relocated from its Manchester Street premises which had been destroyed in September 2010. A week or so earlier and following the Hopai sports day in the Marlborough Sounds I had dropped off the DR Black one mile cup for engraving - son Hamish having won this for the second year running. I thought I would get the cup engraved early this year rather than leave it to the last minute before it was due to be returned in time for the following year’s event.

We cross Gloucester Street heading towards the Pacific Rendezvous hotel a recently opened new hotel that seemed to be getting busier and enjoying a growing custom and was a welcome new member to Christchurch’s tourism industry. We approach Tulsi Indian restaurant on the corner of Gloucester and Manchester Street. We are forced off the footpath and have to walk on the road by the safety fencing erected around the building housing the Tulsi restaurant which is closed due to damage to the building arising in September 2010.

Since we are now walking on the road I check for vehicle traffic coming down Gloucester St. A deep rumbling resonating threatening sound attacks my senses. There is a terrific bowel loosening stomach churning noise. What the hell and for whatever reason my mind is telling me to get away from the Tulsi building as it starts to crumble. I stumble like a drunk student leaving the Captain Cook Tavern and turn to see the façade of MAPWORLD falling, I turn further to see the car park building across on the far corner not yielding at all, and whatever instinct it was I have decided that I need to take my chances and get to the centre of the intersection of Gloucester and Manchester Streets. Better to take my chances with a moving motor vehicle than falling bricks and masonry. This all happens in a split second I don’t how I managed to get to stagger to the middle of the road. In the movies the cars always stop for the idiots straddling the road don’t they?

I am trying to figure out whether I am going to get run over while standing in the middle of the intersection then realise that I cannot see anything as I am enveloped in a giant dust storm. It is like being on Treble Cone in whiteout conditions. I hope any car has stopped as the driver will not be able to see also. I stand still waiting. Waiting for a car to take me out at the knees or that angry beast to throw a building or part thereof my way. Neither happens.

The dust cloud slowly lifts. I stand still on the spot in the middle of the road. For some reason I look down .At my feet there is a young man perhaps a student or backpacker sitting cross legged as if in Yoga mediation. He is not physically injured and sits calmly barely moving. I do not think he saw me and I do not speak probably because at that moment I could not. We are both covered in dust. Like flour millers.

Client Robert staggers towards me asking what was that. I cannot recall what I first saw after seeing the young man. I know now that the buildings that housed the Tulsi restaurant, Mapworld and Iconic Hotel were severely damaged by the earthquake that struck at 12.51pm on 22 February 2011.

I turn and look down Manchester Street.

The scene looking down Manchester Street back towards Armagh St was incomprehensible at that moment. Senses were over loaded. Is this real or just a bloody night mare, a horror movie I did not want to see. This is not real somebody wake me up and get me out of here.

Reality dawns on me slowly and this is not a movie. The parked cars are crushed full of bricks and masonry. Absolutely no possibility of any survivor in the cars I see.

The voice in my head says you have to return to your office (two blocks away) and see what the situation is with your staff. We have eight staff members to account for. That is my primary responsibility the voice asserts. I do not see any injured people or dead bodies on my walk down Manchester Street past the fish and chip shop, YHA, fish supply and Verkerks but my mind reckons that if anyone was inside the crushed cars they will not be alive.

The Orion building on the corner of Armagh and Manchester has spat out its windows leaving broken glass over the intersection. I cannot recall what the building that has Subway and The Roses Florist shop looked like. Rounding the corner past the Florist shop I turn left into Oxford Terrace. There are people everywhere shocked scared panicked. A scene from a Peter Jackson horror movie.

I see across the River Avon the collapsed Pyne Gould Corporation building. My mind struggles to comprehend. This is too much this must be a nightmare. No it is real.  My mind goes from sane to insane and back again. I look at the collapsed building .What should I do? What can I do?

I meet our four staff members who were in the office at the time of the earthquake. All visibly upset, pale with shock; our youngest staff member crying and shaking uncontrollably from the adrenalin roaring through her veins.  I try to comfort her unsuccessfully. I look back across the river. I hear voices female crying out help from the building. What can we do? What can I do?

Other staff members who were not in the office return to our Oxford Terrace meeting place on the banks of the Avon where we had practiced our fire drill assembly points. Eventually all staff are accounted for thank God. We then realise we have not seen Richard and Steve who share office space with us on level two. That’s OK someone says they are in Auckland on business. In fact they were flying back to Christchurch at the time the earthquake struck. None of us knew at that time that Richard’s wife had been killed in the collapse of the CTV building.

A violent aftershock sends the ground shaking and from the banks of the Avon I watch the ASB building flex like a plastic ruler shaken by a school kid. Everyone is freaked. The aftershock is frightening. Nerves are at breaking point.

While standing on the river side of the road from our building in Oxford Terrace there are people leaving the office buildings and crossing the road to Avon River embankment.

A man crossing the road heading towards us starts to disappear into a chasm that opens up in the middle of road; unbelievable are my eyes and mind deceiving me; a helper and I grab the man and pull him out of the chasm and we head towards the safety of the foot path which in turn begins to separate from the concrete gutter with deep gashes opening up between the gutter and foot path.

As we help the man to the river bank I am drawn to look at the Avon River and cannot understand what I am seeing. The water level is rising but not as a result of increased flows from upstream but in fact is being driven up from below from what we now know is liquefaction. Grey black silt bubbling up underwater like Rotorua’s mud pools. Hell at the rate the water is rising we will all be swimming for it shortly.

There is the smell of gas and someone yells out to not smoke. OK no problem with that. Chaos people stressed. Tried to use my cell phone to contact my wife Kate but system over loaded.

A car sits in the middle of the road on Oxford Terrace two wheels on the driver’s side on the road and two wheels suspended in the air where the chasm has opened up.

Staff work out their plans to head home. Len bravely enters the basement of our building and collects his car. Anna elects to leave her scooter there and eventually gets it back two months later.

I test the liquefaction pool at street level where my car is parked and find it safe enough to drive my car through. I drive down Manchester, Kilmore St, Victoria St, Harper Ave and Fendalton Road. I see scenes that remind me of world war II movies, buildings severely damaged many people trudging through the streets shocked.

I see a client pulling away from his Victoria St café thank God he is OK.

An aftershock hits while I am passing Fendalton New World my vehicle rocks with the shockwaves.

At home I find two of our shocked teenage children and our Chilean and French home stays. Son Cam has taped up most of the windows since the two large lounge windows were blown out.

Kate is next door checking on our neighbour.

Glass preserving jars no longer preserving the wonderful Central Otago plums lay shattered on the kitchen floor. A fifteen minute clean up and the kitchen looks better already. Blue tarpaulins do the job on the windows.

The following day Kate and two of our teenage children and two home stays head off to Wanaka where an offer for accommodation is gratefully accepted. While in the front yard packing the motor vehicle our neighbour Colin comes over. Usually gregarious Colin is subdued. Colin works for Inland Revenue and from his office in Cashel Street he had witnessed the collapse of the CTV building. We exchange glances. Colin bursts into tears emotions high nerves shattered.

After Colin leaves I continuing packing the motor vehicle in the front yard. Stacey a teacher responsible for the home stays arrives. She looks at me and bursts into tears without a word said. Emotions high nerves shattered. I think I will go inside.

Kate and the four teenagers head off about midday leaving me at home. I have a business to rescue and I think I may need to start looking for some office space.

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