We landed in Christchurch, N.Z., the morning of Dec. 28, just two days after the Boxing Day quake dampened the holiday season there as much as the steady rain that greeted our arrival. The streets were empty. Metal fencing closed off sidewalks. Most restaurants were shut, too.
The Dec. 26 quake had been a “mere” 4.9 on the Richter Scale, yet another aftershock, one of thousands that followed the massive 7.0 earthquake of September 3.
But locals said the damage was widespread. They told us this one had been sharp and shallow, directly beneath the city. It loosened the cross atop the cathedral, cracked windows, shuttered many of the city’s brick buildings, already weakened by the deeper September quake some 50 kilometers away.
On that rainy Tuesday of our arrival, the city was so ghostly that we returned to our Holiday Inn to eat dinner, half wondering why we had journeyed to the opposite end of the Earth to visit New Zealand anyway.
The next day the sun broke through the clouds. We walked into town and through the door of Johnson’s Grocery, an eccentric little shop run by an eccentric and gentle fellow who stocked all things British from floor to ceiling. We weren’t his only visitors.
“We wondered if we’d find you buried beneath your stock with your feet sticking out,” said a woman who stopped by to say hello to the owner. He later told us he’d been out having a “spot of tea” with his mother when the Boxing Day quake hit but that he’d lost just one glass jar that shattered. I can’t recall what he said it held.
I can only hope the owner of Johnson’s was again away yesterday. Otherwise. …. Well, I don’t want to think about otherwise. His store, a brick building, was already damaged then. The whole block was covered withs scaffolding. And his store was so packed with jam jars, tea tins and more exotic bits of Britain that the untrained tourist couldn’t begin to take it all in. The stock stretched skyward to ceilings 10 or 12 feet high.
That was then.
There is no escaping the devastation in yesterday’s earthquake, 6.3 on the Richter Scale, another “aftershock,” news reports say, but one more savage than the main event. Just watch the news or stop by You Tube and plug in Christchurch. This quake was big and brutal. It struck during lunchtime. It struck near the city center and not terribly deep beneath the ground. And it pummeled a city already badly weakened by nearly six months of aftershocks since the early September behemoth.
That quake struck at night on the weekend. Miraculously, no one died. This time the deaths could yet number in the hundreds. Seventy-five deaths are confirmed. News reports say 300 are still missing. Aerial photos show a city that looks a bit like badly damaged parts of London during the blitz of World War II. Only this bomb was Nature’s.
In December, the people of Christchurch were still putting their best face on a pretty darn awful year. The city was subdued. And it wasn’t long before the most perfunctory conversation turned to the latest temblor.
But when the Sun broke through on Dec. 29, chess players moved human-sized chess pieces around Cathedral Square. A pretty fair jazz sax player and singer belted out American Motown and soul. Several girls, middle-school age by their look, danced Irish step dances to a tape in an attempt to raise funds for a trip to a competition on the Emerald Isle. And a construction crew gingerly removed the cross atop the Cathedral for repair as gawkers, we among them, watched.
Three days after the Boxing Day quake, the city was coming back to life.
Tonight, Christchurch lies largely in ruins, its streets flooded, its historic brick buildings, including its massive cathedral, buckled or crumbled. So far at least, when I type Christchurch and Johnson’s Grocery into google news, no articles come up.
I’m hoping things stay that way, that perhaps once again its owner had headed to his mother’s for a “spot of tea.” Maybe then, he managed to stay out of harm’s way.