In Memoriam February 22, 2011

 February 22, 2011.

We all have a story to tell.

Let me share mine.

At 12:51 pm, I was on my home to Hanmer Springs in North Canterbury after teaching photography in Rangiora. As I drove along the River Road, my ute started jumping around. What a rough road, I said to myself. Then I realised that it had been freshly sealed. I still didn’t get it. As I drove onto the Ashley River Bridge, the thought came to me that I would hate to be on it during an earthquake. It was only when the texts started pouring in that the penny dropped.

Had I left town 15 seconds later…

For a day and a half, I watched, feeling helpless and frustrated that I could do nothing to help. Then the message went around to those of us in Hanmer Springs Civil Defence.

 Can anyone go down to Christchurch to help?

I packed my vehicle, found a place to stay with a friend and went to help at the Welfare Centre at Burnside High School.

At first, there was chaos as the controllers gradually got their systems sorted. I sat with a couple of men who had fled the YMCA in the central city, leaving their wallets and ID behind. Without it, they had no way of proving who they were. They weren’t alone. People sat on mattresses and blankets, huddled in shock, staring into space.

Then they found a job for me.

Can you look after the reception area and point people in the right direction?

Of course. How do I do that?

The best way you can.

People began to come. Some had driven across from Aranui because there was a rumour going around that we would be able to supply them with free petrol. No, we can’t do that. If you need food or water, or supplies? I felt their frustration and, at times, anger.

 Others came, walking up the long drive with fresh baking and food: cakes, scones wrapped in tea-towels and fruit and vegetables. I  began to give it away to anyone in need until I was told we couldn’t do that since we had no way of knowing where it had come from. We thanked them for their kindness and placed it on a table behind the tent. Then I would tell new arrivals about the table and suggest they might find some delicious food there.

The afternoon passed into evening, and still they came. Every visitor was a new challenge, a new problem seeking an answer. Some needed help; some needed a place to stay; some were out of water or food or shelter. Eventually, somewhere around midnight, new people came to relieve us and allow us to go home and rest.

 However, welfare systems were beginning to gel and mesh, and Day Two went much more smoothly.

Trucks arrived form all over the country. One giant semi-trailer arrived from Auckland, laden with water.

 We have driven down non-stop through the night. We thought you might need this.

Stunned by the generosity of his business, we thanked him, opened the gate and showed him where to go.

Then on Day Three, I left at sunrise.

I needed to see.

I drove into town and turned off Marshlands Road towards New Brighton to see what had happened in the east. I had eight hours before I was due on shift.

I needed all of it.

 I picked my way around the liquefaction and obscene grey mounds of watery mud littering the streets. Stormwater pipes protruded like broken teeth from the shattered asphalt. Houses lay at odd angles. Fences had slid sideways or were bowed over.

At the bottom of Bowhill Road, the extent of the devastation and shredding of the social fabric of Christchurch came home to me.

A couple of years before, when I was living in the east, I would often go down on a Sunday afternoon to the Kasbah, a quirky triangular-shaped bar by the beach. It was a real melting pot, where everyone was welcome, and everyone got on. Bikies, MAMILs, tradies and accountants would lounge in the sun and chat with each other while we sipped JD and coke and snacked on greasy fries slathered with congealing tomato sauce. There was always old-school rock music punctuated by the sound of pool balls clacking together. Heavenly memories.

The Kasbah had gone. Where an iconic building had once stood, now there was only rubble. Shattered concrete columns, piles of bricks and corrugated iron were strewn everywhere. The Kasbah had been torn limb from limb, dismembered and scattered around.

 A man and his son were picking their way through the ruins, picking up and discarding bricks. We began talking and comparing notes.

He had been a Kasbah regular as well. I thought I remembered him.

He told me his name was Chris Campbell. His son was Caleb.

You know, he said, I thought I would take a brick or two home.

To remind me of the good times here.

Graciously, he allowed me to make a likeness of the two of them.

As a memory.

 Tony Bridge

February 22, 2021

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