Christchurch Earthquake


tags: Disaster, Earthquake, New Zealand Police,

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From the December 2011 issue of The Australian Police Journal

In February 2011, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck the Canterbury region in NZ’s South Island. The earthquake was centred two kilometres west of the town of Lyttelton, and 10 kilometres south-east of the centre of Christchurch, NZ’s secondmost populous city. The earthquake and its aftershocks brought down buildings throughout the area, sending avalanches of rubble into streets and onto panicked and disorientated crowds.

Over the ensuing hours and days, Christchurch would be rocked by numerous aftershocks. The NSW Police Force members who had been sent to assist in the early rescue stages said they sounded like massive trains racing at top speed, with some having enough force to shake them out of bed.

In the months that followed this disaster, NZ has had time to take stock. Some 181 people from 15 different countries were killed, and hundreds more injured. Tens of millions of dollars’ worth of damage was caused to not only the buildings in the heart of Christchurch, but also to homes and residential shopping centres in the suburbs surrounding the CBD, and townships in the Canterbury area. The true cost to NZ’s economy is yet to be measured, but conservative estimates have it in the billions of dollars.

Darfield Earthquake

Just the year before on 4 September, 2010, a 7.1-magnitude quake struck in the area of Darfi eld, causing major damage, but remarkably no loss of life. Darfi eld is about 40 kilometers west of Christchurch and although local residents of the Canterbury area had been living on their nerves as thousands of aftershocks racked the region, they all agreed they had dodged a bullet.

Christchurch Earthquake

But their luck ran out at 12.51pm on 22 February 2011, when the 6.3-magnitude aftershock hit. Within an hour, multiple fatalities and widespread damage were reported. TV viewers watched heart-stopping footage of a woman being rescued from the roof of a collapsed building. The building was later identified as the Pyrne Gould Corporation office block.

Raw footage showed bloodied survivors being rescued and the ruins of buildings where it was clear no one could have survived. Live video from a helicopter showed the extent of the catastrophe – Christchurch Cathedral without its spire; smoke rising from the unrecognisable rubble of the CTV building; a shattered cityscape.

The police response was swift.

Constable Todd Hilleard was in the cafeteria on level four of Christchurch Central Police Station when the earthquake struck. In his own words he described what followed to New Zealand Police magazine Ten-One:

“Once that hell stopped, we assembled outside by the river. People were everywhere on the street, alarms going off. We grouped up in fours, got cars and went out. Our fi rst call was to a building with a crèche in it that had collapsed and caught fi re. That turned out to be the CTV building.

“We pulled up and it was just chaos. Latimer Square was full of people injured and people taking refuge from the buildings. The CTV building was just fl at – I had no idea how high it had been until I saw photos later. People and cops were doing whatever they could. There was a guy with a digger trying to put out fire by scooping up mud and water to put on it.

“Aftershocks kept going and going. I saw the Saint Paul Trinity Church on the corner of Cashel and Madras Streets come crashing down. Some USAR groups arrived and started searching on one side of the rubble. They started yelling, ‘Hey, we’ve found someone here’, and that got an avalanche of people working.

“For the next 12 hours there were about 100 people working at a time. It started with people pulling away rubbish, then they formed chains, then someone found some roofing iron so we could slide the rubble down it and get rid of it faster.

“There was one guy who came out of the rubble, an Asian student who wouldn’t lie down on the stretcher. He just sat up and fi st-pumped the air and everyone cheered.

“Large numbers of people from all walks of life were assisting. The level of effort put in by everyone made the exceptional tasks being undertaken seem like every day work.

“Now we’re forever waiting for the next one. That’s the unfortunate effect it’s going to have on the people of Christchurch.”

In the Southern Police Communications Centre, lockers tipped over, a TV crashed to the floor, water slopped from the fish tank and fire alarms wailed.

Inspector Kieren Kortegast (Centre Manager) said: “Our Staff were under desks, on desks, over desks – their eyes were like bloody saucers and within a minute of the ‘quake they had dusted themselves off and focused on a flood of ‘111’ calls and radio communications. There were reports of collapsed buildings, fires, people trapped... it was mayhem and chaos and that’s probably about a quarter of what was going on out there.”

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