Broken city

Our Ground Zero

KATE SUANDERS
Last updated 10:29 28/02/2011

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Taranaki Daily News reporter Kate Saunders lives in New Plymouth but she calls Canterbury home. She grew up in Halkett, just outside Christchurch, and went to the city's Burnside High School. With photographer Cameron Burnell she travelled home to find a city she didn't recognise.

The fractures in this city are like fault- lines along the hearts of its inhabitants.

There are gaping holes in roads, with jagged edges and whole cars swallowed up by the tag-team effort of liquefaction and the earth breaking in two.

And so too, there are cracks in our souls.

We wait for confirmation of the dead, we pray for a body, something tangible to grip to in a world where the earth rolls beneath our feet.

I wait for news of my friend, a fellow journalist, who is trapped in the CTV building, presumed dead.

I wait to feel love for this city again.

I have been homesick in Taranaki recently, aching to view the Southern Alps, the twisting Waimakariri, to walk the banks of the Avon and shop in the open-air city mall.

Christchurch is where I was born and where I always return to with such joy, with my soul a little lighter knowing the wide open spaces of Hagley Park and the beautiful stone buildings of our city centre will envelope me in their worn and weary arms.

I can't find that love now.

Instead, a sense of vitriolic hatred for this military presence, these men with wires in their ears and camouflage and black boots resounding on pavements I've walked hundreds of times.

These lumbering light- armoured vehicles belong somewhere with an insane dictator, somewhere with civil war, somewhere we look at on CNN and think isn't it awful, but have another slice of toast and forget it the next second.

This is not their place, but Mother Nature chose for it to be so.

The city thwarts us at every turn.

I arrive with Taranaki Daily News photographer Cameron Burnell at 12.30pm and we hear a media bus is leaving to tour wreckage in the CBD at 1pm.

The drive into town over rutted roads through to police cordons is frustratingly slow.

We get out - and sprint. Lugging hard hats, vests, camera gear, note pads flying, sucking in oxygen that does not seem to exist.

We arrive at 1.07pm. We can see the media buses. They will not allow us through. I have missed the chance to get to the CTV site - I have missed the opportunity to be beside my trapped friend.

That grief, that process, will have to wait.

I have missed no big scoop though, because the story is all around me.

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We are opposite Christ's College, Canterbury's oldest school, where cranes are tearing at unsealed stonework and hungrily consuming the history of the buildings.

The statue of city founder William Rolleston outside the Canterbury museum, where my brother used to take me to see exhibitions, lies broken, his head grotesquely lolling about in the ground.

A single child's sandal sits beside it. I wonder where that child is and what they were doing when the earthquake struck - if they were touching the statue to absorb some of its majesty. And if so, where is that child now?

Mr Rolleston, a former superintendent of the city, was the political weight behind the building of both the museum and the original university buildings, now the arts centre. This disaster has robbed us of not just his grand presence in marble, but also part of that which he helped create.

We move on to Redcliffs and Sumner, affluent suburbs with large houses perched precariously on cliffs overlooking a jagged coastline.

This is where I take friends who visit Christchurch to experience the sweeping views and climb rocky outcrops around the beach.

The cliffs and rocks have violently crumbled and they are littered like Lego pieces, covered in a thick film of dust.

A massive boulder squats on a yellow house, where we are told a woman died. It seems overly protective of its prime position, lording its dominance over the life it has stolen.

This is where I take people to experience peace; instead, for the first time since I returned, I am fearful.

The instability of the landscape is frightening. The streets in Redcliffs are evacuated at 11pm on Thursday night, just hours after we have left a place I will never be at peace with again.

I'm a journalist, I'm trained to observe. After a while I stopped seeing. It was just too much.

I visit my friend Emily Cooper, a CTV journalist who was out on a job when the quake struck. It had been a quiet news day, so she picked up a mundane story in Hagley Park.

There were flashes of grass before her eyes and the whole park flooded, with water rising up out of the ground. The Avon - that winding subtle beast so symbolic of Canterbury - immediately turned brown.

"There is a part of me that will never be right again. It is heart- breaking. I don't see how this city can get back to where it was, how it can even function," she says.

She has been my point of contact, my news source, as she stayed at the site of the CTV building for 36 hours, returning home once for a shower.

Mostly, although she does not know it, she has been an anchor for me emotionally as we rock through the anguish of not knowing, the cruelness of hope, the devastation of rumour and the finality of a "recovery operation".

She was standing there when the search for survivors in the CTV building was called off.

"Everybody left. I just stood there staring at it for 10 minutes. I wanted to scream out to them and move through the rubble. But I've come to terms with it now. The main thing I feel is what a waste of young lives."

Her guilt for surviving is overwhelming, wrapping around her like a visible quilt that she pulls towards her to stay warm. She is powerless to let go of it.

She faces what most in Christchurch do now - uncertainty.

Four high schools have been virtually written off; their buildings destroyed or sinking in liquefaction.

My high school - the fields where I played cricket and moaned about teachers and wondered what I would become in the future - is a welfare centre.

Instead of the school bell, sirens wail their lonely tune and hundreds of homeless pack the performing arts centre for their own stage show - survival.

The facades of Merivale businesses lie broken in the street. Stock is exposed to the elements; walls have been peeled away like a sticker. Light bulbs swing, nude, empty of their abilities without power.

They are as useless as I feel. And seemingly bewildered.

A six-year-old child staying at my family home because her house is wrecked symbolised the confusion after hearing a victim had his legs cut off to free him from the rubble.

"They cut off his leg?" she asked incredulously after catching a glimpse of the breakfast news.

"Don't worry; they'll stick it back on," my father automatically replied.

If only it were that easy.

The stories are horrific -amputations being made with pocket knives to free people.

Like many, I seek the advice of those more judicious than me.

My grandmother, the wisest person I know, almost fails me.

"I don't know why these things happen," she says. Then I realise, who does?

Those fault-lines that ripped through the landscape and our hearts have not even healed enough to produce a scar.

The greatest fear is they never will.

- Taranaki Daily News

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