Tags symbols of the rescuers' efforts

When the search and rescue teams' spray-painted tags first appeared in Christchurch, the central city was a very different place.

The marks created in the urgent days after the February 2011 earthquake can still be seen on many Christchurch buildings.

They are on shop windows, walls and doorways, and were made by hundreds of rescue workers as they searched buildings for people trapped, injured or dead.

Nearly two years later, the tags are sun-bleached and washed out, but surprisingly common. They were sprayed in urgency but have faded at leisure.

In just a few blocks of the city centre you can see "0 CARS" spray-painted across a concrete wall, "LIFTS DONE" on the glass door of a long- abandoned office block and "POWER ON" in large red letters across a doorway.

A faded tag is visible across the window of an abandoned shop full of dusty vintage goods in Hereford St. The word "CLEAR" can just be discerned, along with the telling date "24/2".

The tags are testament to the international response triggered by the quake.

Search and rescue teams descended on Christchurch from New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, China, Japan, Britain, the United States and Australia. The tags include SGP for Singapore, NSW for New South Wales and QLD for Queensland.

Jim Stuart-Black, leader and co-ordinator of the national and international Urban Search and Rescue (Usar) teams during the quakes, said the boxes and circles used in the tags had a particular meaning.

The box was spray-painted on the wall when the team arrived at a building, along with the date, time and team designation, to let people know a Usar team was on site.

The completion of a search was indicated by a circle sprayed around the square. A line through the box meant the entire building had been checked.

The tags will slowly disappear from the city as buildings reopen or are demolished and the city recovers. For now, they serve as a reminder of that stressful time before rescue gave way to recovery.

The Press