The green rectangle of Christchurch's Latimer Square evokes powerful memories of the earthquake on February 22, 2011.
On that day it became a safe gathering point, it served as a base for the emergency services and it was the place where families waited for news of loved ones trapped in the Canterbury Television building, only across the road.
No one there on that day could forget the horror all around. The square was a refuge in the centre of the carnage.
Two years ago, black, choking smoke rose from the collapsed CTV building in Madras St, the Stonehurst backpackers in Gloucester St looked as though the earth had opened under it, and the flattened Christchurch Club in Worcester St showed nature had no respect for money. Down each street were smashed cars, fallen facades and rubble scattered on the tarseal.
The eerie sound of sirens, the clatter of helicopters and sometimes the sound of weeping drifted over the chaos. It seemed thousands had perished or been badly injured.
Yesterday, all that was recalled at a service to commemorate the second anniversary of the earthquake.
About 3000 people filled the south of the square under an overcast sky with a cool wind rustling the leaves of the square's big trees.
Some people waiting for the service were unable to contain their tears as the New Zealand Army Band, directed by Captain Graham Hickman, played Ave Maria.
Making her way to the service, Irene Campbell-Hill, a nurse, said she wanted to honour her nephew, Michael Styant, who died in the PGC building in Oxford Tce. Then living in Madras St, her abiding memory was the crowd of people flooding out of the city and the water and sand nearly coming into her front door.
Gill Redden, a migraine specialist whose clinic was in Bealey Ave, said she wanted to be at the service to be with people.
"It's important to celebrate this with the whole of Christchurch. I just want to embrace the whole city."
Scott McGillivray came with his partner, Belinda, and their 1-year-old daughter, Taylor.
He was a duty manager in a bar in City Mall at the time of the earthquake and witnessed the carnage in the central city pedestrian zone.
"Not a day goes by that I don't think about it," he said.
His parents had been visiting from overseas two years ago and had returned specially for the service, he said. With a tinge of winter in the air, the service began with a welcome from Henare Rakiihia Tau and ended with the laying of floral tributes and wreaths as the army band played I"ll Walk With God, Band of Brothers and Hymn to the Fallen.
The Acting Dean of ChristChurch Cathedral, Lynda Patterson, who officiated, said she hoped the Christian prayers at the service would speak for everybody, whatever their faith. "We gather in the belief that death does not have the final word. That life and light and hope will triumph over emptiness, darkness and despair."
The principal of the Toyama College of Foreign Languages, Hisao Yoshida, joined the procession to the makeshift monument, carrying white flowers. He lost 12 of his students in the CTV building collapse.
Afterwards he said he had come
to pray for the souls of the students and "to promise we will hand down to the current students their dreams and wishes".
Several parents and relatives of the dead students attended the service yesterday.
Representatives of the emergency services - for some reason the Fire Service was absent - got an enthusiastic round of applause as they delivered their wreaths.
Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker told the gathering that as much as the city looked forward, it had to acknowledge "the terrible events that took place here have caused a deep pain, a great sense of loss that will be with us forever".
"There is one thing we can do, and that is we build a city, a community and a place that will honour the losses we have all felt . . . We are now more connected than ever as a community and that community stretches out around the world."
Prime Minister John Key, in a speech accentuating the money the Government was pouring into the city, paid tribute to the strength and resolve of Cantabrians.
"Cantabrians are seizing the opportunity to build the best city they can on this site. I know there is frustration about the time it is taking for houses to be fixed or rebuilt and I know it's hard. I know there is still suffering.
"Everyone is anxious for things to go faster. But this job is unprecedented in the world and we should judge ourselves not only by how far we have to go but how far we have come.
"I urge you to persevere, stay strong. We are just about through the worst of it. Better times are ahead as we build a city we can all be proud of."
The square, now surrounded by barren, gravel expanses, among which the cardboard cathedral is rising and the rebuild of the Latimer Hotel steams ahead, seemed to reinforce his point.
The service would not have been the same without the army band and singing of Sergeant David Fiu. People were reluctant to leave as the band played on.
- © Fairfax NZ News