Hands grasped on holy ground

Amid the dust and the rock and the grit, all John Abraham could see was a single, gloved hand.

For 20 minutes, that felt like an hour, Abraham had desperately hauled fallen rocks from inside the Durham Street Methodist Church.

He had called out and heard a moan. Then he saw it. Its fingers were wiggling. Abraham followed the arm down to a shoulder and pulled debris away from a face.

It was Josh Anderson, a 19-year-old organ building apprentice from Timaru. He was broken but alive.

This week, on that same site where their fates intersected three years ago, they met for the first time. The rubble where three people lost their lives is gone. The church is gone. In its place is a car park. Abraham reached out his hand. Anderson did the same.

"I finally get to meet you," Abraham said. "Can I give you a hug?"

On February 22, 2011, Anderson had been helping remove the organ from the first stone church built in Canterbury, which had been damaged in the September 2010 quake. It was meant to be a two-week job. Anderson had joined his colleagues for the final week. Then the walls caved in.

Anderson remembered hearing a voice calling to him. He remembered rubble being pulled from his face. He remembered being taken to the hospital in a police car. The rest was faint.

"I can't thank you enough," Anderson said, his voice wavering.

"You dont need to thank me," Abraham replied. "There was a lot of people doing a lot of other things that day. It's just a natural thing that anyone would do."

But if there were any details he could fill in, Abraham would try his best.

The former Canterbury rugby player was working as a security guard across the road at the Christchurch Court House when the 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck.

He went outside to see a billow of dust flowing down the street. The church had collapsed. But there was no reason to think that anyone was inside.

It had been scaffolded for weeks. Still, he went around the side of the church. He saw a door was open. There was work gear outside. As aftershocks rolled around him, Abraham went in.

He and another passerby clambered up on the rubble and started calling. Another employee of the South Island Organ Company was hauling himself out of the mess.

"How many other people are here?" Abraham asked him.

"Four or five," came the reply.

Company factory foreman Neil Stocker, factory employee Scott Lucy and a volunteer from Christchurch, Paul Dunlop, were all still under the rubble.

In Abraham's mind, this was the only thing happening in Christchurch. That was his focus. He started calling out.

After Abraham had found Anderson's face he started trying to wash away the dust with a water bottle. "Don't swallow it," Abraham told him.

He didn't want him to choke on the grit. Right then, Josh was his world, Abraham said.

He carried on clearing the debris. Finally, they were able to drag Anderson from underneath a fallen beam. Then, he was gone.

Abraham kept going. He knew three people were still left in there. But soon, the police ordered him out. It was too dangerous.

Abraham was torn. "What if we can get somebody else?" he thought. He went back to his Avondale home - ravaged by liquefaction.

That night it rained. Abraham had nightmares. There still might be hope for them, he thought. And he wondered too about the man he had saved.

Anderson spent three days in Christchurch Hospital before being transferred to Timaru. He suffered a broken pelvis, a broken leg and a broken finger. He spent six weeks in hospital recovering.

But it took time before he felt like he could revisit what happened. It was still raw. Three years on he felt like it was time to finally meet Abraham.

In his lunch breaks, Abraham would sometimes head to the top of the courthouse and look down at what used to stand across the road. It was like hallowed ground to him.

Abraham would look and imagine the three under the rubble that did not get out. He would visualise them there and wonder if he could have done better.

Every now and then someone will bring up what Abraham did that day.

"There were a lot of examples like that all around the city," he said. "It was nothing special or amazing. I hope everyone would have done something similar."

Seeing Anderson was something of a closure for Abraham. He did not want to open any wounds for Anderson. It just had to be Anderson's choice.

"I'm really pleased," Abraham said. "Me too," said Anderson.

"Do you still play?" Abraham asked. Anderson nodded. The fingers Abraham first saw three years in the rubble ago still worked, he said.

Eighteen months after the quake Anderson performed his first concert. He wanted to continue his apprenticeship for himself, and those that had been lost.

"It's great to have a passion for something and make it your career," Abraham said. "Wish I had something like that."

They smiled. "Hopefully I'll get to listen to you play one day. Maybe playing in the new town hall?"

The Press