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Monday, February 28, 2011

The Heart of Christchurch

'This is the cathedral. The very heart of Christchurch in every sense'

Last updated 11:52 27/02/2011
The devastation and frightening aftershocks shake you to the core, reports Adam Dudding.

THE HEART knows when something is wrong. Apart from the broken limbs, crushed torsos and head injuries, cardiac problems were one of the big causes of hospital admissions after Tuesday's quake - mainly people with an underlying heart condition who were pushed over the edge.

I arrived in Christchurch a day after the 6.3-magnitude "aftershock" that brought the carnage strangely absent after the "bigger" September 4 quake.

All the noisy, bloody, dusty drama - those unedited slabs of raw chaos that screened on TV within minutes of the 12.51 quake - was over. The living were still being recovered and the central city was largely shut down, with a cordon excluding all but rescue workers, media and a trickle of inner-city locals packing their dusty cars, or trudging along, wheeled-suitcases in tow.

When I felt my first aftershock a few hours later, it was so small I didn't even see anything sway, yet still my heart thudded crazily. I wasn't frightened in my head, but my body knew to be terrified. I felt briefly embarrassed at being so scared, then shame. So this is what Cantabrians have been putting up with for six months.

It's not enough that the water and power and streets and houses are screwed, there's dust and mud everywhere, that this time there is death as well as destruction. On top of that, you endure shakes that flood your bloodstream with adrenalin, leaving you wired, uneasy and mildly ill.

The first night, worried I'd never sleep, I turned a metal chair upside down at the top of my bed and stuck my head into the triangular cavity beneath it. I knew how pathetic and pointless this was, but it was enough to trick my thudding heart for a few hours.

Everything is in the wrong place. There's a church steeple on a lawn and army LAVs on leafy streets. There are cars under bricks, tents in the heart of town and civil defence folk in hi-vis vests fill the art gallery.

There is a grey dust that's stirred by every passing vehicle, filling your nose with a gritty chalky smell, and when you walk over the silty mud that clogs the gutters, the smell is dank and mushroomy. On Gloucester St, someone with a dark sense of humour has made a sandcastle of silt.

Thousands have fled Christchurch, but thousands have flooded in. Alongside rescue workers and relatives, it seems almost every Kiwi journalist in the country is here, as well as media from Aussie and the UK, from Norway and Japan.

As the days pass, editors urge staff to unearth new angles. But the bread and butter - press conferences with mayor Bob Parker, Prime Minister John Key, and updates on death tolls and victims' names - is generated from the media centre that sprang up in the courtyard of the undamaged art gallery, next to the emergency HQ inside.
As media numbers swelled, and the smell from the Portaloos by the gallery grew more intense, police arranged media bus tours inside the cordon that stopped, like a Hollywood tour, at the big three horror scenes.

I hopped aboard. You want, and don't want, to see the pancaked Pyne Gould office block that looks like a sinking ocean liner, or the smoking rubble of the CTV building, with the upright bit that refuses to fall, or the ruined and steeple-less cathedral.

Up close, they're just like you've seen them on TV. Awful, awesome, mindboggling. I distract myself from thinking about the bodies inside by watching how TV news is made. A Japanese reporter with gratuitous hardhat likes to strut into shot before swivelling dramatically to stare down the lens. A besuited Australian does five takes in front of the cathedral. "This is the cathedral. The very heart of Christchurch in every sense. Now half the height it was."

A Korean TV crew needs a quote from a local, but settles for Mark Sainsbury, hustling him away to find a photogenic angle. The weight of facts - numbers dead, dollars to rebuild, tonnes of silt - squashes down emotion.

But late on Friday, I'm driving through St Albans and Radio New Zealand plays a montage of quotes and sounds from the week, set against a soaring soprano. It's a cheap trick, but cheap sentiment works, and I feel my chest tighten.

I'm just a nosy visitor - no dead friends or personal loss, and I'll be out of here soon, but this nasty, soul-destroying earthquake is enough to make you heartsick.

- Sunday Star Times

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