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Sunday, March 6, 2011

When 9 Lives Collide

Bus stop: The nine backpackers and friends (from left) Ciaran Harrison, Alix Whittaker, Tim van Brussel, Karl Matthews, Patrick Mohan, Katri-Maria Koivumaki, Michael Buckley, Derek Green, Paul Gibney, Joanna Bennett and Kay Loxley - next to the housebus loaned to them by Aucklander Alix and her fiance Jordan.

THE OLD blue double-decker bus with the broken gearbox is parked on a crazy lean. Inside, nine backpackers wear borrowed clothes and cook meals thanks to the kindness of strangers.

They come from Finland, England and Ireland. Their central Christchurch flats are shaken and broken, behind police cordons. This week, home is each other.

Last Sunday, the nine joined the exodus from Christchurch, flying to Auckland and the only accommodation they could find where they could stay together as a group.

There is not much room in the housebus parked on a busy street. They jump every time a truck or train rumbles by. When they enter a building, they automatically look for a safe spot. A shower, taken on the fifth floor of a nearby building, was too much for jangled nerves.

When the earthquake happened, these travellers were scattered through the city. That first night, when they finally all found each other, they wandered en masse, carrying two giant pizzas rescued "from the lads' flat" before a woman from the suburb of Casebrook took them in and gave them her living-room floor.

In Auckland, 21-year-old Alix Whittaker had watched the destruction on television. Whittaker wanted to do something to help. Two years ago, the Sunday Star-Times followed her fight for government-funded home care for her father, wheelchair-bound following a complicated recovery from a diabetic coma. She won that battle.

She has since started a film production company, become engaged and bought a housebus with her fiance Jordan. Last week, the couple gave up their bus to give a group of strangers a place to laugh, love and live again.

Friendships formed by travellers are intense. This group of nine backpackers, interconnected through romantic relationships, workplaces and old hometowns, lived and worked a stone's throw from each other, spreading their lives across three flats in Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford streets.

The first of their group had been in Christchurch eight months, the last just four days, when the quake happened.

The Star-Times first met the group on Tuesday. By the end of the week, they had lined up farm work in Tauranga and been temporarily adopted by Auckland's Irish Society, with the offer of a beach house until their jobs and accommodation kick in. But, early in the week, the memories were still raw.

Kay Loxley, 26, from Birmingham, can still hear the sirens and alarms.

"In the square, when nothing was cordoned off, I saw an old man with a crowd of people around him, and a bandage on his head, bleeding . . . it's little things, like the people I buy coffee off every day, I want to know they are OK. These people know us, they know how we drink our coffee. The blind man, singing by the cathedral - I want to know he's OK."

Paul Gibney, 26, from River Valley, Dublin, was working in a wholesaler's warehouse off Tuam St when the lights went out and the wall fell down. Construction workers called him to help at a crushed bus. "They were trying to get people out . . . we had to decide which windows to smash. They had to put a cover over someone if they were alive, because they didn't want glass coming down on them."
At a cafe in Hereford St, 24-year- old Buckinghamshire woman Joanna Bennett tried to run into the street. Her boss pulled her back, away from broken, crashing glass windows. She saw one customer fall into the mess. "All these people were looking in from the outside, screaming . . . "

From Finland, Katri-Maria Koivumaki escaped Christchurch with only her handbag, a wallet with no cash, and a cellphone with a dead battery.

"I was shopping, trying to find a present for my month-old nephew. I was walking on the corner of Cashel and High streets. I ran into the middle of the street, as far away from the buildings as I could, but the street is not very wide. I was holding my hands above my head, covering my head."

She ran to her flat but couldn't get in, and continued towards the Worcester Boulevard apartment the contingent of Irish travellers shared.

Derek Green, white-faced and shaken, hugged her hard. Two nights earlier, he dreamed Katri had been killed in a massive earthquake. It was four hours before all nine were reunited.

Ciaran Harrison, working in Sockburn, had no idea of the extent of the damage.

He hitchhiked and ran back to the central city.

Just three weeks ago, he had been working in the now collapsed PGC building, replacing fallen ceiling tiles. "Two really nice ladies were giving us cups of tea. I hope they are all right . . ."

There is not a scratch on this group. After the quake, they agreed to move north together: there were too many of them, they said, for one to go short. On Tuesday they were joined by a Christchurch workmate, Tim van Brussel.

Their Auckland mornings started with a job hunt - draughtsman, carpenters, illustrators-turned-baristas, bar staff and labourers, in the name of the working holiday.

Derek: "As soon as we found everyone, we made our way to Hagley Park. It was nice and peaceful. We spent a couple of hours just sitting on the grass. There were hundreds of people there . . . it was only when we watched the news footage we realised why everybody was panicking."

They echo that sentence heard, so often, in the past fortnight. "We're all so lucky," says Patrick Mohan.

"It's been a shock, it's been a terrible shock, but we haven't really suffered. All of us are safe. People are dead, people's family members are dead.

"How can I even start to put myself in their shoes? Look at the generosity we have been shown - within five minutes of speaking to someone, there are two cars to meet us at the airport, Alix and Jordan's friends have given us clothes, food.

"All I can say is that I'm amazed, and I'm happy."

It is a week after the quake. The Star-Times buys coffees at a cafe in Morningside. The nine help Jordan hang a photographic exhibition. They laugh easily, tease each other. At 12.51 they stop. Some close their eyes. Others fixed on a spot in the distance. There is a small sob. A hug.

"I didn't want to leave Christchurch," said Kay. "It's been my home for eight months, and I really loved it. You don't think it at the time. But when it's not there any more . . ."

They are travellers, and they are moving on. Home, last week, was a ramshackle housebus on a crazy lean in a busy Auckland street.

But it was also, very definitely, each other.

- Sunday Star Times

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