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Rugby World Cup

Union city blues

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 September, 2011, 12:00am

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Paul Croucher had stepped out of his bus for a breath of fresh air when the earth began to buckle. The next thing he knew, he was being pulled up from the gutter. Small faces creased with fear filled his vision.

The 58-year-old New Zealander had spent 30 years in the fire-services department of his hometown, Christchurch, before becoming a bus driver, as he wound down towards retirement. Croucher's guess is it was that previous experience that helped him remember every minute detail of what he saw in the moments, the hours and the days that followed the February 22 earthquake.

'The first thing I remember is a lady pulling me out of the gutter and asking if I was alright,' he says. 'I had been standing outside the bus and the quake had thrown it sideways and into a hollow in the road. It whacked me on the side of the head and I [passed out]. When I finally got up I saw the children and the looks in their eyes - they were frightened, terrified. At first you just gather your thoughts but then you start to notice what has happened around you- and that's when I realised things were pretty bad.'

We are standing on the corner of Montreal and Gloucester streets, rugged up against the winter wind, just a block from the cordoned-off section the people of Christchurch now call the Red Zone: what used to be the bustling heart of New Zealand's second-largest city. In there, points Croucher, is where things went wrong. Really wrong.

'The first thing we had to do was get the kids on board the bus to safety... and away from here,' he says.

It was 12.51pm and Croucher had been driving 40 students from Burwood School, in the northeast of the city, to the centre.

The 6.3-magnitude quake was an unusually vertical one, making the buildings in downtown Christchurch 'jump'- and land with all the horrifying effects one might expect. At the final count, 181 people died, 100 alone in the Canterbury Television building. Seven Chinese students were among the casualties.

'You could tell it was a bad one immediately,' recalls Croucher. 'I remember seeing a digger driver in the Avon River, he'd been there picking up weeds. The digger had been thrown around and he was jumping into the river as we drove past.'

February's was the second major earthquake to hit Christchurch in five months.

'The first big one that hit [a 7.1 quake on September 4, a year ago today] was at 4.30 in the morning and we were all in bed. That gave us a hell of a wake-up call,' says Croucher. 'For this one, there were just so many people about and it was so close to the city. A lot of the people didn't stand a chance.'

The people of Christchurch are still working out how to cope with the devastation. They have had to endure three major earthquakes- including a six-scale strike on June 13 - but there have been more than 7,500 tremors of various sizes in the past year, according to a local seismologist.

After the February disaster, the world's attention was soon diverted to Japan, where the March 11 quake and resulting tsunami were far more devastating. Forgotten by most- an exception being Britain's Prince William, who toured the rubble in mid-March - the people of Christchurch quietly set about picking up the pieces of their lives. At the same time, the city has been trying, somehow, to play its part in what is being billed as the greatest event ever to come to New Zealand.

Christchurch and the province of Canterbury, which surrounds it, are rugby union mad and were to have played a major role in New Zealand's hosting of the Rugby World Cup 2011, the sporting and entertainment extravaganza set to envelop the nation from Friday to October 23. But the events of February 22 put paid to those plans, ripping up the turf at the city's AMI Stadium, destroying all but 20 per cent of the available accommodation in town- and forcing the seven games scheduled to take place here to be moved elsewhere.

It was the right decision, locals will tell you, but it was a bitter blow. Remarkably, however, Christchurch is determined to still play a part.

'We were devastated at having our World Cup cancelled- we were all geared up for the event,' Croucher says. 'But we Canterbury people love our rugby. We will rally around the event.

'We will never be able to see the city the way we did in the past. But we will recover and we will rebuild- no one is in any doubt about that.'

Today, Croucher is leading another tour into the heart of Christchurch. This time, local and international reporters are being shown around the wreckage.

A hush descends inside the bus as it enters the Red Zone. We creep past what remains of the city centre. The spire of Christchurch Cathedral has caved in on itself, the last of its three massive bells is carefully being pulled from the rubble before being shipped to Britain for repairs.

There's a massive digger in the near distance, pulling down what's left of a restaurant in the shadow of the Grand Chancellor Hotel, which is leaning to the left, wildly out of sorts with itself.

Huge cracks in almost every structure provide evidence of the force of the initial impact on February 22, as do the cafe tables and chairs still lying on the ground, under dust and debris, snatched away as they were being readied for the lunch-hour rush.

There are massive shards of glass on the pavements, there is rubble everywhere and there is an eerie, unsettling silence, broken only by the heavy thud of machinery. Every time the ground shakes from the effort, nervous eyes are cast left and right as we walk silently towards a marquee that's been erected inside a block already cleared of buildings.

Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee takes to the podium to tell those gathered that the immediate plan is to get commerce back into the district; a plan that, in the short term, will involve an injection of some NZ$3 million (HK$20 million) and the adaptation of shipping containers into makeshift shops.

There is, of course, the little matter of the weather. A cold snap is coming (one that would dump about 30cm of snow on the city) and officials lay out a plan to aid the few thousand houses in central Christchurch that still lack adequate heating and, in some cases, sewerage.

It's then the turn of Prime Minister John Key to address the crowd. Like everyone else here, he's wearing protective gear, because- it is repeated, often- the area remains unsafe. Key says he is pleased to see how the site is progressing. He brings good news, too. He has just come from an event in Auckland aimed at raising funds to send New Zealand athletes to next year's Olympic Games, in London. At the event, the hat went around for Christchurch and, so far, he reports, public donations for the rebuilding of the city have reached NZ$250 million.

'In comparison to the funds required to get Christchurch back on its feet, obviously that's a small amount,' Key says. 'But it's an incredibly large amount for a small country to raise for just the small things that make a community work and help hold the community together.'

Asked what message he would like the world to hear, the prime minister gets straight to the point.

'The city really has defied the odds,' he says. 'People here have been incredibly stoic and we want the world to know that. We are moving forward.'

Among those making sure the city does so is Christchurch's often flamboyant mayor, Bob Parker. The one-time television-game-show host has compiled what he calls the city's 'big wish list'. It is a NZ$2 billion reimagining of Christchurch that will take at least 10 years to complete and includes a green belt around the Avon River, height restrictions on buildings and an NZ$8 million memorial.

'Today is about remembering the people we've lost,' he says, on announcing the plan. 'This plan is for them, and this plan is for the extraordinary, courageous people of Christchurch.

'One of the first things we did - because we are such a sporting city- was to get 95 per cent of our playing fields open. The major stadium is in a bad way; as we would say locally, 'It is pretty munted'. That's a fact of life and we have to get on with things.

'What we are trying to do during the World Cup is turn events here into a rebirth of the city.'

As chief executive of New Zealand Rugby World Cup 2011, Martin Snedden had, for four years, been planning Christchurch's involvement in the festivities. The city, he says, is the 'the very heart of rugby in New Zealand'. But after the quake, images of Christchurch's stricken stadium were beamed across the world, its turf turned and scarred, and so New Zealand Rugby World Cup 2011 had to come up with another role for Christchurch, and Canterbury, to play.

'It has been rocky,' says Snedden, from his office in Wellington, the country's capital. 'Christchurch and the earthquakes have, of course, been the biggest thing. But that was a challenge the whole of New Zealand was facing so we were just part of a nationwide challenge, really. In terms of the event itself, it took the main rugby city out of the tournament.'

Hence a plan to place large screens and fan zones throughout Christchurch, to include the city in the Real New Zealand Festival, which is being organised jointly by New Zealand Rugby World Cup 2011 and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise and includes cultural, food and business events designed to encourage people to become involved.

'You can see signs of what the city was and what it now isn't,' Snedden says. 'Things haven't finished there yet and you have no guarantee the aftershocks have even ended. There is continuing damage and psychological damage... so we have worked hard in the past few months in keeping them involved.'

The AMI Stadium is home to the Canterbury Crusaders- historically the most successful team in the Super Rugby competition- and the February quake was something that came with a personal cost to the club; board member Philip McDonald was among those killed when the city's Pyne Gould Corp building collapsed.

'Initially, we had to deal with the shock and grief of our loss,' says Crusaders chief executive Hamish Riach. 'Then you just go around trying to make sure everyone is OK. You just deal with it one week at a time, which is what we had to do. We had nowhere to play, so we had to find venues and move forward.'

The Crusaders went on to produce one of the sporting year's more remarkable stories. Playing away from the AMI Stadium- nearby Nelson and even Twickenham, in London, were used to host 'home' games- talent and no small degree of passion took the Crusaders all the way to the final, where they played the Queensland Reds (the Super Rugby competition is contested by teams from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa) in front of a worldwide audience gripped by the drama of it all. But, at the last, fate again worked against the people of Canterbury- the Reds won 18-13.

'There have been highlights this year- like being able to play at Twickenham- but then after all the work we had done there came the bitter disappointment of not being able to complete the fairy tale and losing the final,' Riach says. 'It was like finding out for certain that we would not be hosting any of the World Cup. It was a decision that had to be made- and the right decision - but it was just another thing that had gone wrong in our world.

'We know the stadium will be closed for 2012 and we are some months from even knowing exactly where we stand with its future.'

YOU MAY HAVE TO look twice to spot it, but the outer suburbs of Christchurch are littered with evidence of the quake, too: missing chimney stacks, fences propped up by wooden stakes and canvas sheeting covering a multitude of cracks in walls.

At Peter Townsend's home, just outside the city limits, the walls and floor have been bent out of shape and there's a makeshift sign on the wall by the front door - a piece of cardboard on which is written: 'Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce' (CECC). The CECC's old home was made unsafe by a shift in the ground that surrounds it, so Townsend, the chamber's chief executive, and his staff work at his dining table and in the kitchen, boxes packed high and wide.

The chamber has about 3,000 members, 2,200 of whom have been 'materially impacted' by the earthquakes. The loss to local industry is estimated at US$12 billion and the toll on the New Zealand economy could reach 8 per cent of its gross domestic product.

'For the first major quake, on September 4, my wife and I were in bed and our dog suddenly started barking just before it hit,' Townsend says. 'We found out later that this had happened all over the city.

'You could hear everything crashing down all along the street for 44 seconds.

'For the second [quake], I was actually out of town at a meeting in Wellington [300 kilometres away] and I saw the glass of water on a table in front of me shake. I said, 'That's an earthquake,' and my PA [in Christchurch] was halfway through texting me when the connections went down - I still have the half-message on my phone.'

Nothing could have prepared Townsend for what he saw when he made it home.

'The city was completely trashed,' he says. 'But we started to pick ourselves up again the very next day. The resilience has been staggering in the face of great personal cost.'

The New Zealand government immediately pumped NZ$200 million into local companies, so they could maintain operations.

'We had 27 per cent of our total workforce- about 57,000 people- on government benefit,' Townsend says. 'But no one really stayed on the benefit- we still have a lower rate of unemployment here than the nation as a whole, even after the country's biggest natural disaster.'

While the reconstruction work goes on - with more than 1,000 buildings still marked for demolition in the inner city alone - Townsend wants a little of the attention that will soon be focused on the Rugby World Cup, and New Zealand itself, to fall in Christchurch's direction.

'It's been business as usual even when there was no business,' he says. 'We're still here and we don't want people to forget that- ever.'