Christchurch earthquake frontline report
A deadly earthquake (6.3 magnitude) struck Christchurch, New Zealand yesterday at 12:51pm. Reports are that the Central Business District (CBD) received the brunt of it.
They are correct, I should know, I was there.
My family and I have been here in New Zealand since January 25th conducting the “What Does the Future Hold? Bible prophecy seminar”. I was on the third story of our rental house—located in the heart of the CBD—preparing for the evening’s meeting when it happened. There was no warning, no indication, and no build-up. It happened instantly and violently. One second all was well and normal; the next the house was shaking wildly. My instant thought was, this building is going down, I’ve got to get out of here.
|This is our rental in downtown Christchurch. I was in the room in the upper left-hand corner of the building. The visible patched cracks are from the earlier September 4th quake. I snapped this photo just after the earthquake.|
Thankfully, my family had left an hour before to visit friends just outside the city, so I was alone in the house. As the house rocked, my mind was simultaneously flooded with thoughts and yet perfectly clear. It was entirely strange and indescribable. I raced down the stairs, the house rocking several feet side-to-side. Seismologists and engineers would later comment that this earthquake, because of its relative shallowness, was far more “lateral, violent, and severe” in its movements than the September 4, 2010 quake (7.1 magnitude) that shook the city six months before. I can certainly confirm its “lateralness and violence.”
I tried to brace myself as I half-fell, half-ran down the stairs. When I reached the main floor, I quickly scanned and noticed that everything was on the floor—food, the TV, dishes, the microwave, everything. The noise was overwhelming, almost deafening. I raced down the second flight of stairs. Suddenly, seemingly miraculously, I was at the door of the house. Then, just as quickly as it had started, it stopped. The whole thing had lasted maybe 25 seconds.
I looked out and surveyed the street outside. There were people everywhere. Some were screaming, some crying, but all were plainly terrified. With a single glance I was immediately aware of the severity of what had just happened. I instinctively grabbed my camera and ran down the street toward Latimer Square. My senses struggled to take it all in: buckled streets, screaming alarms, collapsed buildings, glass and people everywhere. Dust and smoke filled the air. The streets were beginning to fill with water and liquefaction.
|This building is directly across the street from our rental. As this picture was taken bricks and debris were still falling. Note the crushed vehicles; they were two of many.|
|I shot this photo just down the block from our rental. The look on the lady’s face at the left of the photo tells the story. People were in complete shock and were running everywhere.|
|This is the main office of the hotel we are staying at. We were not in this building, but in a building adjacent to it. Our building remained standing, but this one was not so fortunate. The two rescue workers in the photo are extracting a woman from the rubble. She was rescued shortly after I shot this photo. There may have been others in the building rubble, I don’t know.|
I made my way down the street toward Latimer Square. There were already more than a thousand people gathered in the park in an effort to get away from the buildings. Just as I arrived at Latimer Square a large aftershock (5.0 magnitude) shook the ground sharply. Thousands of people let out a collective and terrible scream. It looked and felt like a scene straight out of the Second Coming. It is difficult to communicate the palpable confusion and fear that hung in the air. Some people were running here and there; others were just standing or sitting in a kind of bewildered resignation. What, really, can you do when the earth itself is heaving below you?
For some reason I don’t quite remember, I felt the need to run back to our rental. Perhaps I wanted to be sure it was locked. I genuinely can’t remember. As I arrived at my door an elderly lady walked out of the rental two doors down from ours. She looked uncertain and scared, but unhurt. I asked if she was alright and alone. She said she was. She told me her name was Toby and that she was vacationing from The Netherlands. I led her by the hand two blocks away back to Latimer Square. She was very grateful. I instructed her to sit down and wait, and to stay away from the buildings. She sat down, and I moved on through the thickening crowd.
|This was the scene in Latimer Square Park when I first arrived there. Just after I took this photo a major aftershock (5.0 magnitude) occurred. People were gathering in the park to get away from buildings many of which had collapsed or were on fire or both.|
I walked quickly to the other side of the square where it appeared the damage was the worst. It was fascinating and revealing to listen in on the various conversations. The mood was a mix of fear, confusion and relief. People were happy to be alive, but many had left others behind and wondered aloud about their welfare. I snapped a shot of a couple looking down Madras Street, a street I would soon learn was one of the worst hit.
|This couple is looking down Madras Street, one of the worst hit areas of the CBD. I quickly snapped this photo then made my way down Madras Street.|
As I made my way down Madras Street people were streaming out of the CBD. I looked to my right and saw a mass of rubble where a six-story building had stood just 10 minutes before. I would later learn that this building was the Canterbury Television (CTV) Building and that as many as 100 people were either trapped or dead inside. This building was three short blocks from our rental. As I write this—about 21 hours after the quake—I am watching the news and have just learned that the rescuers are now moving on from the CTV Building because they believe that all inside are now dead from smoke inhalation. This is particularly tragic because the news had been reporting that rescue workers were receiving texts and phone calls from people trapped inside. A group of 15 were seen by a camera that had been lowered deep into the rubble. If the most recent reports are correct, they are all now dead.
|This was the scene looking down Madras Street. People were filing rapidly out of the CBD. The black arrow points to where the six-story CTV Building had stood just minutes before.|
|This is a closer view of the CTV Building. If current reports are correct, around 100 people were killed in that building’s collapse and also from later smoke inhalation. In the distance you can see many people making their way toward Latimer Square.|
|Another view of the CTV building.|
|A picture of the CTV Building I found on the internet. The red building in the background is the same red building from the foreground of the above photos. The CTV building was reduced to a single story of rubble instantly. Some were rescued from the debris, but most, if reports are correct, were not so fortunate.|
I had been receiving texts from my good mate Karl all along. Amazingly, he had managed to send the first one within about 30 seconds of the end of the original shaking. Thanks Karl! What a comfort it was to hear that he and his pregnant wife, Aska, were alright and safe! My thoughts turned to my own family. I had already tried to call them several times, but the mobile networks were busy. Predictably, everyone was trying to make a call and this over-burdened the system. I knew that Violeta and the kids were in a more residential area, and this gave me confidence that they were safe and well. Sure enough, about a 30 minutes after the quake, I received a call from Violeta. What a joy and a relief to hear her voice! Thank you, God! She assured me that she and the boys were alright, but scared. We agreed that the best plan was for me to walk to where they were, about 12 kilometers away. Driving was out of the question, as the roads were buckled, riddled with holes and liquefaction, or clogged with cars.
I wanted to stay and help, but police and rescue workers were already cordoning off the area and moving people away from the damaged buildings. I had been praying in my mind non-stop since the quake had started. I would continue to pray, of course, but was unsure of what else I could do. About this time a friend called and informed me that the city center would be shut down and that it would be best to get out of the CBD while I still could. That was what I needed to hear, and decided to walk the 12 kilometers to Violeta and the boys.
|Helicopters were flying all around. This one was dropping water on a burning building. The combination of smoke and dust was thick and terrible in some areas. The smell was noxious and toxic-like.|
I made my way back through Latimer Square where the number of people was now several thousand. People were beginning to settle down somewhat, but weeping and questioning could still be heard everywhere. I decided to first return to our rental to retrieve some water and food, my computer, and some clothes. As I walked my eye and camera continued to record the devastation. A toxic-smelling, smokey dust was increasingly filling the air. Helicopters buzzed overhead dumping water on the fires. Injured people were being tended to by paramedics and rescue workers. I made my way to the main office of our rental property and saw the owner standing in the midst of a large group of people. I informed him that my family and I were safe and that, as far as I could tell, those in our area were all out of the buildings and safe. He thanked me, and I moved on.
When I got back to the rental I was understandably nervous about going in. The aftershocks, some of which were quite strong and very unnerving, had continued unabated since the major quake had ended. I stood at the door and made a mental list of what I actually needed. I prayed a quick prayer then raced upstairs and started gathering together the things from my mental list. It took me perhaps three minutes to do, but it felt like 30. I couldn’t get out of that building fast enough!
Our stuff was everywhere, completely littering the floor. Spilled food, broken appliances, books, camera gear, and clothes were everywhere. It was downright eerie. It dawned on me how fortunate I was to be alive and unhurt. I was so thankful to God that my family had not been there. The violent lateral movements of the building could have seriously injured my boys who are much smaller than I am. I myself had been thrown around rather wildly; the boys would probably have faired much worse.
It’s interesting and telling just how little “stuff” actually matters when something like this happens. As I gathered some items from the mess the words of Jesus came forcefully to my mind: “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses” (Luke 12:15). The first thing I grabbed was my Bible. I am, after all, a preacher. I had to have the Word of God. Everything else was secondary to me—the Bible was essential. I hope that this clarity stays with me in times of prosperity and ease as well.
Finally, I made my way out of the house. I loaded the backpack, checked the map, and started walking south down Barbados Street. The plan was to walk around the CBD, as it was being increasingly cordoned off. There was plenty more devastation to see along the way. Bricks, debris, crushed cars, water, and liquefaction filled the streets. So did people. Some were on bikes, some on skateboards, but most were, like me, just walking. The scene was perfectly apocalyptic complete with fires, collapsed buildings, thousands of terrified people, helicopters buzzing overhead, and toxic smoke-filled air.
|This church was seriously damaged. The left upper dome was cracked and teetering. The right upper dome had fallen.|
As I walked my mind raced. I thought about those who were still trapped and struggling. I thought about the aftershocks and hoped they would stop. I thought about the rescue workers. I thought about the evangelistic meetings we were in the middle of. Many decisions for baptism had already been made. We had been getting between 300-500 people attending nightly. The last message I had presented was the truth about the Sabbath. We had invited our visitors to attend the Sabbath morning church service, and many had come. I had preached my testimony and had invited people to make a decision to “walk in newness of life” as “born again” sons and daughters of God. Hundreds had responded, including many visitors. One visitor shook my hand and, with tears in her eyes, said to me, “Thank you for opening my eyes and my heart.” Her name is Linda. I hope she’s safe and well.
We were halfway through our nightly meetings and have been progressing very well, particularly for such a secular city. I was set to preach the truth about death and hell the day the quake hit. I was planning to make another appeal for baptism. Now everything is up in the air.
The hall we rented—The Aurora Center for the Performing Arts—has been turned by the local government into a housing and feeding facility. Media reported that 750 people stayed there last night. Many of them are either tourists or people who have lost their homes. It seems unlikely that this situation at the Aurora Center will change in the near future. So it is possible that we’ll have to find a new venue. It will be difficult to say the least, to contact every attendee. Should I stay longer? Should I leave sooner? What should I do? Lord what is your plan for me and my family here in Christchurch?
These thoughts, and many more, raced through my mind as I walked toward a reunion with my family. Along the way various scenes of devastation confronted my eyes. It was all very surreal and otherworldly. I felt like a pilgrim—all my belongings on my back, walking through a wasteland surrounded by confused and frightened people. Truly, it was a compelling picture of our world as a whole.
As I sit writing this report at a friends’ house 20 miles out of town, my boys are outside playing happily and energetically. The aftershocks continue. The boys are oblivious to it. Their friends are here. They have a ball. They’re playing catch. Life is simple and easy for them.
And yet, at the same time, people—how many we don’t know—are at this very moment struggling for life buried in some deep, dark, damaged hole. Jesus, please be near these frightened, struggling ones. Be “a very present help in times of trouble”, as your Word says you are. Give them a will and a determination to live. And, most of all, may they turn completely to you in their inner-most hearts! Amen and amen!
Jesus is coming soon. Two weeks ago I preached that very message here in Christchurch. People responded positively and solemnly. Since the September 4th earthquake people have been on edge here. Yesterday’s quake will only sharpen that edge. At present 75 are confirmed dead and many hundreds are still missing. It is devastating. And yet I cannot shake the feeling that it could have been so much worse. Had things gone slightly differently, the death count could have numbered in the thousands.
My family and I could have easily been among them.
This quake shook me and many thousands. I hope it will shake us all up spiritually as well! In Luke 13, Jesus was asked about a disaster that occurred in his day—a tower had fallen, killing 13 people. Jesus’ response to the questioning specifically and the disaster in general was sobering. It is a message I need to hear. It is a message that Christchurch and New Zealand need to hear. It is a message that the world needs to hear:
There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answered and said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish,” (Luke 13:1-3).
My hope and my prayer for this lovely city and this amazing country is that as they pick up the pieces that they will let Jesus Christ pick up the pieces of their broken hearts and lives. I don’t know how much longer our family will be here, but I do know that while we’re here we’ll be working with Jesus to that very end.
May the city’s Namesake become the city’s Savior, is our earnest prayer!
|Pastor David Asscherick is presently the director of a missionary training center called ARISE Institute, located in Sonora, California. He is happily married to his wife, Violeta, and is the father two fun-filled and energetic boys, Landon and Jabel.|