Biggest moments of 2011 #12 Christchurch crumbles
On September 4 last year, Christchurch was struck by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake which caused widespread damage but no fatalities. The quake that shook the city in February this year was of a lesser magnitude, at 6.3, but it had far more dire consequences.
The quake struck early afternoon local time. It was morning here in Australia and The Punch team remembers watching the scenes of horror unfold on the multiple TV monitors in our office. The quake exacerbated much of the damage done by the previous one. In total, 181 were killed.
You could tell things were bad when you saw the severe damage to Christchurch’s signature building, the 19th century cathedral in the main city square. But the real devastation happened both in the suburbs and at other buildings in the city – in particular the Canterbury Television Building, where over half the deaths occurred.
This was an event that hit home to Australians like few overseas disasters. That’s partly because of our close social bonds with New Zealanders and the nation’s proximity to our shores. But there was something more. It was the victims. They were people like us. They were tattoo artists and suburban families and city office workers.
It might say something less than glowing about us that we relate more to a disaster where the victims are “like us”, but there was no denying this event held our attention and deep sympathy for days and weeks.
What happened next
Aftershocks. Nineteen of them and counting over 5.0 magnitude since the main quake. One of the largely unwritten tales in the aftermath was the effort of Australian rescuers. Queensland provided an elite squad trained in cyclone search and rescue whose skills proved invaluable.
Many parts of Christchurch remain uninhabitable due to the liquefied ground underneath. One such location was the main rugby stadium, which was unable to stage its scheduled World Cup matches in October.
What we learned
We learned, or were reminded, that in times of crisis, no nation of people on earth feel more like our brothers and sisters than the Kiwis.
How The Punch covered it
We immediately put up a piece entitled Christchurch: A great city, a tragic, tragic day. The piece served as a kind of open thread on the quake allowing readers to share information and express condolences.
The following day, our friends at ABC blog The Drum posted a bizarre piece headed “The media is not there to help. It does not feel your pain” which took a swipe at what they perceived to be its voyeuristic instincts. “Used and forgotten” is how Drum Jonathan Green editor described the victims. With respect, we still feel they grossly misread the situation.
We watch the heart-wrenching footage and buy extra newspapers at times like this not because we enjoy seeing others’ pain, but because we seek to understand what they’re going through. Punch editor-in-chief David Penberthy made this point strongly in his piece, The Media Takes No Joy From Tragedy:
One example from my experience was the Waterfall train disaster just south of Sydney in 2003, in which seven people died. Sales of all newspapers went up at the time. This didn’t suggest that the people who bought them were rubber-neckers or that the people who produced them were driven by a lust for circulation. It reflected the fact that tens of thousands of people in Sydney catch the train to and from work every day, and that what we had on our hands was the most massive example of government failure, and it needed to be attacked with maximum space and vigour. It was the subject of a judicial inquiry and it led to a raft of changes to train safety.
The media does wrong all the time. But telling human stories is what it does best.
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