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The Great Book Heist:
Following The Deadly Christchurch Earthquake
Part 2

February 19, 2018

CLICK TO ENLARGE. The Pyne Gould Building destroyed by earthquake Feb. 23, 2011, Christchurch, New Zealand. Photo by Gabriel Goh (Lic. Creative Commons 2.0)

CLICK TO ENLARGE. Former Monroe resident and business owner Dennis Gallagher.

Editor's Note: Much of Christchurch, New Zealand was heavily damaged or destroyed on Monday, February 22, 2011 after a powerful 6.3-magnitude earthquake, called the Canterbury earthquake struck the area at 12:51 pm local time.

In Part 1 of this three-part series found here , author Dennis Gallagher – a former Monroe, WA resident, business owner, writer and computer programmer – explained what it was like to live through that earthquake and its immediate aftermath.

Gallagher emigrated to New Zealand some years back and now lives in Christchurch. He was in the city when that devastating earthquake hit.

Today’s installment explains what happened after the earthquake, how the Great Book Heist was planned and partially carried out in the dead of night with police patrols everywhere. Part three of the series will be published Tuesday Feb. 20th.

Special to the Chronicle
By Dennis Gallagher
Pacific Rim Correspondent
Part 2 – The Day After

The day after the quake, we drove back to pack up more things. The place was a mess. My two large bookcases had been thrown over and the kitchen cabinets had spewed their contents of glasses, plates and pans across the kitchen floor.

Time was pressing us and at one point I found myself rolling up rugs with clothes in them and throwing them out five floors to the grass below where Colette loaded them into her car. It was evident by now that no one would be living in these buildings any time soon.

All around us, other residents were gathering their things. In mid-afternoon, the police came and said that within an hour, red stickers would be affixed to the entrances and after that it would be illegal to enter.

But, you might be wondering, what about the books?

We’d worked fast but among the things we’d been unable to get out before we were banned were my books. This grieved me because I really love my books; many of them are lifetime friends. I write and underline in them. I write the names of my friends I’ve lent them to and many of them have followed me around the world.†

I was especially worried because I knew when buildings are severely damaged, they can be deemed to be so unsafe they are taken down “with prejudice”. That means no one will ever re-enter them and the entire building, with everything in it, is demolished. Having seen some of the structural damage, I thought it was quite possible I’d never gain access to my apartment again.

The City

On those first two “quake” days, we were so busy clearing my apartment, we hadn’t seen the worst of the damage to the city. We had no idea so many people had died. The news reports then were patchy, at best, as the authorities tried to assess the damage and casualties.†

On the third and fourth days, with the complex now off-limits, we took my motorcycle around the city to see what had happened and to check on friends. The damage was stunning.

We rode down Ferry Rd, through Woolston and into Sumner. The streets reminded me of some of the worst roads I’d driven on in Mexico and India. There were piles of debris, broken pavement and great heaps of liquefaction sand everywhere. The traffic crawled as it wove through wherever it could. We visited our friend, Steve, who lived in Sumner, and he told us about helping to pull people out of buildings that had been crushed by falling cliff faces.

On another ride, we took River Rd, which follows the Avon River on the eastern side of Christchurch. Many of those suburbs would eventually be declared permanent red zones, never to be built upon again.

Today, there’s just block after empty block out there; only a few surviving trees remain. But on the day we rode through, the destruction was fresh and the streets and houses looked like an active war zone. We saw a walking bridge across the Avon that was twisted like a child’s toy.

But onto the story of how I recovered my books by subterfuge – in the dark of the night – in that disastrous week of February 2011.

The Problem

In the days immediately after the quake, the military had come to help the local authorities cordon off the CBD, which had been declared a “no-go” red zone. The authorities were keen to limit looting and keep people safe. Military and police checkpoints had been set up around the CBD. Colette and I had talked about how, in the midst of all of this, I might retrieve my books. But we were having trouble coming up with a good plan.

My apartment complex lay just inside the cordoned-off CBD area. It also was just to the east of Hagley Park. And between the complex and the park lay the Avon River and Park Terrace.

The river was set as the edge of the cordon because there were only a couple of bridges that crossed it and these were manned by military checkpoints. There were also frequent military vehicle patrols along Park Terrace. Faced with this, it looked like desperate measures would be called for if I was ever going to see my books again.

The Heist

A little after midnight, five days after the earthquake, I found myself lying on the grass in Hagley Park, looking across the river at my apartment complex. About 90m to my left was a pedestrian bridge over the Avon, guarded by three soldiers. Immediately in front of me, perhaps 100m away and across the river, was Park Terrace. It was brightly illuminated but deserted, except for sporadic military patrols.

I’d been lying in the dark and watching for more than two hours. The black clothes I wore rendered me largely invisible and I had a black gym bag that held 15 cloth grocery bags and a spare pair of tennis shoes.

Getting into this position had been a slow and cautious process. I’d arrived on the Deans Ave side of the park just after 10pm, parked my motorcycle and then walked unseen into the darkness of the park.

All the park’s lights were off due to earthquake damage. After I’d entered, I moved south, parallel to the Avon and Park Terrace. As I got close to the manned bridge, I made sure I was obscured by a small maintenance building between me and the soldiers. Eventually, I was close enough to hear them talking.

I listened awhile to get some sense of how alert they were. They were just chatting and seemed pretty relaxed. Then I moved back the way I’d come, keeping the building between us until I was far enough away to move south again without being seen. Finally, I came to my riverside hideout, nestled among quake-felled tree trunks and branches.

My two-hour vigil had told me there were no patrols on my side of the river. As I lay there quietly watching, my cellphone began vibrating. I’d turned off its sound, but even its vibrations seemed enormously loud to me as I hid. I answered and it was Colette calling to see if I’d made my way into the complex yet.† “Soon,” I said. With nothing more to be learned from watching, I gathered my bag and prepared to cross the river.

The Avon is about eight metres wide and not more than 30cm or so deep at this point. I rolled up my pant legs, slung my bag over my shoulder and walked along the river’s edge in the darkness until I found a point to cross where I’d be hidden by trees from the soldiers on the bridge.

Crossing was easy and I settled into the reeds on the other side where I couldn’t be spotted from the road or bridge. Now, I was just across from the George Hotel’s entrance. I tied my wet shoes to the outside of my bag and put on my dry pair.

Now came the most dangerous and unpredictable part of the adventure: crossing over brightly lit Park Terrace without being seen. During the crossing I’d be clearly visible to anyone on the bridge who happened to glance my way.

If they raised the alarm, I’d have to run through the George’s parking lot, across Peterborough St and then into the complex before anyone could pursue me. I was certain I could make it inside, but being seen would make my mission a lot more difficult because the authorities would now be looking for me.

After waiting by the river for a few more minutes, watching for patrols, I decided it was now or never. Praying not to attract attention, I simply walked across the road carrying my bag as if I had every right in the world to be there. It seemed a long crossing but I forced myself to walk at a relaxed pace. Finally, I was into the George Hotel’s parking lot, where a hedge shielded me from the bridge. I breathed a sigh of relief.

From the George’s parking lot, I crossed Peterborough, where the street’s angle kept me out of view of the bridge, and entered the complex. I walked to Building B’s stairwell and climbed to my apartment on the fifth floor. A bit of light from Park Terrace helped me see where I was going in the dark stairwell.

Under the rug in the hallway outside my apartment door, the floor was uneven and broken because an adjacent vertical pillar had been rammed upwards by the earthquake with such force that the concrete floor had shattered around it. The smell of concrete dust was everywhere.

Inside my apartment, I walked over to the glass doors that faced the bridge and I slowly slid my drapes closed so the motion wouldn’t attract the eyes of the soldiers below. Then, using a small flashlight, I began going through my books that lay scattered everywhere. It took me about two hours to collect the ones I wanted and load them into 12 cloth grocery bags.

As I was sorting through the books, there was a strong aftershock; just as there’d been every day since the big one. I waited it out, keenly aware as everything rumbled and shook around me that I was in a badly damaged building.

Done packing, I carried the bags downstairs in six trips, leaving them in the bottom level of the stairwell. After that, I went back for a last look around. I knew I might never see my apartment again.† My legs were aching by now from all the stairs.

I saw one more thing I wanted. It was the outside sensor of an indoor-outdoor thermometer. I’d already saved the inside unit, but the outside sensor was still on the balcony railing. It would be tricky to get it.

First, I opened the drapes a bit and then, very slowly, I opened one of the folding glass doors. I crawled out onto the deck on my stomach, staying well below anyone’s line of sight from the bridge, then detached the sensor from the railing and reversed until I was safely back inside and the door. It was now about 3:30am.

Downstairs again, I carried my bags, in pairs, to a spot near the complex’s entrance on Peterborough St. This location had two advantages. First, it was a good distance from the taller buildings in the complex. All of us in Christchurch had recently become educated on the concept of “fall zones” – the area around a damaged building to be avoided in case the building collapsed. The fall zone’s radius was defined as twice the building’s height.

Here, near the entrance, my books were as far away from the taller buildings as possible while still being within the complex’s grounds. The second advantage was the shrubbery allowed me to stash my books where they couldn’t be easily seen from Peterborough St.

You might be wondering what the point was of recovering my books and then hiding them if my goal was to get them out of the red zone?

Well, there was actually no way, at four in the morning inside a military-controlled red zone, that I was going to get 12 bags of heavy books out clandestinely. But then I’d known this from the beginning.

However, I had a plan.


Coming up on Tuesday, “The plan is carried out.” This report was first published in 2017 at Noted.co.nz and is reprinted here with the author's permission.

An interactive map of Feb. 22, 2011 Canterbury earthquake can be found here



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