The Great Book Heist: Following The Deadly Christchurch Earthquake Part 3 February 20, 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, business owner and Mastermind behind the Great Book Heist 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.
In Part 2 of the story found here he explains what happened to him after putting the second act of the Great Book Heist into play.
In the third and final chapter of this true tale Gallagher explains how a good back story, nice manners and fancy talking go a long way toward accomplishing one's goals when the military has an area sealed off.
Special to the Chronicle By Dennis Gallagher Pacific Rim Correspondent Part 3 – Captured
I knew that once I walked out of the complex, unless I took pains to prevent it, I’d be picked up by a patrol fairly quickly. Now, I could have tried to slip out of the cordon and recross the river – but I wanted to be caught. I thought there was a possibility that once I was nabbed, I might be able to “talk my way out of things” and get my books back immediately. I wanted to engage the authorities and see how flexible they were going to be. To do this, I needed a good story.
Before I walked out, I erased several texts I’d exchanged with Colette during the night. I didn’t want anything on my phone that could contradict the story I was going to tell. I also hid the wet pair of shoes, my black bag and extra cloth bags in the bushes away from the books.
At a little after 4am, I walked out of the complex’s entrance, turned left onto Peterborough St and headed deeper into the cordoned-off zone. I got about a block before a patrol of three soldiers came around the corner and ordered me to halt. The officer asked for my ID and what I was doing there at this time of night.
I told him I’d been on the West Coast the day of the quake and hadn’t been able to get back to Christchurch until now. Right after the quake, I’d talked with a friend here, and when he told me how bad things were, I’d asked him to go up to my apartment and get my books out because I was afraid that by the time I got back, everything would be off-limits.
He’d called back later and told me he’d gathered quite a few bags of my books, but he’d had to leave them by the Peterborough entrance because, even as he was carrying them out, the police were red-zoning the buildings and closing the area. So this evening, late, having just got back from the coast, I came by to see if my books were still there. And they were, safe and sound.
“How did you get into the cordoned-off area?” the officer asked.
I told him that over at the intersection of Dublin and Bealey Sts, there was a checkpoint and I’d just walked through it. No one had asked me a thing.
I felt bad telling him this because I knew someone at the checkpoint was going to get a good chewing out. But it was a plausible story. The folks manning the checkpoint had a tough job, with cars piling up, people milling around and everyone having a good reason why they needed to get into the area. It was pretty chaotic.
Playing the Ace Card
As I was spinning my story to the officer, I could see that none of them believed a word of it. They thought I was a looter. Then I played what I hoped was my ace card. I asked the officer, politely and apologetically, if we could all walk over to the complex’s entrance? There they’d find the bags hidden in the bushes and see for themselves that my name was written in each of the books. They were sceptical, but they agreed. As we walked, they watched me closely, not at all sure what my game was.
At the entrance, I pointed out where the bags were. The officer already had my ID and he went over and began looking through the bags, examining the books. The others stood and guarded me.
When he came back, I could see things had changed. He returned my ID and acknowledged the books were, indeed, mine. He asked me what I wanted to do next. I suggested the best thing would be if he would let me carry my books across the bridge so I could get them out of the red zone.
I think he considered the idea for a moment. But his mandate was to enforce the cordon and to arrest or eject anyone found in it. He said he was sorry but he had to escort me to the edge of the cordon. I could come back in the morning and see if someone would let me back in to get my books. Given the red-zone status of the area, however, he couldn’t make any guarantees.
At this point, they walked me back down Park Terrace, passing the bridge and the men I’d spied on, to the checkpoint at Deans Ave and sent me on my way.
It was nearly 5am as I rode through the cold morning back to Colette’s. There, we lay restless in bed for an hour or so and I told her about the events of the night. There was no point in trying to sleep because I wanted to get back for the 7am shift change; the officer had told me this would be the earliest chance I had to get back in.
Just after seven, we pulled up on Deans Ave and looked across at the checkpoint. There were military, police and firemen mingling in the area and it wasn’t clear who was in charge. In fact, it was possible they didn’t know who was in charge because in a major disaster, folks just turn up to help without waiting for a chain of command to be established. I knew what happened next was going to depend a lot on luck, because whoever I talked to first was likely to set the tone for what followed.
We split up. Colette stayed on the park side of the Avon and watched as I walked over to the checkpoint.
Meeting the military man: a stroke of good luck
As luck would have it, the first fellow I encountered was a military officer. He’d been briefed by the very officer who had caught me last night in the red zone. He knew who I was and why I’d been there, and he seemed sympathetic to my cause, although he said he could make no promises. But we could walk down and see if it might be safe to get my books out.
Halfway to the bridge, we encountered a policeman. When the officer with me explained where we were going, the policeman advised against it, saying no one was permitted in the area. However, the officer said he would take responsibility and, after a moment’s hesitation, the policeman said, “As you like” and we continued on. Two other soldiers joined us as we walked. I think they wanted to see if something interesting was going to happen. Manning a cordon must be pretty boring work.
We got to the complex’s entrance and there were my books, just as we’d left them the night before. The officer had a quick look and asked where I wanted to take them. I said if I could carry them over the pedestrian bridge and into the park, then I could work out how to deal with them after that.
He agreed but then he said to follow him and the four of us walked over to the bridge. There, the same three soldiers I’d spied on the night before were just finishing their shift. The officer requisitioned two of them to come with us and we walked back to where the books were. With each of us carrying two bags, we transported them all across the bridge in one trip, with Colette on the other side watching in amazement.
With all 12 bags safely moved outside the red zone, I thanked the officer and the soldiers profusely. It was 8am. I felt tired, jubilant and very lucky.
This is a true story. You’ll agree a large amount of good fortune, risk and irony were woven into it from end to end.
But I’d like to stress one thing strongly: I never intended any disrespect to the authorities involved. All of them – the military, police and fire – were doing their jobs to the best of their abilities under very difficult circumstances.
In those first days, they spent long hours serving the public’s needs when I’m sure they’d have much rather been home attending to their own damaged properties and comforting their stressed loved ones.
I have the deepest respect for all of them and the work they did for us all during those terrible days. Indeed, the very reason I’ve waited so long to write this story was to avoid the possibility of offending anyone.
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