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The Great Book Heist:
Following The Deadly Christchurch Earthquake

February 17, 2018

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.

Rescue workers scrambled to comb through the collapsed ruins of office buildings and homes searching for trapped survivors in what was the country's deadliest quake in many years.

185 people from more than 20 countries died when the earth trembled that day, started fires in some buildings, caused whole hillsides to give way in some areas, burying homes and cars and causing sandy soil to liquify.

Former Monroe, WA resident and business owner Dennis Gallagher emigrated to New Zealand and now lives in Christchurch. He was in the city when that February 2011 quake hit the area.

Mr. Gallagher, a writer, computer programmer and international traveler reveals here in detail his daring involvement in The Great Book Heist following that big earthquake. Caution: may be too intense for some younger readers.

This is part one of three. Part 2 will be published in the Chronicle Monday Feb. 19

Special to the Chronicle
By Dennis Gallagher
Pacific Rim Correspondent
Part 1 – The Quake

(CHRISTCHURCH, N.Z.) – On the corner of Park Terrace and Salisbury Street in our beautiful but still damaged city of Christchurch, there’s a large gravel-covered lot relieved only by a few piles of dirt.

This lot is surrounded by a chain-link fence and, on the Park Terrace side, there’s a For Sale sign that’s had “Sold” plastered over it for months. Land-banking, maybe: the practice of buying property at a good price, then sitting on it to see which way the economic winds blow before you decide to develop or sell. Significant parts of our sweet city are still caught up in such limbo.

Six years ago, the Terrace on the Park apartment complex occupied this corner. Five elegant, modern buildings, built in 2000, they ranged up to 10 stories. There was a tennis court, a weight room and extensive underground parking. The complex had excellent security and was considered a good address in Christchurch.

The 165ha Hagley Park lies just across the street and many of the 100-plus units had unobstructed views across the city and the park. My unit was on the fifth level of the B building and faced west towards the park.

It was urban living at its best – until February 22, 2011, when the massive Canterbury earthquake struck, sharp and shallow, directly under the city.

But this story isn’t about the earthquake, as devastating as it was. Nor is it about the complex, as nice as it was. It is a story about books, of all things: the love of books and what people will do for them.

On that February 22, just before 1:00 pm, I was riding my motorcycle along Riccarton Avenue when I became convinced both my tires had suffered simultaneous blow-outs. It was all I could do to pull over to the side of the road and stop without losing control.

It became clear to me after a moment that something else was happening. Cars were stopping around me and I could see people hurrying out of buildings and onto the sidewalks. After watching for a few moments, I rode on.

None of the buildings near me had shown obvious signs of damage so I didn’t think it was a major event – at least not until I passed Hagley Park and saw the piles of liquefaction that had erupted there like sand fountains in the grassy spaces.

Back at my complex, I found everyone standing outside. Some of them had beers in their hands and smiles on their faces. It had been an amazing shake and that was, apparently, sufficient grounds for an impromptu party. A few came over to talk to me expressing confidence that we’d get the all-clear to go back in after an hour or two…and did I want a beer?

My friend Keith, the building manager, came by and told me he thought things were a bit more serious than many of the residents believed. Did I want to take a look?

First, he took me into the underground parking area, where I was stunned to see torrents of water gushing up around the vertical pillars that supported everything above us. The concrete floor was already 10cm deep in water and it was rising steadily. I could see my second motorcycle had been thrown onto its side by the force of the quake and its handlebars were badly bent.

On the ground level of the complex’s A building, Keith showed me one of the vertical walls that supported the six stories of apartments above. Of the wall itself, there was nothing left but exposed and badly warped steel reinforcing bars. All the concrete that had enclosed the rebar had been shattered away by the force of the building’s movements during the quake. Keith said he didn’t think we’d be going back into our apartments anytime soon.

But less than an hour had passed since the quake and no one in authority was assessing anything yet. It would be the following afternoon before anyone official showed up to tell us that our buildings were “red-stickered” and all further entry was forbidden.

After Keith’s revelations, I rode my damaged motorcycle up to ground-level to avoid the flooding and then climbed the emergency stairwell to my apartment to gather some essentials. The elevators and power were out.

The only thing that seemed to be working were the emergency alarms, which were ringing incessantly. I got my passport, computer, some critical papers, a change of clothes and a few bathroom items.

As I carried things downstairs, I was kidded by the party people: “Hey, it’s not that serious… Have a beer, mate!”

I’d tried calling my partner, Colette, on my mobile. I didn’t know what had happened to her during the quake. She worked at the central Christchurch courthouse, not far away, but the city’s mobile system was in meltdown due to overloading and infrastructure damage. But, finally, we managed to connect.

She told me she’d walked over to the complex after leaving the court and couldn’t find me, but someone had told her I was up collecting things from my apartment. Knowing I was okay, she’d walked home – nearly an hour away by foot. Her house was intact but at the courthouse, the damage was bad. Just across the road, she said, the entire front of the Provincial Chambers buildings had fallen into the street.

She invited me to store things in her garage and stay at her place until I knew what was happening with mine, so I headed over on my motorcycle.

That drive was surreal. The city was like an anthill that had been kicked. The streets were jammed, traffic lights were out, sirens and alarms were sounding everywhere. The people I saw were stunned, their faces blank like extras in a zombie movie. An ambulance was crawling along ahead of me and people were trying to get out of its way as best they could. I took the opportunity and followed in its wake.

At Colette’s house, her son Jono had just arrived to check on her. While the three of us were standing in her dining-room, another large aftershock hit. As we held onto the door frames and watched the house moving around us, the ceiling lamp above her dining-room table came down with a crash.

Colette said she’d drive her car to my apartment when I was ready and collect whatever I could pack up. At that point, I walked back to my place – planning to recover my damaged motorcycle on the next trip.

The walk back was almost as strange as my drive to Colette’s. Emergency medical helicopters were landing in Hagley Park. As I passed the hospital, I saw patients gathered outside in their gowns, some standing, others in wheelchairs and lying on gurneys. At the Canterbury Museum, the statue of William Rolleston had fallen from its plinth and smashed headfirst into the concrete pathway.

Back at the complex, I began packing more things and carrying them down to a spot under the eaves just outside the building. The building’s alarms were still screaming their warnings – as if we didn’t know there was a problem.

The city’s mobile system was now even worse than before and I couldn’t even text Colette. When she didn’t hear from me, she decided to drive over anyway but was stopped by roadblocks around the CBD. The police had closed off the area to anyone who couldn’t prove they lived there, so she had to park and walk the last 2km to my apartment.

I had most of what I thought we could get into her car ready at ground level, and I was getting worried because it was twilight and threatening rain.

When she arrived on foot, we rode my damaged motorcycle back to where she’d parked and then drove her car back to the complex and used my driver’s license to gain entry. The city was in still in chaos. Roads and bridges were being closed and reopened moment by moment as the situation was assessed, so every trip between any two points was likely to be routed differently. But we finally made it and got everything loaded into her car just as the rain began.

By this point, the party folk had drifted away to parts unknown and the buildings looked dark and forlorn as we pulled away. We stopped for my motorcycle and then continued onto her place where there was still power.


Coming up on Monday, “The day after the quake.” 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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