‘It was the most terrifying experience’

IRISH-BORN residents of Christchurch spoke last night of the horror they witnessed when the devastating earthquake struck New Zealand’s second largest city.

Journalist Keith Lynch described the intensity of the earthquake. “It was absolutely incredible,” he said. “You could feel everything vibrating around you and then it grew more intense and you got the feeling that the ground could go from under you.”

Keith, from Galway, had experienced earthquakes but never one like this. “It was the most terrifying experience of my life,” he told Pat Kenny or RTÉ radio. “Some streets were absolutely destroyed and then this liquid silt began to push up from the ground into a grey sludge. I was weaving in an out of huge holes in the ground and dodging cars along the way.”

Long-time residents of Christchurch had never seen anything like it, he said. “They had just about began to get over last September’s earthquake and were beginning to get on with their lives and rebuilding when this happened. In fact, some houses were in the middle of being assessed for safety by the local authorities after the other quake. This one, though, changes everything. People will be very slow to go back into the city centre again.”

Corkman Marc Gorman, from Douglas, witnessed the collapse of one of the city’s landmarks, Christchurch Anglican Cathedral in the centre of the city. “It was like everywhere was falling down around you.”

Unlike last year’s stronger tremor, which struck early in the morning when streets were virtually empty, people were walking or driving this time when the shallow tremor struck, sending awnings and the entire faces of buildings crashing down.

Another landmark, the Catholic Basilica of the Blessed Sacrament, was severely damaged. “The church had been out of action since last September’s earthquake,” said Chris Kinder, a New Zealander living in Ireland.

“One of the cathedral’s domes collapsed and the other was badly damaged,” said Chris who used to be a member of the cathedral choir and helps run the New Zealand-Ireland Association which last night opened a book of condolences for the victims.

Rodney Walsh, Ireland’s honorary consul to New Zealand, spoke of the unfolding drama in Christchurch and how it was affecting people throughout the whole country. “There is terrible trauma here,” he said. “It is less than six months since the last earthquake in Christchurch and the city was just getting back on its feet. The last quake happened at night and, although it was much stronger, it was not as close to the surface as this one and, therefore, far less damage was caused and there was no loss of life. This one, though, has devastated the centre of Christchurch and it affects all New Zealanders.”

One New Zealand-Irish family had a lucky escape when their home was struck. The family of Andrew Sewell, a friend of Chris Kinder, had their house severely damaged by the earthquake. Andrew’s daughter, Juliet, is a keen Irish dancer and is due to compete in the World Irish Dancing Championships in April.

Hopes of finding more survivors of the earthquake are beginning to fade as rescue staff sift through the rubble in Christchurch. Hundreds of foreign rescuers are joining exhausted New Zealand teams in an increasingly desperate search of quake-shattered buildings in the central part of the city.

Anyone with concerns regarding family or friends who may be in the Christchurch area can contact the department at 01-4180222 and can also register details on the department’s travel registration system, a link to which is available on the department’s home-page – www.dfa.ie

Authorities have set up an international helpline — 00 64 78502199.

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