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Christchurch quake

Nick Bryant | 06:33 UK time, Tuesday, 1 March 2011

At 12.51pm New Zealand time, I dare say the thoughts of many in this region would have turned to the victims of the Christchurch earthquake. A two-minute silence was observed not only in New Zealand's second city itself, but across the country, from Invercargill to Auckland.

On the lawns outside parliament in the capital, Wellington, lawmakers remembered the dead. In a symbol of trans-Tasman unity, the parliamentary day in Canberra also came to a halt. Rarely has The Ditch that separates New Zealand and Australia, as the Tasman Sea is popularly known, seemed narrower.

The New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key, wore a sombre dark suit, while the Mayor of Christchurch, Bob Parker, was easy to spot in his trademark orange anorak. Both face extraordinary challenges in the coming months and years as they lead the effort to rebuild this broken city. The country's Earthquake Minister has estimated that a quarter of the buildings in the Central Business District face demolition, and that it will be off-limits for months to come.

Certainly, I have never witnessed such destruction in a first-world city. Nor so much bereavement. Had the pictures been in black and white, we could have been looking at something from the Blitz.

Cathedrals with toppled steeples and wrecked facades. Parish churches with no roofs. Office blocks, like the CTV building, that were completely unrecognisable. Cars that had been almost completely flattened under the weight of falling bricks and concrete. The heart of New Zealand's famed Garden City is now strangely colourless. A grey clutter.

The sight of the half-destroyed Anglican cathedral in the geographic centre of the city was particularly affecting. A party of tourists had scaled its tower to see the view from its observation platform when the earthquake struck. They would not only have been showered by tumbling masonry but the cathedral's one-tonne bells. Horrific.

In front of the cathedral stands the empty plinth once occupied by a statue of the founder of Christchurch, John Robert Godley. It now lies face down by its side. Mayor Parker says it will be one of the first things to be restored.

This has been a summer of disasters for the people of this part of the world, and in Christchurch we saw the same human qualities that were in evidence in Queensland during the floods and the cyclone: extraordinary physical bravery, compassion, resilience, an uncomplaining self-sufficiency and the selflessness of survivors.

In Lyttelton, the small port above the epicentre of the earthquake, the war memorial was damaged. But as this southern summer has demonstrated on both sides of the Tasman, the ANZAC spirit that it enshrines is still very much intact.

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