A Clonmel couple visiting their daughter in Christchurch in New Zealand were caught up in the horror of the massive earthquake on Monday that left the city resembling a warzone, killing at least 65 people and leaving hundreds trapped in damaged buildings.
Maureen Purcell from Davis Tc., Clonmel was just a short distance from the city’s famous Christchurch Cathedral when the quake struck causing its spire to collapse onto the busy square below. But for a last minute change of mind to visit a visitors information centre, she would have been right in the path of the cathedral’s falling rubble.
Her husband Pierce was with his daughter Rachel at her home just eight minutes walk from the city centre when the quake erupted but they both managed to escape from the house uninjured.
The home where Rachel, who is a research scientist, lives with her teacher husband Tony O’Connor and two daughters Grace, aged 3, and Lucy, aged 17 months, was destroyed.
The O’Connor family along with Pierce and Maureen have now evacuated from the devastated city and are staying at the home of friends about 100km inland from Christchurch.
The earthquake measured 6.3 on the Richter Scale and struck shortly before midnight Irish time on Monday. It has been described as New Zealand’s worst natural disaster for 80 years and was the second serious quake to hit the city in five months.
Speaking to The Nationalist from New Zealand, Pierce said they were all very lucky to be alive and to have a place to stay. “Relatively speaking we are not too bad because thousands of people in Christchurch are homeless and have nowhere to go,” he said.
The retired High School teacher was preparing to go for a run and Rachel was about to collect her daughters from creche at 12.51pm New Zealand time on Monday when the whole building started shaking and plaster began falling from the walls and ceiling. The shock from the quake lasted about 30 seconds, he estimated. They got out of the house as quickly as they could and went to the large secondary school where Rachel’s husband works that is next to their house.
“All the pupils were evacuated into a big school yard and that is where we went. I hadn’t the faintest notion where Maureen was and mobile phones weren’t working. The whole place was chaotic. There were these after shocks and bits falling off the building.”
Maureen, a prominent member of South Tipperary Art Group, had just walked into a visitors centre in the square just yards from where Christchurch Cathedral when the earthquake happened.
“I was thrown to the ground along with the 40 to 50 other people there. The huge stands the pamphlets were on keeled over.
One chap got caught under a stand. We heard screams to get out. When I got outside it was like a sun storm. The spire of the old cathedral had come down and all you could see was dust.
“There was a lot of people in the cathedral at the time because there was a flower festival on. I had been there the day before with the kids.
“There were people up in the spire and they were all killed. There were hundreds in the square at the time as people were out having their lunch.
“The after shock about five minutes later was like a mini-earthquake again and another piece of the church came down and five other buildings that were weakened from the last earthquake started to collapse. That was very frightening because you couldn’t get out of the square.
Leaving her camera at her daughter’s house that morning may have saved her life. She said she was walking towards a shop to get photos printed when she discovered she hadn’t her camera with her and went instead to the visitors centre.
“I would have gone straight across in front of where the spire came down. Instead, I veered to my right to the visitors centre,” she told The Nationalist.
She eventually managed to get out of the square on foot and walked back to Rachel’s house only to discover it was reduced to rubble. After a few anxious moments, she went across to the secondary school where Pierce had gone.
Fortunately the creche where Rachel’s two daughters were when the quake struck only sustained very minor damage. After they collected the children, they returned to the house and salvaged what they could before evacuating from the city.
Pierce said he and Maureen will be cutting short their month long holiday and returning home as soon as they can get tickets organised. They were in the second week of their trip when the disaster struck.
This is actually the second earthquake Pierce has been caught up in. The first occurred while he was on a High School tour on the border between Germany and Holland many years ago.