Christchurch: where a strange silence lingers

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The Independent Online

Normally a thriving city of just over 375,000 people, the centre of Christchurch is now eerily quiet.

A strange silence has replaced the normal sounds of everyday life in the "red zone" - the area cordoned off by the authorities.

Shops and cafes are deserted, some still with the cups left by people as they fled the earthquake.

Shop windows are smashed and rubble still litters many of the streets, with many buildings half-collapsed, or still in a state of collapse.

The only sign of life in an otherwise "ghost town" are Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams and soldiers guarding the cordons to stop people from coming in.

The city's cathedral, which once boasted a 60m tower, is now one of the most memorable sites of devastation. A pile of rubble lies next to it, with bibles littered among the rocks.

A battered car still lies in the square, covered in rocks. It was crushed by the cathedral spire when it fell in the quake.

The Pyne Gould Corporation (PGC) building, where around 25-30 people are thought to have lost their lives, is now razed with signs warning people to stay away amid fears of asbestos poisoning.

Dying flowers lie nearby, marking the loss of life. One moving message paid tribute to Barry Craig-Marsh, described as a "wonderful, loving dad and grandad".

Another, from the UK International Search and Rescue team, shows the global support for the plight of people in Christchurch.

It reads: "To the people of Christchurch and New Zealand.

"Our thoughts are with you at this sad time. It has been our honour and privilege to be able to assist you in this time of disaster and suffering and we only hope that our efforts have helped you in some small way.

"You will be forever in our thoughts."

The six-storey Canterbury TV building, also in the centre of Christchurch, is no more - just a burnt out concrete shell.

Onlookers say the building was "pancaked" by the quake, leaving 100 people dead.

Looting is a big concern in the "red zone" - several looters caught just after the quake were arrested and can expect harsh sentences, police have said.

But the problem also comes from business owners keen to get back into their premises - many impatient that they cannot get back to their livelihoods.

Prince William was visibly shocked today as he saw much of the damage - including the Grand Chancellor Hotel, the tallest building in the city.

The building must be demolished because its foundations have slipped and the building is leaning precariously to the south-east, often dropping glass panels onto the streets below.

According to USAR engineer Des Bull, this will be the fate of seven to 10 tall buildings in the city, which will have to be taken down in a process that could take up to 12 months.

Hundreds of homes remain without running or water and sewage in the wake of the quake on February 22, and organisers say it may take years to rebuild the city.

Work is under way, and the red zone has already been made smaller since the earthquake first hit.

But rebuilding the city could take years, and it is likely to be some time before the ghost town gets back to normal.