New Zealand paused for two minutes’ silence yesterday to mark the first anniversary of the devastating Christchurch earthquake, which left 185 people dead.
At 12:51pm, the moment the magnitude 6.3 earthquake hit New Zealand’s second-largest city, flattening office blocks and toppling buildings onto lunchtime crowds, the nation fell quiet to honor the dead.
About 60,000 people gathered for a solemn memorial at Christchurch’s Hagley Park, where families of the victims locked arms and bowed their heads.
Some wept while others closed their eyes in prayer, with only the sound of a crying baby breaking the silence before 185 butterflies were released in a gesture organizers said symbolized departed souls and rebirth.
Ahead of the public memorial, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key told a separate service for victims’ families held near the shattered city center that the earthquake was “one of our darkest days.”
Key said the earthquake “wreaked havoc on an unimaginable scale,” changing Christchurch forever.
“It twisted buildings, tore up roads, destroyed homes and shook us to the core,” he told the multi-faith service. “Worst of all it stole 185 loved ones from us and injured so many more.”
Key recalled visiting Christchurch’s Latimer Square in the hours after the quake, as fires raged in collapsed buildings, choking dust filled the air, sirens blared and aftershocks continued to rattle the city.
“It was New Zealand, but not a New Zealand I’ve ever seen before ... the earthquake took everyday life in Canterbury and tossed it on its head, but it could not break the spirit you are famous for,” he said.
Key also acknowledged frustration among Christchurch residents at delays to a NZ$30 billion (US$25 billion) rebuilding program amid ongoing aftershocks, including major tremors in June and December which caused further damage.
“We have a long journey ahead of us,” he said, reiterating the government’s determination to rebuild the South Island city.
Underlining his words, a 2.9 magnitude aftershock, minor by Christchurch standards, struck about 10km off the coast near Christchurch about 20 minutes after the ceremony concluded.
Key also paid tribute to emergency workers from New Zealand and overseas for their efforts in responding to the disaster.
“Feb, 22 will forever be one of the darkest days in this proud nation’s history,” he said. “It will also be a day when, at the worst of all times, the best of the human spirit was on display. That spirit is something no earthquake can take away.”
At the Hagley Park service, Governor-General Jerry Mateparae read a message of condolence from British Prince Charles and a video address was played from US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who visited the city just before the quake.
“Even those of us who were far away on that terrible day share your grief and we know it’s been a struggle,” she said.
In Japan, a memorial service attended by about 150 people in black mourning attire was held at Toyama College of Foreign Languages, which lost 12 students in the quake.