No remains found in Christchurch Cathedral

Published March 7, 2011

No bodies were found buried in the rubble of Christchurch Cathedral. It had been reported that as many as 22 could have died there. Photo: Lloyd Ashton/Anglican Taonga

Searchers who entered the rubble of the city’s iconic Anglican cathedral March 5 (local time) expecting to recover the bodies of 20 to 22 victims of the Feb. 22 magnitude-6.3 earthquake, instead found none.

The Very Rev. Peter Beck, dean of Christchurch Cathedraltold Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report program that he burst into tears when he got a phone call at 1 a.m. from a search and rescue officer telling him no bodies had been found in the building’s demolished tower and spire.

"I thank God for this," he said in a report. "But I still hold in my heart the many, many people who have been killed.

Police Superintendent Sandra Manderson said during the same radio report that she was trying to find out where initial estimates came from that there could have been 22 people in the cathedral when the earthquake struck. Beck added that he does not know the origin of the widely reported figure of 22.

"There were anecdotal stories about people on the viewing platform," Beck said, but he personally was never convinced that there were as many as 22 people at risk.

"This is good news," he said, "but at the same time we are in deep mourning for others."

The audio from the radio program is due to be posted here.

The official death toll estimate stood at 165 before the news from the cathedral ruins and Manderson predicted that number would be revised downward after the cathedral search.

Beck had earlier told the New Zealand Herald that the search and rescue workers had made their way into the second story of the structure and retrieved three of the spire’s bells. Most of the people trapped inside were thought to be in the stairwell near the base of the tower when its roof fell.

"They are very sensitive to the fact that this is the cathedral but at the end of the day I have said to them we can rebuild, [but] we cannot rebuild these lives and we need to be as careful as we can with them," he said, adding that a priest would be standing by so that if a body was found work could temporarily cease for prayer.

The New Zealand Herald reported earlier on March 5 (local time) that New Zealand and U.S. crews the night before were on the verge of actually recovering the victims. In the 10 days since the quake, the teams had been working around the clock, the paper said, "forensically picking apart the rubble." They had also placed steel bracing on the cathedral’s facade and removed a wall to allow access to the cathedral.

A video report showing search and rescuer workers using a remote camera to search the cathedral ruins ishere

Dame Malvina Major, an internationally known opera singer who lives near the quake’s epicenter, stood in an empty street near the cathedral March 4 to sing "Pokarekare Ana," a Maori love song that is sometimes called the country’s unofficial national anthem.

"I’ve sung there many times," she said of the cathedral. "It’s quite surreal to see it fall apart like this. The city has lost its heart."

A local man who was in the tower at the time of the quake told TVNZ that a dozen other visitors were running with him as the quake struck but he never saw any emerge.

Stephen Burke told ONE News that while escaping, he filmed the collapsing cathedral on his cellphone before just "turning around and running."

Burke said by the time he got through the doors the building was collapsing behind him and he could feel the wind as the dust overtook him. It was the first time he’d been in the cathedral since childhood, according to the report.

"It’s a strange feeling being a survivor in the first place and knowing that maybe the people behind me didn’t make it. It’s not a very nice feeling," he said.

The television station reported that at least three visitors escaped the cathedral, including two Canadian tourists.

None of the cathedral’s staff or volunteers was killed. Sue Spigal, resident cathedral artist, was working in an isolated room in the cathedral making a cope for the Dean of Auckland when the quake hit, according to areport by 3News. A television image of her trapped in a cathedral window was reportedly broadcast all over the world.

"It was like a tornado going through the room" as the roof of her studio collapsed, she said. "I put my hand over my head, trying to protect my head."

The arched windows largely protected her as she sat on the window ledge while the roof collapsed and the floor fell away. A falling rock hit and broke her arm.

People outside began running to the cathedral and talking to her "while the walls were still shaking and the ground still quivering," she told the reporter. A policeman on a ladder later rescued her.

The video report, including footage of Spigal from the day of the quake, is here.

It may take "tens of millions" to rebuild the cathedral, according to an insurance company that covers most of the church buildings in the city. Anglican Taonga, the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia‘s news service, reported that officials of Ansvar Insurance said the overall cost of rebuilding the city’s church will run into the "hundreds of millions of dollars."

Twenty-two Diocese of Christchurch congregations have suffered moderate to major building damage, according to a summary here. The damage stems from a magnitude-7.0 quake on Sept. 3 and a magnitude-4.9 tembloron Dec. 26, as well as the Feb. 22 event and subsequent aftershocks.

On March 6, cathedral worshippers are due to gather at the Fendalton Open-Air School, where the cathedral choir will sing.

The cathedral congregation has been invited to worship in the chapel at Christ’s College, an Anglican boys’ school just down Gloucester Street. The cathedral staff will soon begin working out of the school’s boardroom.

The moves will happen sometime in the future because the school must remain closed until at least March 21. Power has not been restored to all of the school and it is located in the area of downtown Christchurch that is still cordoned off. Some of the school’s buildings have been damaged and at least one will have to be demolished, according to an update here.

As many as 70,000 people, a fifth of the city’s population, are thought to have left Christchurch since the quake, according to reports, and hundreds of residents in the hard-hit eastern suburbs are being moved into a "tented village," according to TVNZ. Ground east of Christchurch liquefied during the quake and New Zealand prime Minister John Key has said that some suburbs could remain empty for 10 years while land is remediated, according to TNNZ.

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.


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