Remembering Christchurch

On May 25, The Press newspaper celebrated two years since it had moved into the new Press Building in Christchurch's CBD – 458 days after an earthquake devastated the city, killing more than 180 people. During that time, The Press did not miss an edition. Staff members share their stories with Will Mumford.

Remembering Christchurch

Around lunch time on February 22, 2011, Phil Marshall-Lee walked into a cafe in central Christchurch’s Cathedral Junction to get a coffee and make some notes after a business meeting.

Not long after he ordered, the ground beneath his feet was shaking, the machine brewing his coffee had careered itself across the room and smashed into a dining table and Phil had lost his footing and begun to fall. As this happened the front door of the cafe shook itself from its hinges, tipped towards Phil and shattered over his body.

Around him in the cafe, customers and staff were diving under tables, screaming and trying to adjust their centre of balance to the shifting floor. Within that initial 60 seconds, Phil knew that this was “a big one, bigger than anything we’d had”.

He picked himself up, grazes on his arm and shoulder, and dashed out of the cafe into a plume of smoke and dust, looking for his staff, many of whom were attempting to find their way out of the Press Building, the office of Christchurch’s major newspaper and Phil’s employer The Press, as New Zealand’s second deadliest earthquake began to devastate the city.

As he came out of the cafe “pieces of the [Press] building were just sort of falling apart”.

“I remember I literally couldn’t breathe…there was so much debris and smoke and dust,” he said. “There were people running and screaming and there were people curled up on the ground, sort of waiting for something to happen I guess, or to be rescued.”

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The Press newsroom just moments after the earthquake struck at 12.51pm, February 22, 2011. Photo: Fairfax Media.

At the time, Mr Marshall-Lee was Fairfax New Zealand’s South Island business manager, and on that day in February 2011 he was busy attending meetings and organising The Press’s move from the heritage listed Press Building, which had housed the newspaper since 1909, to a new offices being built in Cathedral Square adjacent to the old building. It was days away from completion when the earthquake hit.

Christchurch had suffered earthquakes of varying seriousness over the prior months, and experienced a major 7.1 magnitude earthquake around six months earlier. But February 22 was different. When the earthquake hit and the Press Building began to shake, Kamala Hayman, The Press’s chief reporter, sent what turned out to be a prescient text message to a friend. It read: “this time there will be death”.

Andrew Holden, who was editor of The Press at the time, said that after initially considering looking for another building from which to operate – a near impossibility – senior editors and managers began rounding up the newspaper’s staff and moving them to an open air car park not far from the square.

There, Mr Marshall-Lee and other senior managers and editors did a head count on the members of staff that had made it there; the marketing team, the editorial people, the finance people, the advertising department. Mr Marshall- Lee kept the notebook from that day that he used to roll call staff. It is covered in bloodstains.

Once the initial tally had been done, he noticed that a significant portion of people from the third floor of the building where he worked, the top floor, were unaccounted for. About 40 minutes after the initial quake, and after walking back to the Press Building with several colleagues and standing outside to wait for anyone else to exit the crumbling premises, a heavy aftershock hit and Mr Marshall- Lee watched “parts of the top floor just implode through the building and come down through the staircase”.

“My heart just sank because I thought literally whoever was left in that building would be dead,” he said.

In the end one staff member from that top floor, accounts clerk Adrienne Lindsay, was killed in the earthquake and the Press Building’s collapse.

Stacey Reeves, from the credit department, had both of her legs amputated after being trapped under the collapsed roof for eight hours.

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The new Press building in Cathedral Square, Christchurch. Photo: Fairfax Media.

Another staff member who was heavily pregnant suffered severe injuries and had to be taken to an intensive care unit to give birth by emergency caesarean section.

Despite the chaos and confusion, there was never an assumption that a copy of The Press would not be on people’s doorsteps on February 23, according to Mr Holden.

“Our initial movements over about a two hour period after the quake were really just to send teams of reporters and photographers off to different parts of the city,” he said.

After sending home various staff members that needed to find family members or were not required for the production of the next day’s newspaper, reporters and editors from The Press formed an ad-hoc meeting point at a small park on the edge of the CBD.

Deputy editor Coen Lammers stayed with the team and managed the makeshift newsroom, while website editor Colin Espiner, who had a laptop with him, filed copy that reporters were texting and emailing to him to the Stuff.co.nz newsroom in Wellington, the paper’s website.

Kamala Hayman said staff knew from experience in previous earthquakes they would not be able to file or do the production for online. Stuff.co.nz would have to take it over for them.

“It was really important that the information and the photos, as much as we knew and could publish, were put out to the city. Reporters do what reporters do – everyone was filing on just everything they could see, taking photos on their phones, filing from 3G on any kind of device they had.”

The logistics of getting those stories to print was perhaps the most difficult element in producing the paper.

Fortunately for The Press their printing press, previously housed in the old Press Building in Cathedral Square, had since 2009 been located on a block of land out near Christchurch’s main airport in Harewood, 11 kilometres north-west of the city centre. It was in an area largely unaffected by the earthquake, which was centred between the CBD and Lyttelton, a town to city’s south-east. Andrew Holden estimates that had the printing press still been in the old Press Building, the newspaper may have been shut down for weeks, possibly months.

All connections to the computer systems in The Press were permanently lost after the earthquake and servers supporting the phone system, locally stored production data and ad makeup and page output systems became inaccessible. However, the Harewood site had access through the company’s WAN connection to the rest of the country and could get other Fairfax newspapers from around New Zealand to help them with the various production tasks.

According to Ms Hayman, the paper would not have got out if it wasn’t for two groups of people. “One of them was IT and the amazing work they did through the night to patch up the damage to the system,” she said. “The other one was the delivery drivers. How incredible that they got the paper delivered? The streets were so broken, there was liquefaction everywhere, there were cracks and crevices and craters.”

Within 24 hours The Press had moved to the Harewood printing press site and begun setting up a fully operational newsroom, where they would be based for the next 15 months and come to know affectionately as Portacom City – a reference to the portacoms that were set up as offices for staff moved from the Press Building.

An employee walks through Portacom village. Photo: Fairfax Media

An employee walks through Portacom village. Photo: Fairfax Media.

By the first day somewhere between 60 and 80 production critical staff were stationed there, and that grew over time.

Initially they were crammed into accommodation above the printing press site; three small offices, a corridor about 25 paces long, a meeting room and a canteen that held around 30 people according to Mr Holden. Before the portacoms were installed several weeks after the move, there were around 100 to 150 people working from the office space above the printing press.

Around 26 portacoms were installed in the area surrounding the printing press building, assigned to various departments of the business based on their size or requirements. Equipping the portacoms with IT and general office gear was the next mammoth task.

In a special edition of The Press published for staff after the earthquakes, Fairfax New Zealand group operations manager Nigel Bailey wrote that “not a single piece of IT equipment could be removed from the [Press] building to be used in temporary offices”.

To set up a functioning newsroom in Portacom City, the company had to purchase 280 PCs, 90 laptops, 290 monitors, 130 keyboard/ mouse bundles, 90 telephones, 52 datacards, 30 mobile phones, 14 networks switches and 8 printers.

Although many of the newspaper’s staff were experiencing trauma or misfortune, whether injured loved ones, damaged houses or simply readjustment to a fundamentally changed city, Portacom City served as a second home. As large portions of Christchurch didn’t have power or even water for weeks after the earthquake, the printing plant was where many employees had their morning shower, where they washed and dried their clothes. Coffee vans came by as there were no shops nearby. Food was brought in and boxes of free fruit sat around the premises.

Staff put together a social committee called the Smile Factory to organise barbeques, trivia, live music and basketball games. They had a Christmas decorating competition, where teams from each portacom decorated the exterior of their office. It got so cold by the winter that, according to Ms Hayman, Andrew Holden pledged to “give fifty bucks to the first person whose bum froze to the toilet seat”.

“The benefit of that very small area was it pushed everybody closer together and by doing that you end up with a really strong sense of camaraderie, you’ve got huge support around you,” said Mr Holden.

“Everybody was going through trauma and difficulty and so because of that, if somebody slammed down the phone and swore and stormed off, nobody thought that that was an unusual or an unreasonable thing to do. You give people their space and when they come back you give them a touch on the shoulder and let them get on with it.”

Kirk Martin, the manager of the printing press in Harewood, said that in retrospect the 15 month period where the full newspaper was based out of the printing press site was “phenomenal” and that it built relationships between members of staff that had never previously communicated.

“I think in hindsight, people fondly recall the times when we were all together in the portacoms and working with one common identity and understanding what the others were up to,” he said.

However, Ms Hayman noted that tempers were often short and that the size and build of the portacom offices resulted in staff bumping elbows, sweating in the heat and freezing in the cold. “There were a lot of people, myself included, who became just sort of exhausted by it.”

All staff members I spoke to emphasised that they felt an obligation to the Christchurch community to keep printing a newspaper and to keep informing the public about what was happening – to provide a sense of normality and routine in a chaotic and tragic situation, and one that affected them too. The Press did not miss a single publication around the time of the earthquake and hasn’t since.

For our piece on the Harewood print site, click here.

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