Thursday, February 24, 2011

Two degrees

The names of the dead are beginning to trickle out now. Amongst the first are presenters who worked in the Canterbury TV building that's little more now than a smoking pile of rubble, and where the search for survivors was abandoned yesterday. Many Cantabrians will think they know those TV people, because they've seen them on their screens so often; but the sad fact is that it's unlikely that there will be anybody who has no real connection with at least one of the deceased.

New Zealand is such a small country, 4-point something million, and though Christchurch is our second city, the population is only around 330,000, so here we have pretty much just two degrees of separation between any individuals. None of my family live in ChCh any more and I haven't lived there for 30 years, so I've lost touch with most of my old (first) friends - but I remember their names, they're still part of my personal history, and even if I don't see them in a list, I know that they won't be so lucky. I'm still waiting to hear who died at The Press.

Along with the names are the details of how they died, and the shocking thing is how banal it was. Sitting on a bus in Colombo Street, having a sandwich at their desk, standing waiting for the lift to arrive. We're used to reading about people dying in car crashes on equally mundane errands, but not this. It's so easy to imagine because it's so very, very ordinary: ten to one, waiting to go to lunch, swivelling on your chair with the wonky castor, chatting to a colleague and thinking it's time she got her roots done - and then wham! Everything jerks, the ceiling caves in and you're on the floor with the sharp corner of the filing cabinet gouging a hole in your thigh, choking in the dust, all the alarms are wailing, things are still thumping down on top of your desk but you can't hear any voices, just the crackle of electricity - and then you smell smoke.

It's the 9/11 scenario all over again, but this time it's not terrorism, which gives at least some sort of intelligibility - it's just random nature, balancing out the lakes and mountains, trees and flowers, sunsets and rainbows. We think we own this planet, but we're as vulnerable as the insects we tread on every day without even noticing. Earthquakes, landslides, floods, cyclones, bushfires, eruptions, tsunamis... They're in the news so often, you'd think we'd be more aware.

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