MY HEART froze as I watched the footage of Christchurch following an earthquake on February 22 last year.
With my brother, Gerry and sister, Maggie, living not far from the city centre, like many others I feared for their safety.
Luckily they were spared, as were my nephew and niece and their townhouse in Sydenham remained intact.
After the initial shock, like many other Australians, I forgot about the event that literally shook the beautiful city of churches to its foundations simply because it was "old news" and time had passed.
Yet the city was, and still is, experiencing aftershocks. After all, why should I care? My family was okay.
I lived there for a while and used to ride my bike into Cathedral Square every morning for a coffee and a look at the buskers. I wondered how many buildings had gone.
One year later I booked a flight for Christchurch and naively pictured visits to The Bog, an Irish pub I frequented, and the numerous restaurants and quirky entertainment venues I'd discovered. I was in for a shock and a few aftershocks to boot.
Armed with a video camera and my old faithful Nikon D60, I took the Papanui Rd through Merrivale leading into the city.
I nearly fell off my bike when I saw the spire of the Chinese Methodist Church sitting on the ground.
A little further on I found St Mary's Anglican Church looking like some ancient ruin or a bomb-blasted relic from the First World War blitz on London.
Still stunned by the site, I noticed some children in hard hats carrying boxes out from a side building.
Young Thomas O'Neill wheeled a large golden cross out in a wheelbarrow, followed by the vicar, Brenda Bonnett, and his friend, Henrietta Ullrich.
"This is the first chance we've had to collect our stuff," the Vicar said.
"The church has been deemed unsafe and is to be demolished. It's very sad."
The church was built in 1926.
"With every aftershock the people's confidence takes another blow," Rev Bonnett said.
"It's starting to wear them down."
The Knox Church further along was an empty shell and as I rode further into the guts of the city I started to feel sick.
The neo Gothic arts centre and former university had serious damage with collapsed chimneys, damage to the great hall, the observatory and the clock tower.
Everywhere I rode, there was wire fencing with danger signs attached, with skeletons of buildings, walls gone and the bare fabric of their infrastructure hanging raw above piles of rubble.
And this a year after the 6.3-magnitude quake that claimed 185 lives.
I saw abandoned homes with doors hanging in midair and "condemned" notices warning people to "keep out".
Gravel-laden expanses where churches used to be now blossom with red poppies and yellow daisies, and steps lead to nowhere, where buildings once had been.
As I reached a "city centre" sign a wire fence barred passage to the few high-rise buildings left standing.
The fence was decorated with wreaths, flowers and pictures of the dead.
Dutch visitor Jean Sumner shook her head at the sight.
"It's just too sad," she said.
"I had no idea it was so bad. This is a ghost town."
It was like a scene from one of those end-of-the-world movies. No sound but the wind howling through hollow buildings and the ominous clanking of chains on flag poles in an empty car lot.
I have to admit that by this stage my emotions got the better of me. Tears flowed.
But out of every tragedy there comes hope. Where the magnificent St Paul's Trinity Pacific Church had stood, there was a massive vacant block. But on the fences were messages of hope.
"Christchurch lives", "love", "faith" and "hope" in huge letters reflected the resilience of its congregation.
At the other end of Cashel St, a new culture has sprung up. Brightly coloured shipping containers form a new hub to momentarily replace Christchurch's Cathedral Square.
Like some futuristic scene from a Bruce Willis movie, the containers are "shockproof" and reflect optimism, regrowth and the promise of a future.
The Bog has gone. But Irish dancers and buskers fill the new Cashel St mall with life, noise and colour.
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