The book heist in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake

by Dennis Gallagher / 09 September, 2017
Illustration by Daron Parton

When Dennis Gallagher’s Christchurch apartment building was red-stickered the day after the 2011 earthquake, he had to accept he’d never see his beloved book collection again. Or did he? This is his story of what a man will do for the love of books.

The Quake

On the corner of Park Terrace and Salisbury St in our beautiful but still damaged city of Christchurch, there’s a large gravel-covered lot relieved only by a few piles of dirt.

This lot is surrounded by a chain-link fence and, on the Park Terrace side, there’s a For Sale sign that’s had “Sold” plastered over it for months. Land-banking, maybe: the practice of buying property at a good price, then sitting on it to see which way the economic winds blow before you decide to develop or sell. Significant parts of our sweet city are still caught up in such limbo.

Six years ago, the Terrace on the Park apartment complex occupied this corner. Five elegant, modern buildings, built in 2000, they ranged up to 10 storeys.  There was a tennis court, a weight room and extensive underground parking. The complex had excellent security and was considered a good address in Christchurch. The 165ha Hagley Park lies just across the street and many of the 100-plus units had unobstructed views across the city and the park. My unit was on the fifth level of the B building and faced west towards the park.

It was urban living at its best – until February 22, 2011, when the massive Canterbury earthquake struck, sharp and shallow, directly under the city.

But this story isn’t about the earthquake, as devastating as it was. Nor is it about the complex, as nice as it was. It is a story about books, of all things: the love of books and what people will do for them.

On that February 22, just before 1pm, I was riding my motorcycle along Riccarton Ave when I became convinced both my tyres had suffered simultaneous blow-outs. It was all I could do to pull over to the side of the road and stop without losing control. It became clear to me after a moment that something else was happening. Cars were stopping around me and I could see people hurrying out of buildings and onto the sidewalks. After watching for a few moments, I rode on. None of the buildings near me had shown obvious signs of damage so I didn’t think it was a major event – at least not until I passed Hagley Park and saw the piles of liquefaction that had erupted there like sand fountains in the grassy spaces.

Back at my complex, I found everyone standing outside. Some of them had beers in their hands and smiles on their faces. It had been an amazing shake and that was, apparently, sufficient grounds for an impromptu party. A few came over to talk to me expressing confidence that we’d get the all-clear to go back in after an hour or two… and did I want a beer?

My friend Keith, the building manager, came by and told me he thought things were a bit more serious than many of the residents believed. Did I want to take a look?

First, he took me into the underground parking area, where I was stunned to see torrents of water gushing up around the vertical pillars that supported everything above us. The concrete floor was already 10cm deep in water and it was rising steadily. I could see my second motorcycle had been thrown onto its side by the force of the quake and its handlebars were badly bent.

On the ground level of the complex’s A building, Keith showed me one of the vertical walls that supported the six storeys of apartments above. Of the wall itself, there was nothing left but exposed and badly warped steel reinforcing bars. All the concrete that had enclosed the rebar had been shattered away by the force of the building’s movements during the quake. Keith said he didn’t think we’d be going back into our apartments anytime soon.

But less than an hour had passed since the quake and no one in authority was assessing anything yet. It would be the following afternoon before anyone official showed up to tell us that our buildings were “red-stickered” and all further entry was forbidden.

After Keith’s revelations, I rode my damaged motorcycle up to ground-level to avoid the flooding and then climbed the emergency stairwell to my apartment to gather some essentials. The elevators and power were out. The only thing that seemed to be working were the emergency alarms, which were ringing incessantly. I got my passport, computer, some critical papers, a change of clothes and a few bathroom items.

As I carried things downstairs, I was kidded by the party people: “Hey, it’s not that serious… Have a beer, mate!”

I’d tried calling my partner, Colette, on my mobile. I didn’t know what had happened to her during the quake. She worked at the central Christchurch courthouse, not far away, but the city’s mobile system was in meltdown due to overloading and infrastructure damage. But, finally, we managed to connect.

She told me she’d walked over to the complex after leaving the court and couldn’t find me, but someone had told her I was up collecting things from my apartment. Knowing I was okay, she’d walked home – nearly an hour away by foot. Her house was intact but at the courthouse, the damage was bad. Just across the road, she said, the entire front of the Provincial Chambers buildings had fallen into the street.

She invited me to store things in her garage and stay at her place until I knew what was happening with mine, so I headed over on my motorcycle.

That drive was surreal. The city was like an anthill that had been kicked. The streets were jammed, traffic lights were out, sirens and alarms were sounding everywhere. The people I saw were stunned, their faces blank like extras in a zombie movie. An ambulance was crawling along ahead of me and people were trying to get out of its way as best they could. I took the opportunity and followed in its wake.

At Colette’s house, her son Jono had just arrived to check on her. While the three of us were standing in her dining-room, another large aftershock hit. As we held onto the door frames and watched the house moving around us, the ceiling lamp above her dining-room table came down with a crash.

Colette said she’d drive her car to my apartment when I was ready and collect whatever I could pack up. At that point, I walked back to my place – planning to recover my damaged motorcycle on the next trip.

The walk back was almost as strange as my drive to Colette’s. Emergency medical helicopters were landing in Hagley Park. As I passed the hospital, I saw patients gathered outside in their gowns, some standing, others in wheelchairs and lying on gurneys. At the Canterbury Museum, the statue of William Rolleston had fallen from its plinth and smashed headfirst into the concrete pathway.

Back at the complex, I began packing more things and carrying them down to a spot under the eaves just outside the building. The building’s alarms were still screaming their warnings – as if we didn’t know there was a problem.

The city’s mobile system was now even worse than before and I couldn’t even text Colette. When she didn’t hear from me, she decided to drive over anyway but was stopped by roadblocks around the CBD. The police had closed off the area to anyone who couldn’t prove they lived there, so she had to park and walk the last 2km to my apartment.

I had most of what I thought we could get into her car ready at ground level, and I was getting worried because it was twilight and threatening rain.

When she arrived on foot, we rode my damaged motorcycle back to where she’d parked and then drove her car back to the complex and used my driver’s licence to gain entry. The city was in still in chaos. Roads and bridges were being closed and reopened moment by moment as the situation was assessed, so every trip between any two points was likely to be routed differently. But we finally made it and got everything loaded into her car just as the rain began.

By this point, the party folk had drifted away to parts unknown and the buildings looked dark and forlorn as we pulled away. We stopped for my motorcycle and then continued onto her place where there was still power.

The day after the quake, we drove back to pack up more things. The place was a mess. My two large bookcases had been thrown over and the kitchen cabinets had spewed their contents of glasses, plates and pans across the kitchen floor.

Time was pressing us and at one point I found myself rolling up rugs with clothes in them and throwing them out five floors to the grass below where Colette loaded them into her car. It was evident by now that no one would be living in these buildings any time soon. All around us, other residents were gathering their things. In mid-afternoon, the police came and said that within an hour, red stickers would be affixed to the entrances and after that it would be illegal to enter.

But, you might be wondering, what about the books?

We’d worked fast but among the things we’d been unable to get out before we were banned were my books. This grieved me because I really love my books; many of them are lifetime friends. I write and underline in them. I write the names of my friends I’ve lent them to and many of them have followed me around the world. 

I was especially worried because I knew when buildings are severely damaged, they can be deemed to be so unsafe they are taken down “with prejudice”. That means no one will ever re-enter them and the entire building, with everything in it, is demolished. Having seen some of the structural damage, I thought it was quite possible I’d never gain access to my apartment again.

The City

On those first two “quake” days, we were so busy clearing my apartment, we hadn’t seen the worst of the damage to the city. We had no idea so many people had died. The news reports then were patchy, at best, as the authorities tried to assess the damage and casualties. 

On the third and fourth days, with the complex now off-limits, we took my motorcycle around the city to see what had happened and to check on friends. The damage was stunning.

We rode down Ferry Rd, through Woolston and into Sumner. The streets reminded me of some of the worst roads I’d driven on in Mexico and India. There were piles of debris, broken pavement and great heaps of liquefaction sand everywhere. The traffic crawled as it wove through wherever it could. We visited our friend, Steve, who lived in Sumner, and he told us about helping to pull people out of buildings that had been crushed by falling cliff faces.

On another ride, we took River Rd, which follows the Avon River on the eastern side of Christchurch. Many of those suburbs would eventually be declared permanent red zones, never to be built upon again. Today, there’s just block after empty block out there; only a few surviving trees remain. But on the day we rode through, the destruction was fresh and the streets and houses looked like an active war zone. We saw a walking bridge across the Avon that was twisted like a child’s toy.

But onto the story of how I recovered my books by subterfuge – in the dark of the night – in that disastrous week of February 2011.

The Problem

In the days immediately after the quake, the military had come to help the local authorities cordon off the CBD, which had been declared a “no-go” red zone. The authorities were keen to limit looting and keep people safe. Military and police checkpoints had been set up around the CBD. Colette and I had talked about how, in the midst of all of this, I might retrieve my books. But we were having trouble coming up with a good plan.

My apartment complex lay just inside the cordoned-off CBD area. It also was just to the east of Hagley Park. And between the complex and the park lay the Avon River and Park Terrace.

The river was set as the edge of the cordon because there were only a couple of bridges that crossed it and these were manned by military checkpoints. There were also frequent military vehicle patrols along Park Terrace. Faced with this, it looked like desperate measures would be called for if I was ever going to see my books again.

The Heist

A little after midnight, five days after the earthquake, I found myself lying on the grass in Hagley Park, looking across the river at my apartment complex. About 90m to my left was a pedestrian bridge over the Avon, guarded by three soldiers. Immediately in front of me, perhaps 100m away and across the river, was Park Terrace. It was brightly illuminated but deserted, except for sporadic military patrols.

I’d been lying in the dark and watching for more than two hours. The black clothes I wore rendered me largely invisible and I had a black gym bag that held 15 cloth grocery bags and a spare pair of tennis shoes.

Getting into this position had been a slow and cautious process. I’d arrived on the Deans Ave side of the park just after 10pm, parked my motorcycle and then walked unseen into the darkness of the park. All the park’s lights were off due to earthquake damage. After I’d entered, I moved south, parallel to the Avon and Park Terrace. As I got close to the manned bridge, I made sure I was obscured by a small maintenance building between me and the soldiers. Eventually, I was close enough to hear them talking. I listened awhile to get some sense of how alert they were. They were just chatting and seemed pretty relaxed. Then I moved back the way I’d come, keeping the building between us until I was far enough away to move south again without being seen. Finally, I came to my riverside hideout, nestled among quake-felled tree trunks and branches.

My two-hour vigil had told me there were no patrols on my side of the river. As I lay there quietly watching, my cellphone began vibrating. I’d turned off its sound, but even its vibrations seemed enormously loud to me as I hid. I answered and it was Colette calling to see if I’d made my way into the complex yet.  “Soon,” I said. With nothing more to be learned from watching, I gathered my bag and prepared to cross the river.

The Avon is about eight metres wide and not more than 30cm or so deep at this point. I rolled up my pant legs, slung my bag over my shoulder and walked along the river’s edge in the darkness until I found a point to cross where I’d be hidden by trees from the soldiers on the bridge.

Crossing was easy and I settled into the reeds on the other side where I couldn’t be spotted from the road or bridge. Now, I was just across from the George Hotel’s entrance. I tied my wet shoes to the outside of my bag and put on my dry pair.

Now came the most dangerous and unpredictable part of the adventure: crossing over brightly lit Park Terrace without being seen. During the crossing I’d be clearly visible to anyone on the bridge who happened to glance my way. If they raised the alarm, I’d have to run through the George’s parking lot, across Peterborough St and then into the complex before anyone could pursue me. I was certain I could make it inside, but being seen would make my mission a lot more difficult because the authorities would now be looking for me.

After waiting by the river for a few more minutes, watching for patrols, I decided it was now or never. Praying not to attract attention, I simply walked across the road carrying my bag as if I had every right in the world to be there. It seemed a long crossing but I forced myself to walk at a relaxed pace. Finally, I was into the George Hotel’s parking lot, where a hedge shielded me from the bridge. I breathed a sigh of relief.

 From the George’s parking lot, I crossed Peterborough, where the street’s angle kept me out of view of the bridge, and entered the complex. I walked to Building B’s stairwell and climbed to my apartment on the fifth floor. A bit of light from Park Terrace helped me see where I was going in the dark stairwell.

Under the rug in the hallway outside my apartment door, the floor was uneven and broken because an adjacent vertical pillar had been rammed upwards by the earthquake with such force that the concrete floor had shattered around it. The smell of concrete dust was everywhere.

Inside my apartment, I walked over to the glass doors that faced the bridge and I slowly slid my drapes closed so the motion wouldn’t attract the eyes of the soldiers below. Then, using a small flashlight, I began going through my books that lay scattered everywhere. It took me about two hours to collect the ones I wanted and load them into 12 cloth grocery bags.

As I was sorting through the books, there was a strong aftershock; just as there’d been every day since the big one. I waited it out, keenly aware as everything rumbled and shook around me that I was in a badly damaged building.

Done packing, I carried the bags downstairs in six trips, leaving them in the bottom level of the stairwell. After that, I went back for a last look around. I knew I might never see my apartment again.  My legs were aching by now from all the stairs.

I saw one more thing I wanted. It was the outside sensor of an indoor-outdoor thermometer. I’d already saved the inside unit, but the outside sensor was still on the balcony railing. It would be tricky to get it.

First, I opened the drapes a bit and then, very slowly, I opened one of the folding glass doors. I crawled out onto the deck on my stomach, staying well below anyone’s line of sight from the bridge, then detached the sensor from the railing and reversed until I was safely back inside and the door. It was now about 3:30am.

Downstairs again, I carried my bags, in pairs, to a spot near the complex’s entrance on Peterborough St. This location had two advantages. First, it was a good distance from the taller buildings in the complex. All of us in Christchurch had recently become educated on the concept of “fall zones” – the area around a damaged building to be avoided in case the building collapsed. The fall zone’s radius was defined as twice the building’s height. Here, near the entrance, my books were as far away from the taller buildings as possible while still being within the complex’s grounds. The second advantage was the shrubbery allowed me to stash my books where they couldn’t be easily seen from Peterborough St.

You might be wondering what the point was of recovering my books and then hiding them if my goal was to get them out of the red zone?

Well, there was actually no way, at four in the morning inside a military-controlled red zone, that I was going to get 12 bags of heavy books out clandestinely. But then I’d known this from the beginning.

However, I had a plan.

Captured

I knew that once I walked out of the complex, unless I took pains to prevent it, I’d be picked up by a patrol fairly quickly. Now, I could have tried to slip out of the cordon and recross the river – but I wanted to be caught. I thought there was a possibility that once I was nabbed, I might be able to “talk my way out of things” and get my books back immediately. I wanted to engage the authorities and see how flexible they were going to be. To do this, I needed a good story.

Before I walked out, I erased several texts I’d exchanged with Colette during the night. I didn’t want anything on my phone that could contradict the story I was going to tell. I also hid the wet pair of shoes, my black bag and extra cloth bags in the bushes away from the books.

At a little after 4am, I walked out of the complex’s entrance, turned left onto Peterborough St and headed deeper into the cordoned-off zone. I got about a block before a patrol of three soldiers came around the corner and ordered me to halt. The officer asked for my ID and what I was doing there at this time of night.

I told him I’d been on the West Coast the day of the quake and hadn’t been able to get back to Christchurch until now. Right after the quake, I’d talked with a friend here, and when he told me how bad things were, I’d asked him to go up to my apartment and get my books out because I was afraid that by the time I got back, everything would be off-limits. He’d called back later and told me he’d gathered quite a few bags of my books, but he’d had to leave them by the Peterborough entrance because, even as he was carrying them out, the police were red-zoning the buildings and closing the area. So this evening, late, having just got back from the coast, I came by to see if my books were still there. And they were, safe and sound.

“How did you get into the cordoned-off area?” the officer asked.

I told him that over at the intersection of Dublin and Bealey Sts, there was a checkpoint and I’d just walked through it. No one had asked me a thing. 

I felt bad telling him this because I knew someone at the checkpoint was going to get a good chewing out. But it was a plausible story. The folks manning the checkpoint had a tough job, with cars piling up, people milling around and everyone having a good reason why they needed to get into the area. It was pretty chaotic.

As I was spinning my story to the officer, I could see that none of them believed a word of it. They thought I was a looter. Then I played what I hoped was my ace card. I asked the officer, politely and apologetically, if we could all walk over to the complex’s entrance? There they’d find the bags hidden in the bushes and see for themselves that my name was written in each of the books. They were sceptical, but they agreed. As we walked, they watched me closely, not at all sure what my game was.

At the entrance, I pointed out where the bags were. The officer already had my ID and he went over and began looking through the bags, examining the books. The others stood and guarded me.

When he came back, I could see things had changed. He returned my ID and acknowledged the books were, indeed, mine. He asked me what I wanted to do next. I suggested the best thing would be if he would let me carry my books across the bridge so I could get them out of the red zone. I think he considered the idea for a moment. But his mandate was to enforce the cordon and to arrest or eject anyone found in it. He said he was sorry but he had to escort me to the edge of the cordon. I could come back in the morning and see if someone would let me back in to get my books. Given the red-zone status of the area, however, he couldn’t make any guarantees.

At this point, they walked me back down Park Terrace, passing the bridge and the men I’d spied on, to the checkpoint at Deans Ave and sent me on my way.

It was nearly 5am as I rode through the cold morning back to Colette’s. There, we lay restless in bed for an hour or so and I told her about the events of the night. There was no point in trying to sleep because I wanted to get back for the 7am shift change; the officer had told me this would be the earliest chance I had to get back in.

Just after seven, we pulled up on Deans Ave and looked across at the checkpoint. There were military, police and firemen mingling in the area and it wasn’t clear who was in charge. In fact, it was possible they didn’t know who was in charge because in a major disaster, folks just turn up to help without waiting for a chain of command to be established. I knew what happened next was going to depend a lot on luck, because whoever I talked to first was likely to set the tone for what followed.

We split up. Colette stayed on the park side of the Avon and watched as I walked over to the checkpoint.

As luck would have it, the first fellow I encountered was a military officer. He’d been briefed by the very officer who had caught me last night in the red zone. He knew who I was and why I’d been there, and he seemed sympathetic to my cause, although he said he could make no promises. But we could walk down and see if it might be safe to get my books out. 

Halfway to the bridge, we encountered a policeman. When the officer with me explained where we were going, the policeman advised against it, saying no one was permitted in the area. However, the officer said he would take responsibility and, after a moment’s hesitation, the policeman said, “As you like” and we continued on. Two other soldiers joined us as we walked. I think they wanted to see if something interesting was going to happen. Manning a cordon must be pretty boring work.

We got to the complex’s entrance and there were my books, just as we’d left them the night before. The officer had a quick look and asked where I wanted to take them. I said if I could carry them over the pedestrian bridge and into the park, then I could work out how to deal with them after that.

He agreed but then he said to follow him and the four of us walked over to the bridge. There, the same three soldiers I’d spied on the night before were just finishing their shift. The officer requisitioned two of them to come with us and we walked back to where the books were. With each of us carrying two bags, we transported them all across the bridge in one trip, with Colette on the other side watching in amazement.

With all 12 bags safely moved outside the red zone, I thanked the officer and the soldiers profusely. It was 8am. I felt tired, jubilant and very lucky.

Postscript

This is a true story. You’ll agree a large amount of good fortune, risk and irony were woven into it from end to end.

But I’d like to stress one thing strongly: I never intended any disrespect to the authorities involved. All of them – the military, police and fire – were doing their jobs to the best of their abilities under very difficult circumstances.

In those first days, they spent long hours serving the public’s needs when I’m sure they’d have much rather been home attending to their own damaged properties and comforting their stressed loved ones.

I have the deepest respect for all of them and the work they did for us all during those terrible days. Indeed, the very reason I’ve waited so long to write this story was to avoid the possibility of offending anyone.

This was published in the August 2017 issue of North & South.

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