Miraculous escape from NZ quake for Sidmouth couple

Sidmouth couple in Christchurch cathedral as earthquake strikes - eye witness account

A SIDMOUTH couple had a miraculous escape during Christchurch’s recent earthquake after being caught in the city’s cathedral when it struck.

Company director Richard Newton and his wife Janet from Sidmouth, parents of four girls, were celebrating their ruby wedding by visiting their youngest daughter in Sydney.

Daughter Cathy Payne from Topsham said: “They had been due to spend a month touring New Zealand but had been there less than 24 hours when the earthquake struck.”

The couple, who were staying with a friend in Sumner, planned a tour of Christchurch last Tuesday and had briefly looked inside the cathedral, taking photos inside and out, before visiting the city’s museum.

Richard describes what happened after they headed back to the cathedral’s caf� for a light lunch before their guided tour.

“About 12.45pm, sitting in the cafe, it started rather like the rumble and vibration as if we were above an underground tube train. Then the whole place was swaying, screaming started and we all dived under tables.

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“The noise was deafening. The realisation it was an earthquake taking a little longer to sink in with the visitors rather than the locals, who sadly are accustomed to it.

“Once the initial quake had stopped, amidst the shouting and screaming, a few people had injuries, one man in particular was bleeding heavily from the top of his head. I tried dialling 111 but already the telecoms services were not working.

“We then went outside, but I took a couple of quick photos inside the cafe - the rack of bottled drinks was all over the floor and a stack of chairs had toppled over. I also remember the light hanging on a metre long cord was swinging back and forth, almost up to the ceiling in each direction.

“Outside, we quickly realised the effects of the quake with rubble and dust everywhere and looked up to see the Cathedral spire that I had photographed only an hour or so earlier was gone.”

Liquifaction caused cement-coloured water to erupt from everywhere, as well as water and sewage pipes bursting. It took more than two hours for them to walk back to Sumner, where they found their friend’s house had been affected by the quake.

“Some bridges were closed even to foot traffic, we saw twisted rail tracks and people hanging around outside their damaged homes, unwilling to stay inside. There were frequent aftershocks, with one memorable one where water was pushed up through a drain like a fountain.

“We passed one closed cafe where the owners were outside, but they ventured back in their damaged cafe to give us some bottles of water, then refused payment. This was the first of so many acts of kindness from the New Zealanders who have lost most everything but it was important to them that they did all they could for displaced tourists.”

The couple had a sleepless night, with aftershocks every 15-20 minutes, then eventually got to the airport, dragging their cases for the last kilometre, to fly to Wellington.

They are currently with family in Melbourne.

*This week, New Zealand’s capital Wellington, suffered a more minor quake. The Red Cross earthquake appeal website is www.redcross.org.uk/nzearthquake.