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These pages are a collection of stories from the Writer's Group at Box Hill U3A.

Red Zone Boots

After a great deal of discussion, between themselves and with their families, both young women made the decision to avail themselves of the opportunity of touring the Red Zone of their once beautiful city. They needed to see for themselves what had been lost forever, not only to all those who lived in and around Christchurch, but also to the thousands of tourists who visited each year. Since the major quake, nobody other than authorised emergency workers had been permitted to enter the very dangerous Red Zone area of their city. The authorities were now giving people the opportunity to see for themselves the reality of the impact of the devastating earthquake. Specially re-enforced buses were being made available for those brave enough to risk entering the Red Zone.

At the time of their booking, they were warned they would be entering a very dangerous area with the possibility they could die there. It was very confronting, especially when they were informed there would be ten ambulances on standby.

For one of them, re-entering the city on the bus would, she hoped, help her to conquer her fear of returning. Up until the earthquakes and aftershocks had started happening, her life had been centred around beautiful Christchurch city. Sadly, all the activities she had pursued in the city, had stopped on the day of the big quake, when many people had lost their lives. She knew she needed to be brave and get on that bus. She felt sure being there with her friend as support, it would help alleviate some of her anxiety associated with going back.

For the other young woman, her need was to see for herself the destruction and loss of so many wonderful amenities. They were the amenities she and her husband had assessed as being very important to their family when they had made their decision, two years previously, to emigrate from the United Kingdom. They had only been living in Canterbury for eleven months when the first big quake struck. They were living in Darfield, right on the epicentre. From that time on, they had experienced thousands upon thousands of frightening aftershocks and further big quakes. She and her husband were fast coming to the realisation they needed to remove their family from what was once a great place to live, but was now one that carried a feeling of fear, sadness and hopelessness. They were fast coming to the realisation they needed to pack up and take their family to a safer place. This tour she felt, could help in confirming the decision they were about to make, would be the right one for them all.

Once seated on the bus they were again given a serious warning, this time by the tour guide. She told them they were about to enter a very dangerous area where they needed to understand there was a possibility they could die. They were told the area was still considered an active earthquake zone and an active demolition site, therefore it was a possibility they could be trapped by falling debris. They were further instructed that under no circumstances were they to leave the bus. Both women wondered yet again at the sense of their decision to do the tour. Were they doing the right thing? Should they be doing this? Should they alight from the bus now? One look between them confirmed that "yes" it was the right thing to do and they would stay, even though they knew what they were about to see would be very confronting and very sad.

They looked around the bus at all the different people who were there. The only person under twenty five was a little baby. This puzzled them. They wondered why the parents were taking such a little person into such a potentially dangerous area. Although most of the passengers were strangers to one another, the unique circumstances of their presence on the bus, united them as they talked to one another about their reasons for doing the tour. There were people there for the same reasons as the two young women, but many had different reasons. Some people, in fact probably most, were there to honour the dead; some of them were people who had been present when the big quake of February 23rd struck; some were there simply out of curiosity; some to take photos and one couple who just happened to be in the area as the bus was leaving. The young women could feel the intensity of the atmosphere on board, as the tour began. They noticed that literally every emotion possible in a human being was being displayed as the tour proceeded. There was no narration by the tour guide. The only commentary was when the bus pulled up at the sites of the CTV and PGG buildings. They were told this was where the two buildings had once stood. The sites were now completely cleared. All the people on the bus came together and there was total silence. Everybody was thinking about those who had gone to work on the day of the quake and had never made it home that night.

The bus passed through a total of about twenty streets. Many people exclaimed over old landmarks that were now gone. It was obvious they were very distressed at their loss. There were some people who had known the city intimately and for them every inch of the tour was a painful memory. Even these people, who had known the city so well, were often disorientated and unable to identify many areas. There was just so much of what they remembered, now lying in piles of rubble, making former buildings and landmarks unrecognisable. There were some people, who as they passed by a fallen building, described how they had managed to climb to safety from under the debris.

The two young women had taken their cameras, but kept them in their bags. They felt it would be too distracting to take any photos. They wanted to absorb the full impact without having to stop and deal with technology. Besides, there was just too much to take in. The devastation was everywhere, left, right, up, down and all around them.

As they passed by wrecked building after building, they were both shocked at the number still awaiting demolition. They passed an office building and saw jackets still left hanging over the backs of chairs. They had been left there by office workers as they had fled to safety. For a moment, for one of the women, the scene came alive in her head and she could hear the screams and she felt the terror those people would have experienced, as they ran for their lives.

After the tour ended, on the drive home, both women feeling very upset at what they had witnessed, agreed doing the tour was a very healing experience. The woman, who hadn't wanted to go back to her beloved city, said she now felt stronger and could face returning in the future. The other woman, who had gone to confirm her decision to leave was the right one, now felt that yes, she and her family would leave this city, this country. They had come to Christchurch with such hopes and dreams. She felt such abject sorrow she and her family would be leaving this once beautiful city.

As they drove, they talked about the devastation they had seen, and the sadness they felt at what had been lost forever. They agreed, one of the saddest and most puzzling things, was the scene at a cafe. The cafe was on the ground floor of the office building where they had seen the jackets left behind. In the cafe, tables still had the clutter of wine glasses, plates, cutlery, salt and pepper shakers left scattered on them. Everything on the tables was covered in dust and fallen debris. The thing they found puzzling was the pair of boots. They were an ordinary pair of work boots left sitting on the ripped up pavement, outside the cafe. One of the boots had fallen over but it was obvious they had been placed there as a pair. Who had put them there? Did the owner of the boots survive? Was it just that he had gone into the cafe bootless, as was the custom of many farmers who went into town, to enjoy a relaxing coffee? Had he, when the deadly quake struck, run for his life, leaving the boots behind? The answer to these questions will never be known. The two women both felt, for them, the boots were very symbolic of the tragedy and utter devastation caused by the Christchurch earthquake.

Pam Galbraith