The day I thought Go Media was Gone Media

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Mike Gray, the managing director of Go Media, reflects on the Christchurch earthquake, 10 years on to the day – and at 12.51pm all their digital screens ran the same imagery as a one-minute silence to recognise the 185 who lost their lives.

CHRISTCHURCH, This Morning: It seemed like another innocuous February day. The September earthquake was almost a distant memory.

The aftershocks had become so infrequent they had almost stopped, and I had such bullish confidence that they were over that I had already put away the emergency survival kit I had created after the first event. The canned goods were back in the pantry, the torch back in the garage.

I was sitting at our office in Ferrymead, at the outskirts of the city on the side of the Eastern beaches, when I picked up the phone to call Andrew Reinholds, who at the time was the managing partner at OMD.

I cannot remember now why I had called that day but during the small talk that peppered the initial conversation Andrew had asked me to describe what the first earthquake was like.

I outlined how I had come home from a night on the town after watching Sonny Bill Williams play his first ever game of rugby for Canterbury.

I couldn’t remember getting home and in my drunken state I was woken to a home invasion with someone kicking my bedroom door in, or so I thought, such was the first jolt.

I rose from bed swinging. A beam that ran through our bedroom made a sonic-sounding crack and I thought the roof was coming in on us.

“It kept coming, growing stronger until glasses from benchtops until started to rain down, smash and shatter across the tiled floor.”

My wife [Andrea Rongonui] yelled it was an earthquake and in total darkness I found myself struggling down the hallway trying to get to our childrens’ bedroom, being slammed from side to side, thrown about like a pinball, such was the force.

As I further regaled Andrew with some of the lighter moments, the clock clicked 12.51pm and an aftershock rolled in.

Cantabrians had become use to this, and I expected it to fade away in the usual fashion. But this one did not stop.

It kept coming, growing stronger and stronger until glasswear was shaken from benchtops and cupboards and started to rain down, smash and shatter across the tiled floor.

Like a loop artist who had hit the pedal for the vocal motif I repeated over and over …

“We’re in one Andrew
“We’re in one Andrew
“We’re in one Andrew
“We’re in one Andrew
“We’re in one right now!

The conversation cut short, and with this massive tremor finally ended, my wife and I rushed to our car parked down below, desperate to get to our children in the city.

The liquefaction was almost instantaneous and as we drove towards the city, literally within two minutes of the tremor’s abatement, the asphalt road beneath us became like jelly, like the rolling Raglan surf. It truly was surreal until the phone call that snapped us back to reality.  That phone call is forever etched in my mind.

Our plan was simple. We would drive to get my son and nephew from their school and my brother-in-law would get my daughter and niece from their daycare in the CBD. That was plan until that phone call.

My brother-in-law, Ihaka, had had the presence of mind, to reach above the desk he was sheltering under, fumbling desperately for his phone, figuring that making phone calls might soon become an impossibility.

As my wife started to bark instructions, he told her to shut-up and listen. He was okay, he was alive, but the stairwell in his building had collapsed, pancaked to the ground, and that he was trapped on the 14th floor.

He painted the picture. The cathedral had collapsed and bodies were lying motionless on the street below but he had to go as everyone was freaking out.

“In total darkness I struggled down the hallway trying to get to our childrens’ bedroom, being slammed from side to side, thrown about like a pinball.”

He went on to be a hero that day. Tying knots in a firehose, he then helped lower all his fellow workers to the 13th floor balcony below as that was the highest vantage point that a rescue crane and cage could reach when it arrived much later on.

A dust cloud rose in the distance and we honestly thought the worst.

Our minds racing, trying to disseminate that information download, I imagined the traffic lights would be down and immediately changed route to get to our son.

Another brother in law in Glendale was closer to the girls and we managed to call him before it became impossible to make any more calls and the ability to communicate was lost.

The first major intersection we approached was gridlocked and so I mounted the grass medium strip to head the wrong way up the opposing lanes to take a short cut around the Eastgate Mall.

As we turned into a side street, we passed a car that had been sucked into a hole and only the rear was sticking out. The road was now a river of liquefaction halfway up the tyres. The car-parking building at the rear of the mall had collapsed and more cars were sticking out of the ground.

We soon got stuck in traffic from which I observed the best of humanity at work. Random people took charge to become traffic controllers at major intersections. Everyone let cars in and out. Everyone smiled kindly as you passed.

I saw an old lady casually walk through the traffic carrying gardening gloves to some builders scrambling to get the bricks off the roof of their van parked in a driveway from a collapsed wall of a house.

It was hopelessly slow and so my wife got out of the car and managed to hitch a ride on a moped. She had thumbed this stranger down and she convinced him to drive her to the school. The boys were found, and they had been playing on the fields at the time of quake and simple fell over. It hadn’t really fazed them.

Of the 19 bridges that crossed the Avon River only two had survived. By sheer luck we found both and with the boys now with us we are heading back towards home and arrived some six hours later. That trip would have normally taken 40 minutes.

“I observed the best of humanity. People became traffic controllers at intersections. Everyone let cars in and out. Everyone smiled kindly.”

The road to our office now resembled something like a BMX track with more cars sticking out of the ground. Tilt slab buildings had lost walls and some spaces were left open and exposed like a gaping wound. The bridge we needed to cross to get to our house had also collapsed and the road around the hills was blocked. It would be two more days before we would get to our house to find that she was gone.

So, we convened at my sister-in-law’s house to find my daughter and niece were both safe and well. The relief was palpable.

Communication had been almost non-existent in the last six hours, apart from the odd text message sending but silent on the replies. Or we would receive text messages that did not make sense as everything was out of sync.

After door knocking the local neighbourhood, we were given the use of a motorbike and our cousin drove into the CBD, avoiding the roadblocks, to collect Ihaka who had since been craned from the buildings balcony. They returned as it was starting to grow dark. We were all safe and now headed to a house we had been offered in the outskirts of the city by a work colleague.

That night we all huddled together beneath a large rimu dining table. It shook violently all night. No one slept. It’s only now, in writing this, that I can acknowledge how frightening it was.

The following days and nights were not much easier. Andrea was pregnant, and we had decided to leave, and booked a ferry crossing to head north. That lead us to Waiheke Island where we had a holiday home to use for free after someone had created the Escape the Quake website.

I returned to Christchurch a week later with my brothers. Over three days we tried to salvage what we could and pack out two houses and an office. There was no running water. We were lucky that we now had power. The dust from the dried liquefaction stung your nostrils and burnt your eyes in the swirling winds.

It was bleak and endless. There was only one restaurant open anywhere near us and so we ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner there every day. I learnt some Cantonese.

“We returned into our broken house much later; the clock clicked 12.51pm and an aftershock rolled in.”

It was only now that I started to wonder if I still had a business left as my outdoor company was mainly based in Christchurch. I had seen footage on the news of buildings that had once housed our sites lying in ruins.

The Copthorne spectacular where we had once famously placed Dan Carter in his jockey underpants was going to be demolished.

The clock tower spectacular on the former Railway Station was gone. Brian Taylor, the director of the Science Alive Trust who battled with me to get the resource consent approved, sadly passed away as he was in the CTV building on that fateful day.

Weeks later I returned to Christchurch and managed to break into the red zone to check to see if the best site we had was still standing on the rooftop of a building on Colombo Street. Fortunately, it was, and the building looked like it could be saved.

A soldier from the army soon approached me and asked what I was doing. “Just looking at that billboard” I said, as he promptly marched me to the perimeter fence. “It’s my best site.”

I had no loss-of-income insurance and in the end, I lost over half of our sites. I was trading as Aidemedia then, and Go Media was nothing more than a secured domain name and a business plan waiting to unfold. But in those days, I thought I was Gone Media.

Today is 10 years to the day that the earthquake struck. It changed everything about the city that I grew up in. And in many ways, it changed me. But resilience is something that brings out the best in us and like the City we started to rebuild the company.

Next month we digitise the rooftop billboard on that building in Colombo Street. The one I snuck into the red zone to check on. It had taken two years after the quake but they had saved the building and they had saved our site.

We are calling it the Colossus on Colombo and long may it shine.

Go Media is one of the largest independent outdoor media providers in New Zealand. Their mission is to deliver exceptional, highly personalised media solutions to clients, ensuring they receive premium brand exposure. Go Media Group operates a dedicated direct and agency sales team based out of Auckland, Christchurch, and Palmerston North. They are proudly a New Zealand-owned and operated company that values innovation,  flexibility, fun, and a community focus.

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