'Everyone was in shock, angry, sad': Suburban native living in New Zealand recounts day terrorist killed 50
I work at The National School of Aesthetics on Antigua Street in Christchurch, about 1½ miles from the main mosque. At one end of our street is the hospital, and the other end intersects with Brougham Street. Strickland Street starts on the other side of the Antigua-Brougham intersection.
Our students had gone home for the day when our principal's sister called to let us know there was an active shooting at the mosque. We heard this around 2:20 or 2:30 p.m. As a precaution, we locked our doors. Our building has a lot of glass, so I'm not sure how much this would have helped in an emergency. We tuned in to local internet sites and the radio for information.
A phone belonging to one of my bosses, Don, started beeping a lot with texts, and my colleague Paula received a text to say her son's school was in lockdown and to come pick her son up. She spoke to her fiance, who works in a building very close to the main mosque, and he was in lockdown, too. She left around 2:45 to pick up her son. Suddenly, there was a large rush of traffic on our street. People were looking worried and panicked. Paula called to say Brougham Street was completely shut down by police. They were carrying AK-47s and other assault rifles. (This is not normal in New Zealand.) We later found the suspect was arrested on Brougham Street.
Don was getting worried with all the texts, and the rest of the team (me included) gathered upstairs in a safe area. There were ambulance and police cars flying up and down the street. The news came over the internet that there was a possible shooting at the hospital, and that all buildings in the Central Business District were to lock down immediately.
All schools were ordered to do the same, no matter where they were. We made the decision, as there were only five of us in the glass-fronted building, that we would leave. My normal route home takes me through the CBD. I was trying to figure out another route when news came in that many major streets and roads were shut down.
One of my colleagues lives near me, so we decided to go in a convoy. Unfortunately, she was so nervous that she left without me. When I started to get close to the CBD there were unmarked police cars and vans rushing around with lights on.
There were only a few people out. Many buildings had signs on the doors, stating they were closed or locked down. There were barely any cars. There was a tourist family in a small rental RV in front of me, and a tradesman in a van behind me, and we could see each other in our rearview mirrors, so there seemed to be a silent agreement we'd go through the city together. The commute across the city was quick and quiet other than sirens and the odd helicopter.
On the radio, a man being interviewed had been in the mosque when the shooting happened. He reckoned that around 30 people were dead and that the gunman had shot "way more" than the 20 rounds suggested by people who were outside and heard the gunshots. He reckoned there were around 100 rounds.
News was coming to light that there was another attack on another mosque in the city, the Linwood Islamic Centre, and also that there might be car bombs planted around the city, too. By the time I reached Main North Road near my house, there were several ambulances coming from out of town to bolster the numbers in the city. There were a few police cars rushing around, too, though we live nowhere near the city. I got to the local supermarket near my house -- it was open -- and talked to a few people in there. Everyone was in shock, angry, sad and gobsmacked.
Christchurch tends to be a very warm, welcoming place where everyone looks after one another, and this was uncharacteristic of our city. When I got home, my husband had the news on, and all programming was stopped to report on the shootings. We were both upset. I started checking Muslim friends that I could get hold of on Facebook or Instagram to see if they were safe. One guy is named Adam. I messaged him. Adam got back to me to say his mother had been in the mosque when the shooting happened, but his brothers had reported back she was safe and she was heading home with them.
We were instructed to stay home and lock the doors, which we did. The local high school was in lockdown and there was a man in camouflage with a gun outside the school. The police arrested him. (This was what all the police cars near home was about.) There were lockdowns now happening all over the place -- malls, department stores, grocery stores, everywhere, because the police didn't know how many people were involved. The entire city was basically under siege.
Our prime minister came on to say that this was one of New Zealand's darkest days and we should brace ourselves for lots of casualties. This was very shocking and upsetting for us. I think what made this all the worse for us was that we survived several major earthquakes in 2010-2011, with the Feb. 22, 2011, one severely damaging our city. The police rushing around, the sirens, the helicopters triggered a lot of people (including me) in recalling those horrible times.
A report came in that one of the car bombs was planted in a car on or near the corner of Antigua-Brougham-Strickland, about three blocks from our work. Authorities later reported two improvised explosive devices were found in the car linked to the shooter.
At around 6 p.m., the lockdown was lifted as police were mostly confident they had apprehended all suspects. People were advised not to go near the hospital unless it was an emergency.
Helicopters and ambulances were coming to Christchurch Public Hospital to transfer patients to other hospitals around the country, including to our children's specialist hospital in Auckland. We spent most of the night watching the special news bulletins and the prime minister told us 40 people had died and 48 people were injured, including children. New Zealand has never really seen any act like this perpetrated by people in peacetime.
The prime minister called it a terrorist act, which is scary in itself in peaceful New Zealand. We found out a little later the death toll was 49, and our emotions were bobbing between anger and sadness. BBC contacted me on Twitter to record my story for their radio programs. I had recorded information for them previously in the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake, which we felt quite strongly in Christchurch. So I recorded a short piece for them at 12:30 in the morning.
When I woke up around 8 a.m., there were no sounds outside. It was very reminiscent of the day after the Feb. 22, 2011, quakes. No one was out mowing lawns or playing or walking. Dead silence, only interrupted by an occasional helicopter. I spent the morning sharing links, both on our school page, and on my personal Facebook page, to help with donations and also victim support lines.
Our students have gone through the quakes, and the emotional and mental illnesses many people here face are higher than normal, especially among our younger generations, so support is important.
I went on a walk to the supermarket. We had an Afghan refugee family who moved in near us. We would see them walking out and about a lot -- grandfather in front, grandmother usually chatting with the mother behind, a child or two with them. The grandmother would always smile and laugh, and the mother's English was pretty good, so we would all talk for a while about things.
I walked down to their house. There were work vans and cars in the driveway, and there was movement in the house, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary, so I didn't stop in to see how they were doing. I went to the supermarket, and the mood was somber inside. Everyone seemed tired and sad.
I received a text from Don to say one of their friends was killed in the attack. Don said the man they knew leaves behind a wife and children. Police are supporting the family and talking with them, so many friends are having to wait until that is all wound down to see them.
The lone gunman, we are finding out, is an Australian national who is living temporarily in Dunedin, the next big city south of us. So he is not a New Zealander or a permanent resident or even from Christchurch. This makes the act even harder to cope with, as it was an act against not only our Muslim friends and neighbors but also our city, which has been through a lot in the last decade.
People in Christchurch are used to coming together in the time of need. An attack against the Muslim members of our community is an attack against us all.