Palmers director’s New Zealand earthquake account

A DEPARTMENT store director and his wife found themselves near the heart of destruction, minutes after an earthquake devastated the New Zealand city of Christchurch.

Stuart and Linda McGee had unknowingly earlier witnessed – and felt – the 6.3 magnitude earthquake as they were being driven to their holiday hotel in the city on the South Island.

Mr McGee, a director of Palmers, which has stores in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, said: “We were ending our trip around New Zealand with a three-day stay at the Millennium Hotel with a planned arrival at lunchtime on Tuesday.

“We arrived in the city around 12.30pm and our driver took us on a tour of the city pointing out the highlights for us to see over the next few days. “We then went up to a viewing point above the city, prior to us going to the hotel, as we were ready to leave the coach rocked violently for a few seconds. It did not appear at first that it was a major shock but as we looked toward the city we could see the dust rising into the air.

Mr McGee added they still had not realised the severity of the quake as the group headed into the city, but it soon became obvious they were not going into the city centre as the damage to properties with chimneys and walls down became more evident.

“We heard on the radio what had happened and that there were fatalities in the centre and it was being sealed off,” he said.

“We were taken by our driver out of the city, which at this time was gridlocked with everyone leaving the centre by car and foot. It took us nearly four hours to get out of the city and another three hours to reach the temporary accommodation our tour company had arranged.”

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The couple, who admit they were very lucky, emailed the Mercury to pass on their thanks to everyone who had been concerned about their safety. They had read about themselves on the website, after the newspaper had been in contact their their son Simon.

The McGees were due to fly out tomorrow for the next part of their trip to the Cook Islands.

The earthquake is known to have killed at least 98 people with many others injured and even more reported missing or trapped under rubble.

Staff and guests at the Millennium Hotel were safely evacuated without any injuries, although the hotel was damaged during the quake.

Simon McGee, 38, of Lowestoft Road, Gorleston, had been emailed by his father to reassure him they were safe before he knew the disaster had happened.

He said: “They have been in contact quite regularly by email and they had already told me they were okay before I had heard the news, which was a relief.”

Palmers chairman Bruce Sturrock said Mr McGee had also emailed the store’s staff to tell them he was safe.

Mr Sturrock said: “We were very concerned about him and are delighted that he is okay.”

Former Great Yarmouth resident Mick Steventon has also e-mailed the Mercury to say he was just over seven miles away from Christchurch when the earthquake struck.

He said his family were safe and his house was still standing, with running water and power.

Mr Steventon, who left Yarmouth 10 years ago, said: “Up to now had no regrets. Nobody warned me about these shakes, definitely no Pleasure Beach ride.”

He added: “Hard to comprehend that all we see on the news is just 12kms away. All the family are safe and well over here and realise just how lucky we are.

“It never seizes to amaze me how out of a disaster everybody always pulls together and not just here, from all corners of the world.”

Were you involved in the disaster or do you know someone who was involved? If so call the Lowestoft Journal on 01502 525833 or the Yarmouth Mercury on 01493 847956.

Full story in tomorrow’s Lowestoft Journal.