Christchurch was my first New Zealand home. I arrived there with my wife and baby son Laurie in September to take up a lecturing job at Canterbury University. My first office was in what is now the Christchurch Arts Centre, damaged in yesterday’s horrendous earthquake. My two daughters, Naomi and Rebecca were both born in Christchurch. Four months ago Rebecca’s son, my newest grandchild, Inigo Peter, was born there too. It would be strange if I did not have a particular affection for the city. It was there too that I spent one of the happiest periods of my professional life, as a reporter on the regional magazine programme Town and Around, getting to know the New Zealanders of Canterbury and the West Coast in a way not possible for most new immigrants. They took this gaunt, skinny Irishman with his bizarre accent into their homes and hearts with a warmth I would never quite feel again as a broadcaster on the national stage.
The entire district became my village. I ceased to be a stranger in a strange land. I felt that I belonged. Rebecca, her husband Andy and four of my eleven grandchildren now live in Sumner. Judy and I spent most of yesterday watching the television coverage from the devastated city. Communication with my daughter seemed impossible. Phone, email and text brought no response. Were they all right? We scanned the TV coverage for clues about how Sumner had fared, but most of the footage was understandably about the ravaged central city. Judy had brought her laptop into the living room and was… tweeting! Judy: The first news of the earthquake came through on Tweetdeck while Brian was out. One of the first images I found on the web was of the cliff collapsing in Sumner. At times like this commonsense goes out the window. I knew Rebecca lives at the other end of the beach, I knew the chances of her being in the RSA hall were somewhere south of zero, but that didn’t help – and I also knew the little girls were at school in the city.
Texts and emails to Rebecca produced nothing. In Wellington her eldest daughter Jess was sick with worry. No-one could make contact. We cancelled everything and for the next six hours we sat glued to the TV. My laptop became a mini-control room. I had Facebook, my Twitter, Brian’s Twitter and our website’s Twitter all going together. (The computer nearly had a hernia over that – I had to use three different servers or it merged them all.) I started asking for news of Sumner. Patchy information came in. Then one of Jess’s friends tweeted us, filling gaps in our information and helping to spread the word. Thanks, Denielle. Still nothing about the family or the girls’ school. Finally I put out a message: Anyone have news of daughter Rebecca and family? They live in Sumner. Can’t make contact. And Twitter went to work, re-tweeting and re-tweeting, and sending messages of support for us and the family.
Hours later, via who knows how many re-tweets, we heard from someone called Tash, who’d managed to make contact with her father – in Sumner. She thought they could help. Thanks, Tash, Tash’s father James, a total stranger, made his way across Sumner to Rebecca’s house, where he found her with two of the children, safe and well. He tweeted Tash; Tash tweeted us. Thanks a whole heap, James. We still haven’t made direct contact. Power and phones are out. But news is filtering through to the family. Andy was driving over Sumner Bridge with one of the wee boys when the earthquake struck. They drove home and Andy walked to Christchurch to get the girls. We know they managed to get home again last night. We know they’re all safe. I spend a lot of time on the social networks, following politicians and watching how they’re using this new tool.
(Verdict: most of them badly, a very few of them brilliantly, many not at all.) That’s how I heard “They’re shooting at us!” from Cairo and read messages of defiance and carnage throughout the Middle East. Instant news, uncensored, to the world. The silly social network has come into its own again, for one small family. I hope there are some other happy-ending stories out there in the midst of this horrible disaster. We’d love to hear them. Brian: Our family is safe. Our hearts go out to the hundreds of people in Christchurch who have not been so fortunate. Thank you Tash. Thank you James. Thank you to the dozens of Tweeters who came to our aid yesterday. Thank you Judy, queen for a day of one small corner of The Social Network.