Wednesday 25 April 2018

President's visit was 'humbling', says quake widow

President Michael D Higgins laid a wreath at the wall in Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial. Photo: Maxwells
President Michael D Higgins laid a wreath at the wall in Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial. Photo: Maxwells

Kirsty Blake Knox in Christchurch

It's six years since the foundations of Christchurch "moved like jelly", and an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale ripped the heritage city apart.

Among the 185 people killed were two Irish men; Owen McKenna and John O'Connor.

Yesterday, as he continued his state visit of New Zealand President Michael D Higgins paid tribute to those who died, visiting the city's memorial wall on the south bank. There, the widow of Mr McKenna (40), Sarah Lothian, described the trauma her family endured in the wake of the disaster.

The father-of-two was killed when a building collapsed on his car on February 22, 2011.

His wife, and their children Grace and Tadhg - who were then aged seven and three - had been visiting their grandparents in the south when the quake hit.

According to Mrs Lothian this proved to be a blessing as "we didn't have to deal with the trauma of the earthquake, as well as the trauma of losing Owen".

Mrs Lothian discovered her husband had died the evening of February 22, but had to wait a fortnight until authorities could confirm his identity.

"My sister-in-law is a police woman, she realised that Owen was missing and she looked on the computer and told me - we knew unofficially that there was an unidentified person in the car registered to him," she said. "But officially they wouldn't say - it wasn't until two or three weeks later that we got word … that was terrible.

"It was ages and ages, it was really hard on the family in Ireland who were waiting to come to take him home. It was all just a waiting game really."

Mr McKenna was buried near his birthplace of Brackagh, Emyvale, Co Monaghan, and the family try to return to Ireland once every three years.

The memorial wall in Christchurch has been an enormous comfort to them in the absence of a grave.

Mrs Lothian said the President's visit had meant a great deal to the family.

"It is lovely for the children, and really humbling and it was a lovely gesture," she said.

Irish Independent

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