Tuesday 19 June 2018

'The waiting to hear he was dead was terrible' - Widow of Irish earthquake victim

President Higgins and his wife Sabina in Christchurch New Zealand at the Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial in New Zealand as they meet the widow of Irishman Owen Thomas McKenna Pic Maxwell's
President Higgins and his wife Sabina in Christchurch New Zealand at the Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial in New Zealand as they meet the widow of Irishman Owen Thomas McKenna Pic Maxwell's
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

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 Owen McKenna - Sarah Lothian - described the trauma her family endured in the wake of the natural disaster.

President Higgins and his wife Sabina in Christchurch New Zealand at the Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial in New Zealand as they meet the widow of Irishman Owen Thomas Mc Kenna Photo: Maxwells
President Higgins and his wife Sabina in Christchurch New Zealand at the Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial in New Zealand as they meet the widow of Irishman Owen Thomas Mc Kenna Photo: Maxwells

Father-of-two Mr McKenna (40) was killed when a building collapsed on his car on February 22, 2011.

His wife Sarah, and their children Grace and Tadhg - who were then aged seven and three - had been visiting their grandparents in the South when the earthquake 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; 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 absence of a grave.

“For us it is our place where we go, because he is buried over there,” she said.

“We would love to be able to go to the grave more often but the wall is where we go now…it is a comfort.”

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. It’s respectful… and we have been well supported by the Irish community.”

Mrs Lothian is determined her have a strong sense of Irish identity as “it was really important to him [Owen]… so I am trying to keep that connection”.

The renaming of Christchurch GAA to Christchurch McKenna GAA Club in honour of Owen had  meant a great deal, she said.

The couple met when they were both living in Saudi Arabia, they married in Monaghan and decided to move back to New Zealand in the wake of September 11.

Early yesterday morning they Sarah, Grace and Tadhg rang their relatives in Ireland to tell them the President  was visiting.

“Nanny nearly fell off the phone,” Mrs Lothian said.

The second Irish man to lose his life in the 2011 earthquake was Kerryman John O’Connor (40) who became trapped under the rubble of the Pyne Gould Guinness building in central Christchurch.

Mr O’Connor’s widow Sarah and their two children Dan (8) and Sean (6) also attended the wreath laying service.

President Higgins said each of the 185 names carved on the wall represented a “life cut short”.

Mr Higgins also paid a visit to museum ‘Quake City’ which documents the devastation caused and the ongoing rebuild.

One of the victims of the earthquake - Kate Barron - greeted the President.

Kate who lost both her legs in the disaster, was at work in her office in the Pyne Gould Guinness Building when the earthquake hit.

She was trapped under her desk for 12 hours, lost 10 of her colleagues, and spent 10 months in hospital recuperating.

President Higgins also met with Bruce and Jeanette McEachen whose son Matthew was killed in the earthquake.

“He had just turned 25 and was walking down the street when a building collapsed on him,” Jeanette said. “It’s nice to have the President visit - it means something.”

Today President Higgins travels to Auckland as he continues his State Visit.

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