Alan Hubbard

The terrifying attack in Christchurch, in which 50 innocent men, women and children were shamefully massacred, apparently by a white supremacist gunman in one of New Zealand's most pleasant cities, brought back rather different echoes for me of the place I visited for my first overseas Commonwealth Games in 1974.

Then Christchurch was one of the most attractive and tranquil spots on earth but sadly subsequent events have scarred this one-time citadel of peace beyond measure.

So tranquil in fact that when my good friend and colleague Colin Hart, The Sun columnist, arrived one Sunday evening in January 45-years ago we almost thought we had landed on the moon. 

As we drove the 12 kilometres from the airport to the city we hardly saw a soul in the sun-kissed countryside. Just sheep. Thousands of them. It was like going backwards 50 years in time.

We were quite hungry after our long flight and as we drew up at traffic lights in the city centre the only human we saw was an old chap crossing the street in front of us. We drew down the window and asked him where we might get something to eat. He looked surprised. "Eat? Sorry mate," he replied. "The restaurant’s closed."

"The" restaurant? 

We certainly didn't see another as we continued to our accommodation, where the always sharply dressed Harty quickly discovered there was no wardrobe in his room for his copious clothes. 

The world has been left shocked by the terrorist attacks at mosques in Christchurch ©Getty Images
The world has been left shocked by the terrorist attacks at mosques in Christchurch ©Getty Images

"Where do I put these," he asked the proprietor, a grizzly old Kiwi named Fred. "Sling 'em over there, mate," he replied, pointing to the spare bed.

That was Christchurch then, although as it turned out we eventually had a most enjoyable stay and the Games were pretty good, too.

Significantly, though, security was extremely intensive as, following the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch was the first multi-sport event to place the safety of participants and spectators as its uppermost requirement.

Dozens of armed security guards surrounded the Athletes' Village and there was an exceptionally high-profile police presence. Even so, Christchurch enchanted the watching world as a city of beauty and great hospitality.

The entire immediate British Royal Family - Elizabeth II, her husband and children - visited New Zealand as a group and the Royal Yacht Britannia was the royal residence during the Games. The Opening Ceremony was held in the mid-afternoon, with Prince Philip as the attending royal. 

The athletes took the oath and Sylvia Potts, the runner who fell mere metres from a gold medal finish in the 1970 Edinburgh Games, entered the stadium with the Queen's Baton. It was presented to Prince Philip who read the message from The Queen declaring that the 1974 Christchurch 10th British Commonwealth Games were open.

Only 22 countries succeeded in winning medals from the total haul of 374 on offer, but first time winners included Western Samoa, Lesotho and Swaziland.

On the running track, Jamaica's Don Quarrie successfully defended both his 1970 100 metres and 200m gold medals. Quarrie was to go on to win the 1978 100m as well. The astonishing Filbert Bayi of Tanzania beat Kiwi idol John Walker and Ben Jipcho of Kenya to win an enthralling 1,500m and set a new world record.

Nine sports were featured with 1,276 athletes taking part in athletics, badminton, boxing, cycling, lawn bowls, shooting, swimming and diving, weightlifting and wrestling.

Athletes on the track at the Christchurch 1974 Commonwealth Games, including Don Quarrie, left ©Getty Images
Athletes on the track at the Christchurch 1974 Commonwealth Games, including Don Quarrie, left ©Getty Images

One memorable and amusing highlight came when England's Alan Pascoe twice tripped over a hurdle and fell backwards as he attempted a lap of honour after winning his gold medal. 

The man who went on to become a multi-millionaire sports entrepreneur and a prime architect of London's 2012 Olympics has never lived that down.

It all concluded joyously, colourfully and vibrantly on February 2 with a Maori-inspired Closing Ceremony. And with good reason this was the first time we heard the phrase "The Friendly Games".

Who was to know that this friendly, unsophisticated neck of the woods, now a bustling epicentre of business, was later to be rocked, quite literally, to its very foundations by tragedy and terror.

For the horrifying attack on the two mosques last weekend was not the first time the coastal city of around 400,000 people on New Zealand's South Island has been swept by unspeakable misadventure.

Between 2010 and 2011, Christchurch was plagued by a series of earthquakes. The worst happened in February 2011 when a 6.3-magnitude tremor ripped through the city and its hinterland in the middle of the day - toppling buildings onto buses, buckling streets and damaging the cathedral.

While New Zealand is accustomed to earthquakes, few have been as devastating as that tremor, which killed 185 people, injured 6,000 and damaged 170,000 buildings.

The bulk of the deaths occurred when a six-story office block, the CTV Building, collapsed during the quake.

A total of 115 people were killed in the building, while 18 people died in the PGC office, eight on buses and 28 people elsewhere in central Christchurch. Twelve victims were in suburban locations and another four deaths were found to be directly associated with the incident.

The victims came from numerous countries across the globe and included a group of students learning English in the CTV Building.

One witness told CNN at the time that he ran to the street when the earthquake struck. "It felt like I was running on jelly," he said. "We saw a giant rock tumble to the ground from a cliff - a rock that had been there for millennia. It fell on the RSA building - it was terrifying."

Christchurch was rocked by a huge earthquake in 2011 ©Getty Images
Christchurch was rocked by a huge earthquake in 2011 ©Getty Images

The earthquake caused soft sand and silt to liquefy, which led to ruptured water and sewer pipes, shattered roads and wrecked buildings. It caused cliffs to collapse and dislodged boulders.

The widespread damage cost the country an estimated NZ$20 billion (£10.3 billion/$13.7 billion/€12 billion) according New Zealand's Government and the city's retail, hospitality and accommodation sectors were hit the hardest.

As of January 2019, the country's Earthquake Commission is still dealing with 2,233 claims from the quake.

The tremors "had an immediate effect on Christchurch city's population, with an estimated 20,000 leaving the city in the first two years".

The psychological toll of the earthquake quickly became apparent. In 2012 a medical study found that more that 80 per cent involved believed that their lives had changed "significantly" since the event. 

More than two-thirds of people asked said they were "grieving for lost Christchurch".

Now the world grieves again.

I am not a religious person but I venture to say that for a city with both Christ and church in its name, somebody up there must be weeping.