Several Texans were witness to an earthquake that has become New Zealand's worst natural disaster. Last Tuesday's 6.3-magnitude trembler killed at least 146 people and devastated the heart of picturesque Christchurch.
Val Wilder of Fort Worth was in Christchurch as part of the United States Tennis Association Seniors International tennis competition. He was there with about 16 other men, and four women, including his wife Catherine.
They played a match on Monday, but had a day off the Tuesday of the quake.
“I had arranged for us to go on a scenic tour of the coast about 70 kilometers from Christchurch,” Wilder recalls.
“Just as we sat down for lunch, the ground started shaking,” he continued.
Little did Wilder and his team know at the time, about 44 miles away, Christchurch was being ravaged.
“As we drove back into town, we started seeing the damage,” Wilder said. “They were using Latimer Square right outside our hotel as the triage area.”
Their tennis courts would be so badly damaged, that the rest of the week’s matches would not go on.
Wilder said he was amazed at the organization and the tenacity of the New Zealanders who were all banding together in the minutes, hours and days following the disaster.
Since the area around their hotel was damaged and being used as a command post, of sorts, Wilder and his team stayed with a family just outside the Central Business District.
“Amazingly, their house wasn’t touched. They never lost power and never lost water,” Wilder said.
Dallas resident Patricia Zerdan was also there for the same championship matches.
“My team played about 160 kilometers from Christchurch so we were not there when the earthquake hit but we did feel it here,” Zerdan told NBCDFW.
“We were on the second floor of the building and had to run out twice,” she described. “There were also over 100 after shocks since the second big earthquake but we felt only a couple [where we were.]”
While the men’s courts that Wilder played on were destroyed, Zerdan and her women's team was still able to play.
Our last communication with Zerdan via her Facebook page was Friday. She was trying to find a way back home, but due to the disaster wasn’t able to find an airline ticket until Thursday.
According to a USTA list, other Texans in quake-affected region, included Guillaume Gauthier of Tyler, Eoin Collins of Houston, Peter Markes of Austin, Cal Castillo of San Antonio, Ross Persons of Houston, Julie Cass of Austin and Kathy Vick of Lubbock.
Thankfully for those who attended, USTA said all their members are safe and accounted for. And that’s good news. Sunday, the death toll rose to 146, with more than 200 missing.
Police Superintendent David Cliff said, "Certainly we expect that number to continue to rise."
His comments suggest the eventual death toll could make this New Zealand's deadliest disaster ever. Currently, the country's worst disaster was the 1931 Napier earthquake on North Island in which at least 256 people died.
Engineers and planners said the city's decimated central area may be completely unusable for months to come and that at least a third of the buildings must be razed and rebuilt.
The multinational team of more than 600 rescuers scrabbling through wrecked buildings in the central city last pulled a survivor from the ruins at mid-afternoon Wednesday, making it nearly four days without finding anyone alive.
Rescue coordinator Jim Stuart-Black said Sunday that rescuers continued "to look in every possible place for survivors."
"We are still in active rescue mode ... but we are also realistic that we are starting to move into the miracle stage of the operation," he said, with survival becoming less likely six days after the quake.
Rescue and recovery efforts were hampered by continuing aftershocks, which sent masonry tumbling down, and a cat sparked a false alarm over a possible survivor on Saturday.
Prime Minister John Key said the government would announce an aid package Monday for an estimated 50,000 people who will be out of work for months due to the closure of downtown. Key, who spent some of the afternoon talking to families who lost loved ones in the disaster, called for two minutes of silence on Tuesday to remember both the victims and the ordeal of the survivors.
"This may be New Zealand's single-most tragic event," Key said Saturday.
On the outer edge of the central district, Brent Smith watched in tears Saturday as workers demolished the 1850s-era building where he lived and ran a bed and breakfast and where antique jugs and a $6,000 Victorian bed were reduced to shards and firewood.
His three daughters hugged him, also weeping.
"You don't know whether to laugh or cry, but I've been doing more of the latter," Smith said.
Parker assured relatives of the missing — including people from several countries who have converged on this southern New Zealand city of 350,000_ that every effort was being made to locate any remaining survivors.
Police have said up to 120 bodies may be entombed in the ruins of the downtown CTV building alone, where dozens of foreign students from an international school were believed trapped.
The King's Education language school released a list of missing people presumed in the building: nine teachers and 51 students — 26 Japanese, 14 Chinese, six Filipinos, three Thais, one South Korean and one Czech. An additional 20 students were listed with "status unknown."
The city's central business district will take several months to recover, Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee said, adding that "most of the services, in fact all of the services that are offered in the CBD, will need to relocate elsewhere."
Damaged buildings will need to be bulldozed and rebuilt "so that people can have confidence about coming back into the area to transact any business that's here."
One in three of the central city's buildings were severely damaged in the quake and must be demolished, earthquake engineer Jason Ingham said.
In one neighborhood, the Butcher family spent Saturday retrieving a handful of salvagable belongings from their destroyed house — a couple of blankets, a stack of dishes, a Mickey Mouse mug, a box of crackers. They're staying with friends, but hope to buy a campervan.
Maree Butcher, 49, said she finds herself shaking awake with memories of Tuesday's horror every night around 3:30 a.m. She lies in bed and stares at her husband, Norm, who was nearly killed racing out the back door of their home as the brick walls blew out around him and the top floor collapsed to the ground.
Norm tried to cheer her up, nodding toward the wreckage and saying, "I really did want the open entertainment area."
Maree smiled. "We've lost our house and belongings," she said. "But we're still alive."
Background information from The Associated Press used in this report.