Christchurch attack, one year on: How the media covered NZ's darkest day

Friday March 15, 2019 - 1:41pm

Like the rest of the country, Christchurch was starting to wind down ahead of the weekend.

Video journalist George Heard had just arrived back from lunch when his news director asked him to drive to Deans Ave, in the suburb of Riccarton. Reports had been circulating of armed police in the area. 

Reluctantly, Heard made his way to the area, not expecting much to come of the assignment. He had been chasing police with guns all week. 

"I was getting quite sick of it," says Heard.   

He arrived to find the traffic gridlocked so he parked his car outside a nearby hotel.

A police officer was blocking off access to Deans Ave so he walked down a little bit further. Nothing could have prepared him for the scenes he was to stumble upon. 

"I saw an ambulance - there was a guy in the back of it. He had blood all over him."

'This is history'

A group of panicked people stood outside Deans Ave's Al Noor Mosque. One of them told him, "a man walked in with a machine gun and shot everyone. There are bodies everywhere".

In disbelief, he investigated further, arriving outside the main gate of the mosque where he saw for himself the horror. 

"Multiple bodies," Heard recalls. 

From there on in, he tried to make sense of what had happened. He eventually learned the gunman had stormed the mosque and opened fire during prayers.

"I was with all the people that were inside the mosque standing on the road and the police were telling us to hide behind the trees because they thought there was possibly a bomb, or they didn't know if the shooter was still inside," he says. 

"They were all very shaken - I remember one of them came up to me and gave me a hug. He explained his wife had been shot and killed.

"I was stunned by the whole situation - I remember earlier on at the scene, one of the policemen came over to me and yelled at me, 'you need to get out of here'. I said, 'no mate, this is history'."

 The terror didn't end at Al Noor. The gunman drove to the Linwood Mosque where he opened fire again. In total, 51 people were killed in the attack - what was later described by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as "New Zealand's darkest day".

When Heard got home later that night, he still hadn't processed what had happened.

"I just couldn't sleep," he says. "It must have been three days later - work sent me down to home in Wanaka to take a few days off."

George Heard.
George Heard. Photo credit: Newshub.

A city in lockdown

Camera operator Alex Parsons had been at work less than an hour when a tip-off came into the Newshub's Christchurch office about a possible firearms incident on Deans Ave.

He got in his vehicle and drove towards the scene less than two kilometres away.

"No-one can imagine that type of thing happening in Christchurch," says Parsons. "The first thing that really struck me was the number of ambulances going in and out.

"I probably went into a bit of shock because this is something pretty big."

After spending some time at the scene, Parsons headed across Hagley Park to Christchurch Hospital. The Garden City was a city in lockdown.

"That was quite unreal - that there was just no one around except armed cops, and they started checking all the cars for bombs," says Parsons.

"It was surreal. In a weird way, it seemed kind of ridiculous as well - I don't think anyone could quite believe what was going on."

TV3 and Newshub camera operator of 30 years Warren 'Wuz' Armstrong was on a day off and had been watching his daughter take part in a surfing competition at New Brighton Beach. 

"They actually shut the competition down - they closed it early," Armstrong says.

"People got moved into the library and then I left from there - to come back to work. I arrived at the newsroom and I pretty much started grabbing gear."

Like his colleagues had earlier in the afternoon, he made his way to Deans Ave.

Having worked through historical moments including the Canterbury earthquakes, the unprecedented horror never crossed his mind.

"I don't think anybody thought something like this would happen," says Armstrong. "I filmed through the earthquakes, Pike River, and other tragedies.

"This one was very different - I don't think people could comprehend what was going on."

Alex Parsons and Warren Armstrong.
Alex Parsons and Warren Armstrong. Photo credit: Newshub.

'The place was chaos'

Auckland-based 4pm presenter Mitch McCann lead the live reporting for Newshub after producers made a call to break into regularly scheduled programming to deliver up to date reports with the latest information. 

"Our regular newsreader was away so I was filling in," he recalls. "It was a pretty relaxed day, to be honest. We were just hanging around."

That feeling lapsed when the clock struck 1:41pm.

"I remember news started to break about something going on in Christchurch," says McCann.

Not imagining it would be anything outside the ordinary, he popped out of Auckland's MediaWorks office to get some lunch. When he returned, it was a much different atmosphere. 

"The place was chaos," he says. "In the time I've worked in this newsroom I've never seen anything like it."

It was a similar feeling for Auckland-based reporter Emma Cropper who is originally from Christchurch. She was also in the newsroom when things started to unfold. 

"We didn't know the significance of it or anything at that point but you just got the feeling that something had gone horribly wrong down there," she says.

"I was sent to the airport - I just grabbed the bag from underneath my desk, got in the car, drove to the airport and was on a flight straight down to Christchurch.

"We landed and there was this big rush - we were trying to find out what had happened."

Cropper was then charged with fronting international live crosses to the likes of CNN, the BBC, as well as broadcasters in Canada and Australia - outside Christchurch Hospital.

"It wasn't until after midnight when we had about 10 or 20 minutes to stop and it was pitch-black, the streets were so empty and I finally looked around.

"I looked through the park and could see the lights of Al Noor Mosque through there, and it just hit me how close we were to what was all going on."

Mitch McCann and Emma Cropper.
Mitch McCann and Emma Cropper. Photo credit: Newshub.

'Some disturbing news from Christchurch'

When enough details came in about what was unfolding in Christchurch, Newshub delivered a live broadcast to offer viewers insight into the unfolding tragedy. 

McCann's first words; "Kia ora good afternoon. We are breaking into normal programming right now for some disturbing news from Christchurch".

Like his colleagues in Christchurch, McCann says he was in autopilot mode with not a lot of time to really let the reality sink in.

"There was one moment where we were in an ad break - we'd been on air probably an hour at that time. In the ad break the autocue which the newsreader reads off flashed 'refresh' with new information that producers had just written.

"We had been saying six people had died. The autocue said 'Newshub understands 26 people have now died'.

"Even now you get goosebumps thinking about it. Just this cold chill of 'okay, this is what we're dealing with now'."

That, McCann says, was a moment he'll never forget. 

"Looking back now I think that could be the biggest story I ever read on.

"We just did not expect that to happen here - it was a shock at the time and it's still a shock now that it happened in Christchurch - somewhere where I grew up.

"As we found out it had a huge impact on everyone. It begs belief really."

Cropper continued to front international live-crosses in the coming days - this time from the flower wall outside Christchurch's Botanic Gardens.

"Just seeing all that local community rally behind everyone who had been affected - it was in my hometown and I was watching people I knew coming up and laying flowers - I think in my mind I'll always remember that forever," she says.

"The outpouring of love and support for those who had been injured, killed, or affected by what had happened was so incredible by everyone  in Christchurch and around the country as well as the world."

Christchurch attack, one year on: How the media covered NZ's darkest day
Photo credit: Newshub.

'They are us'

March 15's impact is still far-reaching one year on. The tragedy changed New Zealand and sent shockwaves through the world.

"Many of those affected will be members of our migrant communities – New Zealand is their home – they are us," said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the immediate aftermath of the attack. 

As Kiwis reacted, many came together. The mantras "they are us" and "we are one" became symbols of solidarity. 

Christchurch - which last month marked nine years since the devastating earthquake - emerged united in the wake of tragedy, growing closer over grief.

Muslim Association of Canterbury secretary Feroze Ditta told Newshub the Muslim community has come out of its shell. 

"I think the honess is on us as the Muslim community in Canterbury to open doors, say who we are - what we believe in."

And things in Christchurch are changing for the better, he says.

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 18: A police officer stands guard near Al Noor mosque on March 18, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. 50 people were killed, and dozens are still injured in hospital after a gunman opened fire on two Christchurch mosques on Friday, 15 March. The accused attacker, 28-year-old Australian, Brenton Tarrant, has been charged with murder and remanded in custody until April 5. The attack is the worst mass shooting in New Zealand's history. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Photo credit: Getty

"Before you'd see someone with a hijab and look the other way or there would be remarks but not anymore."

Christchurch City Mayor Lianne Dalziel says there are a lot of people determined to make the 'we are one' mantra real.

Dalziel told Newshub many have reached out to minority communities throughout the city since the tragedy.