On February 22, 2011 at 12.51pm, newspaper man Andrew Holden was handed the toughest assignment of his life, and the tightest deadline. He didn’t miss it.
As deadly earthquake struck Christchurch, tearing the home of The Press newspaper down around him, the editor had to get his staff out of the building, his family out of the city and newspaper out to the world.
Holden marshalled those of his team who were not trapped, injured or dead; knowing his own partner and six-month-old baby were somewhere in the crumbled city centre. After finding them and taking them to safety, the Australian-born editor drove back into the mayhem.
With power out across much of the city, modern communications failed. Many people were without television or the internet, and mobile phones and radios lasted only as long as their batteries. But under Holden’s leadership, The Press team made the old-school technology work.
For many earthquake victims, the first authoritative news of what had happened and where to turn came when The Press arrived on their doorstep, as usual, the next morning.
Originally from Melbourne, Holden began his career as paperboy and got his first reporting job on the city’s morning tabloid, The Sun News-Pictorial.
His first assignment was somewhat deceptive initiation – the story about trip up the Maribyrnong River mostly required him to sit back and relax.
But shortly thereafter, he was sent to cover skydiving event in the company of photographer who knew no fear. Holden was bundled onto tiny, seat-free Cessna and into parachute, and advised to pull the orange cord should he fall out.
At 3000 metres, the photographer clipped himself into harness, threw open the door, settled himself on the wing struts and told the pilot to take the plane into dive. Holden was left to investigate the best means of remaining inside such an aircraft.
After stint on community newspapers, he moved to London as editor of LAM, magazine for Australasians abroad, and then back to Melbourne to work on Fairfax newspapers The Age and The Sunday Age.
In 2000 he was asked to manage the Sydney Olympics coverage for the entire Fairfax stable. His job was to draw together large, scattered team dealing with torrent of breaking news. The skills he learned would prove more important than he knew.
Family commitments took him to Christchurch the following year, and in 2002 he arrived at The Press.
He struggled with the language barrier – Kiwi journalists did not swear in anything like the manner considered proper in an Australian newsroom. But he persevered, and by 2007 he was the editor.
Two large quakes hit Canterbury in the months leading up to the February 2011 disaster. But when the big one struck the century-old Gothic building that housed The Press, much of the roof collapsed onto the top floor. One person was killed and others were trapped, some badly hurt.
Holden helped the rest of the staff escape the building, and sent home anyone who needed to go. On the devastated central city street he prepared his team to get the story out.
The printing plant across town in Harewood was still operating. There, IT staff built network from scratch and reporters on handful of laptops emailed their first harrowing reports online.
Holden roped in subeditors from The Dominion Post to compile The Press from Wellington and send it to the Christchurch presses as printers, drivers and out-of-town reinforcements reported for duty.
Just hours after the earthquake hit, The Press began arriving around Christchurch. For many people, it was not only the first reliable news of the disaster; it was the first sign of order in the chaos.
For the next 14 months, Holden and his staff continued to put The Press out every day, from what became Portacom village at the printing plant. In 2012, he moved back home to Melbourne, as editor-in-chief of The Age.
Holden believes newspaper is special kind of anchor in crisis. It captures the essence of the event as only print reporters and photographers can – tangible object that does not change with everything around it. M
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