Damaged cathedral symbolizes New Zealand city's anguish

For 130 years, Christchurch Cathedral stood at the center of its city as a graceful monument to its heritage and civic pride. Now, with its spire decapitated by an earthquake, it has become a symbol of the city's anguish.

Tuesday's 6.3-magnitude earthquake that killed at least 145 people in New Zealand left the Anglican cathedral's once-stately bell tower in ruins, possibly with an additional 22 people lying dead in the rubble.

"The cathedral is the heart of the city, and the city has a broken heart," the building's dean, Peter Beck, said while looking at the damage.

The central area of Christchurch, one of New Zealand's three main cities and a picturesque tourism hub of 350,000 people, radiates outward from the cathedral's plaza like spokes on a wheel. The Avon River meanders through a mostly low-rise city dotted with greenery and old stone buildings — many of them brought down by the quake — that have imparted an Old England character.

The cathedral had survived another quake last September with only minor damage. But when the ground moved again Tuesday, it suffered as cruelly as its city.

The body of the cathedral remained in one piece, but its spire severed and toppled into Cathedral Square. That was followed by a cascade of masonry, which lies in deep drifts around the main entrance. The roof was pierced by falling stones, leaving the altar and pews open to the sky.

That was a sad day for Christchurch, said resident Tina Macdonald, 55, who works at a motel and considers the building one of the city's main draws.

"It's an icon," she said. "It was such a beautiful building inside, and people would go there just to sit in the quietness."

Much of the rest of downtown also has been devastated. Officials say it will take several months before any businesses can be allowed to reopen — by some estimates at least a third of the buildings must be razed to ensure safety.

Anglican Bishop Victoria Matthews said the cathedral would rise again and reclaim its place as the city's spiritual center.

"It's entirely fixable as far as we understand at this time," Matthews told The Associated Press. "I was right up close to it this morning and though obviously the damage is extensive, I have every confidence it can be rebuilt."

The cathedral has suffered several quakes that damaged its spire — the first one dislodging a stone just a month after the building was consecrated on Nov. 1, 1881. The spire was damaged again in 1888 and 1901 and rebuilt each time, though it never suffered as much damage as this past week.

Before any rebuilding can begin, crews much clear the rubble and search for what is believed to be as many as 22 people buried inside.

Many of those missing were part of a tour group which had just begun to climb the bell tower to take advantage of its panoramic views of the city. They may be trapped near the tower's base and under rubble.

That work began only Friday, and aftershocks soon brought new slabs of masonry down, and the work was on hold again Saturday.

"It's a very delicate job," Beck said.

Matthews said it's important not to value a building over the city's people.

"I never underestimate the importance of symbolism. The cathedral is symbolic but it is not all that is important," she said. "The big problem for this city is not the cathedral, it's the loss of so many lives."