‘Waiting to hear he died was terrible’ – Wives of Irishmen who died in New Zealand earthquake open up to President Higgins
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‘Waiting to hear he died was terrible’ – Wives of Irishmen who died in New Zealand earthquake open up to President Higgins

IRELAND’S President Michael D Higgins has met the widows of two Irishmen killed in the 2011 Christchurch earthquake on his state visit to New Zealand.

The 6.3 magnitude quake took the lives of 185 people when it struck Christchurch six years ago – including Ireland natives Owen McKenna and John Joseph O’Connor.

On Thursday, President Higgins laid a wreath in the city to honour the pair before meeting with their wives, along with recently-elected Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

The widow of 40-year-old Mr McKenna, who was killed when a building collapsed on his car, told the President of the “traumatic” fortnight-long wait to learn of her husband’s death after the quake.

“My sister in law is a police woman, she realised that Owen was missing and she looked on the computer and told me – we knew unofficially that there was an unidentified person in the car registered to him,” Sarah Lothian said.

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“But officially they wouldn’t say. It wasn’t until two or three weeks later that we got word… That was terrible.

“It was ages and ages, it was really hard on the family in Ireland who were waiting to come to take him home. It was all just a waiting game really.”

Mr McKenna was buried near to his birthplace of Emyvale, Co. Monaghan after his body was recovered by rescue workers.

Ms Lothian said a recently erected memorial wall is Christchurch has helped comfort both herself and her two children with Owen – Grace and Tadhg.

“For us it is our place where we go, because he is buried over there,” she said.

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“We would love to be able to go to the grave more often but the wall is where we go now. It is a comfort.”

Mrs Lothian praised President Higgins for taking time out of his schedule to speak with her children, who she has worked hard to keep a “strong sense of Irishness.”

She said: “It is lovely for the children, and really humbling and it was a lovely gesture. It’s respectful.

“We have been well supported by the Irish community.”

“[Irish identity] was really important to him [Owen]… so I am trying to keep that connection”.

Christchurch GAA was recently renamed to Christchurch McKenna GAA Club in honour of Owen, which Sarah said meant a lot to the family.

The second Irish man who died in the 2011 quake was Kerry native John O’Connor, who was killed by the rubble of the Pyne Gould Guinness building in the city centre.

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Mr O’Connor’s widow, also called Sarah, attended the wreath laying service along with their children Dan and Sean.

President Higgins said each of the 185 named on Christchurch’s new memorial wall represented “a life cut short”.

He praised the resilience of the Irish community, as well as the New Zealand population at large, in the wake of the disaster.

“More than half of the people who are Irish-born and living in this region have come in response to the recent earthquake,” he said.

“It’s a great privilege to be able to pay tribute to their work along with others in the task of reconstruction.”