They gathered on street corners.

With schools in lockdown and some unable to get to their homes, Christchurch people congregated and shared their shock. Sirens droned and the occasional helicopter buzzed overhead – scenes the city hasn’t seen since the deadly earthquake eight years earlier.

Police urged people to stay indoors. But many ignored that advice and gathered to share what they knew. Some became defacto traffic wardens. Their cars were used to block roads, as part of the unfolding police operation.

In the information vacuum, many turned to social media.

“Have you seen that video?” a person asks, near the Christchurch South Community Gardens on Strickland St. “The one inside the mosque.” There are sounds of screaming.

“I don’t know if that’s true or not.”

Pictures emerge of the bloody floor of the Al Noor Mosque, near the central city’s park, Hagley Park – part of what appears to be a coordinated attack on two mosques, the other the Masjid mosque in the city’s east. They were gunned down while they prayed.

There were reports of another incident at Papanui High School, in the city’s north-west. A body was spotted and a man in military fatigues was apparently arrested.

The eyes of the world were on Christchurch, on what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called one of New Zealand’s darkest days. Police commissioner Mike Bush called it unprecedented.

The terror visited on the shores of England, the United States, France, Australia – so many countries – had reached New Zealand. Four people, three men and a woman, were apprehended. Police wouldn’t confirm the number of fatalities, except to say the number is “significant”.

Confronting scenes

On Brougham Street, an east-west, four-lane motorway across the city’s south, a white station wagon was pinned by a police car.

Paul Chalmers, of Lincoln, a university town south of Christchurch, saw what happened.

“A police car had cut across the road and rammed into the side of this guy’s car, and he’d tipped the car up on its side, so only one side of the car’s wheels were on the ground, and the two officers were dragging the guy out. One of them had a gun on ‘em.

“Mate, the cops looked real, real worried about getting him out. One of them had a gun on ‘em and they dragged him out of the car.”

Another bystander, a Scotsman called Martin Brown, cuts in.

“Apparently there were two in the car.”

Chalmers: “Was there two? I didn’t see the second guy.”

Police stalking around with rifles was a confronting scene. Photo: David Williams 

Brown: “I heard someone down there” – he points to Scott St – “said there were two in the car, and one of them got away from them.”

The exchange reflected the fluidity of the unfolding situation. Confronting scenes of cops stalking around with rifles, some of them haring off into foliage, others searching a stationary car, was the only certainty.

Rumour mixed with eye-witness accounts and social media footage.

There were obvious questions – but no answers. How many shooters were there? Why would schools be locked down if they’d caught everyone?

It was only two weeks earlier that frontline Christchurch police were told to carry guns – an unusual occurence in New Zealand – as they hunted a gunman. The city felt threatened. The mosques shootings made it feel like a city under siege.

“It’s just unbelievable, mate,” Chalmers says. “You don’t expect to see that sort of thing in New Zealand, let alone Christchurch. It’s just disgusting.”

Brown chimes in: “It’s quite crazy to think it could happen here. You only see this shit on the news, usually.”

As parents fretted about their children in lockdown, a white sedan sped past a line of stationary cars on Strickland St, not far from the pinned car on Brougham St.

An unprecedented act of violence

Brown: “The cop obviously walked past all the other traffic and pointed the gun at the car.”

He adds: “The guy that was driving it was handcuffed.”

Just before 4pm, an angry, swearing man in handcuffs was taken to a police car. Police were going through the white car the man had apparently been driving. Minutes after the man was led away, a policeman with rubber gloves picked up what looked like a rifle with a silencer on it.

“It could have been anything,” Brown says, unwilling to leap to conclusions. “He could have been just speeding or police got a warrant out for his arrest.”

There was talk of petrol cannisters being found in cars. Reports of a bomb. Police commissioner Mike Bush mentioned IEDs, improvised explosive devices, being defused.

Police in southern Christchurch suggested to bystanders there might be some controlled explosions, but none were evident.

In a bizarre scene, that will surely be repeated in the days to come, a policeman with earpiece, carrying a long rifle, walked past an empty section, where two blonde-haired preschoolers played on rocks. The policeman casually removed a set of road spikes, and readied them for deployment. He spread orange cones across the road, and then spoke to bystanders.

The Prime Minister spoke in the afternoon about “an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence”. A day earlier, the country was reeling after a Government minister, Green Party co-leader James Shaw, being assaulted while walking to work. Twenty-four hours later the country appeared to be losing its innocence, as it came to terms with an act of terror.

Standing on Strickland St, Kerry Beckett shook her head. “Guns in Scott St. That’s amazing. Unbelievable. It’s a nice wee, quiet area. Not good.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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