Raleigh man survives New Zealand quake, cyclone

A Raleigh man decided to get away from it all after he was laid off. His trip to New Zealand, though, turned into a date with disaster. Fleeing from a cyclone, he ended up in an earthquake.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Software programmer Dan Sweet lost his job the week of Christmas 2010, so he decided to get away for a while.

He planned a monthlong trip to Australia and New Zealand.

"If you're going to go across the world, you need to go for a certain amount of time. Otherwise, it's not worth it," he said.

The first two weeks of his trip were peaceful, and he fulfilled his intent to "pretty much to relax, see as much as I can," he said.

Then, Sweet found out, a catastrophic cyclone was headed directly for the city of Cairns, where he was staying.

"Every flight out of Cairns was sold out. I realized I was stuck then," he said.

Sweet's hostel was evacuated, so he was taken to a shopping mall turned in to a shelter. There, he waited out and survived the category 5 storm.

Next, he headed to New Zealand for a guided tour of the country. The tour started and ended in Christchurch, a historic city of about 350,000.

A devastating 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck last Tuesday as Sweet and his tour group drove back to Christchurch.

"We were about an hour outside, and our tour guide got a text message that another quake had hit Christchurch," he said.

All streets leading to the city center were closed off, and Sweet quickly realized how lucky he had been.

"I was actually staying in a hotel the next two nights that was in the city center. If the quake had hit an hour or two later, I would have been right in the middle of where it was the most destructive," he said.

A third of the buildings in Christchurch's city center were so badly damaged that they will have to be razed and rebuilt. The Christchurch Cathedral collapsed, likely killing 21 tourists who were climbing the bell tower famous for its panoramic views.

The death toll from the quake stands at 146, and more than 50 people are still missing.

Sweet took about 900 pictures during his trip – but none in or around Christchurch after the quake.

"People were trying to salvage things from their homes. I didn't think it was really appropriate to be taking pictures of that," he said.

Sweet, who returned home to Raleigh Friday, said he hasn't been scared off from traveling. The memories of good times he had in New Zealand are stronger than those of his brushes with natural disasters.

He hopes to travel to Europe next, maybe as early as this summer.


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