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2 US Lawyers OK After Quake; 35 Escape N.Z. Firm Where Stairs ‘Dropped Down the Stairwells’

Posted Feb 22, 2011 7:58 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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Updated: Visiting in New Zealand, a lawyer from Concord, N.H., is among the survivors of a devastating earthquake that collapsed buildings in the central business district of Christchurch, killing dozens and trapping others in the rubble, reports NECN.

"Suddenly the floor began shaking violently, the walls began shaking, windows were rattling, things were falling off the walls. It was really quite enormous," recounts Simon Leeming, who was at a cousin's house in the country when the temblor struck yesterday.

"When I grew up in New Zealand I experienced some quakes, but nothing like that," says Leeming, who serves as the country's honorary counsel to six states in New England.

Partner Evan Bayh III of McGuireWoods, who was attending a conference in Christchurch, is also OK, the Chicago Tribune reports. He and his wife are preparing to return home.

A lawyer from Buddle Findlay who has been working in a client's office was trapped in a collapsed building overnight but survived without any serious injury, reports ALB Legal News.

Another ALB Legal News article reports that at least three more Christchurch law firms also have evacuated.

Among them, Duncan Cotterill reports on its website that everyone eventually escaped its Clarendon Tower offices. However, "around 35 of our commercial team were trapped on Level 9 as the stairs had dropped down the stairwells," a notice to staff states. "Fortunately, they eventually found a way out. So relieved!"

Buddle Findlay had some lawyers on the 13th floor of the building who were also stuck there initially, in what partner John Buchan called "a horrific and frightening experience."

Asked by the ABA Journal how the Duncan Cotterill lawyers escaped from the building, chief executive Janice Fredric said in an e-mail that she didn't yet have all the details, but thinks this is what happened:

"We occupy three floors in the building and they were still being repaired following the September earthquake," she writes. "The building has a dual staircase, with two separate staircases exiting the building. Apparently both of these had dropped on Level 9.

"Fortunately we also have an internal staircase between two of our floors (from Level 9 to Level 8)–this was boarded up during the repairs," she continues. "It seems that some of the builders working on the repairs were on hand to assist with removing that barrier and using the internal staircase to move down to Level 8.

"They then used the one staircase accessible from that floor to exit to the next floor where they had to exit that stairwell due to damage and walk around to the second staircase and use that to exit the rest of the way."

In the interim, "it was distressing for staff outside the building to look up and see ‘HELP’ signs at the window and to realize that it was our staff who had put them up and needed the help," she says.

In the end, though, no one was injured, the firm's website says.

"We’ve had a busy day trying to establish everyone’s location and the well being of them and their families–but we’ve achieved a lot," Fredric concludes. "We’ve got temporary premises, our IT systems are strengthened further and we’ve had good communication with everyone. The September quake now seems like just a dress rehearsal for this one."

At Simpson Grierson, "we are thankful that all of our Christchurch based staff are safe," the firm says on its website. "We are currently unable to occupy our Christchurch offices due to the significant earthquake."

It is directing all phone calls to its Wellington office. Calls to Duncan Cotterill's office in Christchurch are being routed to Auckland.

Meanwhile, Cavell Lietch Law will be closed indefinitely. Because the firm's servers are down, staff are communicating via private e-mail addresses and mobile phones.

A group of worried relatives who have received good news includes Sandra Becker of Rosebank. Her two nieces and sister-in-law live in Christchurch, which is less than 10 miles from where the 6.3 magnitude quake was centered.

“I knew one of them worked at a solicitor’s office in the city,” Becker tells the Northern Star. “Most solicitors are centered around the square where the cathedral is and I heard a couple of the buildings had concertinaed down.”

The death toll is presently 75, but is expected to increase substantially, the BBC News explains.

A dozen large buildings were destroyed in the city's center when the quake hit around lunchtime on a busy business day, reports the Daily Mail. Its article includes numerous photos of the wreckage, where rescue operations are still being conducted.

An Associated Press article discusses the earlier earthquake in September. It reportedly did less damage, even thought it was of a higher magnitude, because this week's quake occurred closer to the surface of the earth.

Last updated at 11:35 p.m. to include information from Fredric and link to AP coverage about September quake.

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