– Corner of Cashel and Madras, Christchurch CBD

February 22nd 2011:

Just twenty minutes prior to the earthquake I’d walked through town – past the cathedral, stopping to look up at the spire. I’d wondered if the viewing platform was closed or not, and decided it probably still was – perhaps from the earthquake in September…but made a mental note to find out at some stage so I could get the kids up there during the next holidays.

Walked through the city mall, past the Grand Chancellor – again stopping here to see if I could see my friends’ father who is the concierge there.

Finally made it back to work – the IRD building, and to my desk on the fourth floor which looks out towards the CTV building.

I’d been in the building during plenty of aftershocks – but had never once been inclined to head under my desk….but this was different. Almost immediately it was violent – and I don’t recall deciding that I needed to – but I was under my desk. It was difficult to stay there….I kept on getting bounced away from my desk and back under it. Again – it was violent, and seemed to increase in intensity several times before finally just stopping.

I stood up and told my team it was ok – it had come and gone and we were ok.
Then I looked out the window – and watched the CTV building fall down. It was a surreal moment. The building had been there, I had watched it fall – and now, as the dust rose up – through it – just an empty space.

I called my team together and said we were just going to stay put….then the emergency evacuation alarm went off – and so I told everyone they needed to go back to their desks – grab their jackets and bags and in 20 seconds we would leave together.

It was one of the quickest and smoothest evacuations of that building I had ever seen…..people knew what to do, where to go and although clearly shocked – were focused on the immediate task of getting out of the building. There was no panic.

Our assembly point was Latimer Square – so we had to walk past the CTV site.
I remember holding someone’s hand and asking someone else to hold this persons hand – and the next thing I recall is standing on the rubble of the CTV site – One of about 8 or 9 people who were helping to lead people down with various injuries from what appeared to be a hole at the top of the rubble.

I felt happy – people were alive – I couldn’t believe it. I really felt we were going to save everyone.

Other IR staff – three heroes whose actions directly or indirectly saved lives that day.
John Porter – refused to get off the top of the rubble during the huge aftershocks – and continued to help people out. He also played the role of a fireman that day.
Stephanie Alderson – who grouped together a band of people and lead them back into the IRD building to gather the Civil Defence equipment. We used this equipment as soon as it arrived – water, ropes, blankets.
Andrew Thirring – A civil defence rep – who stayed and assisted at the site – not leaving until I did at around 7pm.

Other heroes – there are so many from that day….I don’t know their names.
Godfrey – a construction worker, Dave – a Senior Police Officer. I wish I could have known all their names.

Maybe – we got 7 or 8 people out immediately…...then things became a lot tougher – thick smoke engulfed us. There was no heat, just smoke – after a while, you just got used to it.

It was chaos – but organised chaos – the police were incredible – a lot of people, but so much to do….a couple of times we just formed lines of 15-20 people passing rubble down from the top and piling it in the car park…..it wasn’t long though before all the rubble that we could shift by hand – we had – and we couldn’t do anything about the large beams of concrete stopping us from doing any more.

John and I found the source of the fire at some point and did what we could with fire extinguishers until the fire service turned up. That was frustrating – we could see the fire – but just couldn’t get close enough to it to do anything of any real substance with the extinguishers.

USAR turned up….and specialist search and rescue dogs. I had many roles that day…fire-fighter, medic, but somehow I ended up in charge of one of the dogs…’Keeper’. He/she was straight into the building – and seemed to identify an area where there may have been people….Keeper came off the rubble and had a deep cut to her paw…..another role…vet. By the time I had finished with the bandage it looked like a broken paw – not one with a cut.

Maybe an hour, maybe two had gone by – don’t know – but suddenly we all rushed to an area on the left hand side of the building….survivors!

I could see two people – Asian girls….. We got the first out – and while two stretchered her to Latimer Square, I held her hand and kept telling her she was ok.
She dug her nail into my arm and made it gush with blood…..she told me I had to go back for her friend who had been next to her….she pleaded with me to go back for her friend.

Told her I would – and once at Latimer square asked her some questions…what floor had she been on, how many people had she been with, how many others could she see….felt sick when she said ‘50’.

More time lost…..I don’t remember getting back to the site again – just being back in the same place we had pulled her from. Told a police officer about the info she had given me and he rushed away.
I could see the arm and leg of her friend – she was moving – but was well wedged into the building….
At some point a hydraulic jack was passed up and put into place…...sometime later, the hose on the jack snapped off and swung around and hit me in the leg. I picked the end of the hose up and sprayed myself with hydraulic fluid.

For a moment – I lamented how – through all my clambering around the rubble – I had managed to keep my suit reasonably intact and clean…now, it was ruined – covered in oil.
Then I looked up – heard a small crack as a concrete beam dropped a millimetre….and that was that.
No one said anything. We just stood there. Then a blanket was passed up and the area was covered and we moved onto another area of the rubble.

I know I was at the site for about 7 hours – but it seemed like 10 minutes – and much of the afternoon is lost.
I see pictures of myself at the site in the paper the next day – and I can’t recall what I was doing at that point.

I hadn’t heard from my kids, or their mum, or my partner or anyone – then suddenly – about 30 txts and missed calls appear on my phone.
My mum has lost her house but is safe, my kids are at home with their mum but are scared their house is badly damaged and need to get out of there, and my house sounds like it has suffered damage…...I’m needed at home.

I think – this will be the most difficult decision I have or will ever make in my life…...walking away from the CTV site. The police, Fire and ambulance service and USAR were well in control and the rescue was coordinated and moving quickly…..so, I know I wasn’t needed….but, deciding it was time to go home and leave all of those brave people and not help anymore…was heartbreaking.

Over the next two weeks I worked for Victim Support – and had the absolute privilege of working alongside the Police, Army and other Victim Support people from CHCH and Invercargill…...what incredible people…people affected by the EQ on a personal level – but who put their duty before themselves. And the families of the people who were lost…so much anguish and sadness and frustration – yet all so incredibly strong. I wish I could have known them all under different circumstances – beautiful people, beautiful families.

And it was from my interaction with these families – from meeting them when they reported their loved ones missing, to sharing the days of hoping for a miracle with them, receiving confirmation of their loss and farewelling their loved ones at funerals – that I was able to put the earthquake, and the loss of property and disruption for myself and my family into perspective.

Kia Kaha Christchurch.

Mike Williams

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