A Week in Christchurch – Wednesday 23 Feb to Sat 5 March 2011
A personal account by Peter J Seager
12.51 Tuesday 22 Feb 2011 – A point in time that will go down in history as a defining moment for New Zealand and its people.
At this moment, the magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck Christchurch. A city that had been recovering from the damage of the larger but more distant quake of September 2010 was shattered beyond comprehension and changed forever.
The level of devastation was so great that even weeks later, people had difficulty grasping the scale of destruction or the enormity of the task that lies ahead for Christchurch, its citizens and New Zealand as a whole.
Those present on the day struggle to find the words to describe what they went through and what has happened to their city. Those that came to their aid were met by scenes that defied conventional description. That normal words seemed hopelessly inadequate to describe.
As the tales of tragedy and heroism began to emerge, and New Zealand began to grasp the enormity of the catastrophe that was underway, the greatest rescue operation that New Zealand has ever seen, one that would come to involve hundreds of rescuers from many different countries, began to swing into action.
Part of this operation, was the first ever mass mobilisation of the 18 volunteer light Urban Search And Rescue (USAR) Response Teams. I am a member of one of these teams – NZRT16 of Tauranga, Bay of Plenty. This is my attempt to tell my story of what I witnessed and experienced over the following ten days.
Tuesday 22 Feb – The first day.
“Do you have your pager thingy with you?” These were the words (or something like them) that I was greeted with by a colleague at work. The time was shortly after 1pm. I was in my office reviewing job applicants.
“Why is that?” I asked. ‘J’ replied that she had just heard from a typist that there had been another big quake in Christchurch and as I had a CD pager, perhaps I knew something. ‘J’ father lives in Christchurch.
I did not – The pager was at home! A quick look at the Herald website revealed that a large quake had occurred. As more information was gleaned from other websites, it soon became apparent that an event of great seriousness had taken place. There was loss of life, but the scale was unknown at this time.
Over the next couple of hours, more news came in. Modern buildings had collapsed this time. People were trapped. The first pictures and videos of frantic rescue attempts from the Pyne Gould Corporation building were seen. It was apparent that the situation was very serious, although the enormity of what was happening was yet to sink in.
Mid afternoon, whilst still at work, I received a phone call asking if I was available, and if so, could I prepare my PPE that evening with a view to deployment possibly the following day. The plan was that we would be self sufficient for three days and that we should prepare to be away for seven.
I went to see my boss. I requested that I had been asked my availability and was that ok with her. She checked with the next up the ladder, who quickly agreed to release me.
I spent the rest of the day trying to tidy up some loose ends in anticipation! That evening, I checked and repacked my personal equipment and packed some clothes etc. At the time, I had one eye on the continuous news coverage, which only seemed to get worse by the hour.
In the evening, an email was received from Shaun the Team Manager, advising that there was a very strong likelihood of deployment and that we were officially on standby. At this time, it was expected that we would fly down!!
Sleep that night could best be described as ‘fitful’
Wednesday 23 Feb – The Road South.
Wednesday began with a radio news announcement that the Bay of Plenty teams had been deployed! As I was still at home and about to go to work, I contacted Pete the Team Leader, who confirmed that we were still on standby and that a final decision was not expected before midday.
I told My daughter that it was likely that I would be going to Christchurch that day, but not yet certain.
I went to work, taking my kit bag and personal bags with me. Of course, I soon realised I had forgotten some stuff, but thought I would have time to go home and collect what was missing. My manager even asked if I wanted to go home to rest, but as I thought that nothing was going to happen until at least lunchtime, I decided to stay and try and sort out outstanding tasks.
Around 10.30, I received a phone call to assemble at Barkes corner ASAP! The plan now was to drive to Wellington for an 8pm ferry.
Suddenly from believing I had several hours in hand (if indeed anything was going to happen this day), I was thrown into a frantic last minute dash to tell people I was going, to call ‘S’ my wife, to ask ‘R’ (Senior MRT and unofficial 2ic) to sort out the interviews for me and to catch my manager on the way out and tell her I was off.
I drove to Barkes corner (Council office and local EOC), to find the team assembling. Over the course of the next hour, everyone arrived. Initial tasks were handed out – i.e. food shopping, vehicle hire etc. ‘S’ met me there, bringing some spare clothes, but in the rush, I managed to forget to ask for both sunhat and sunglasses.
Following a series of slightly awkward family farewells, we were briefed by the local emergency manager as to some general operating principles. Then we were off.
Three vehicles, two trailers and 10 personnel. Shaun, Peter, Melvern, Bernie, Audrey, Craig, Kevin, Gene, David and me.
Time was tight, but with the number of drivers, we made it to Wellington shortly after 7pm. Stops were limited to fuel and driver changeovers, with one food stop in Bulls.
We lined up and boarded a special sailing of the Interislander.
On the car deck was a fire engine from Hutt Valley, several ‘City Care’ trucks and a truck and trailer from the Hobbit set at Matamata that was carrying diesel and water supplies south.
Thanks to a friendly Purser, several bunkrooms were made available at no charge. The crossing was flat calm and I managed to sleep most of the way across. We arrived in Picton around 11.30pm and took the road south (after collecting 40 litres of Diesel from the ‘Hobbit man’)
Thursday 24 Feb – Arrival in Christchurch and First impressions.
The long drive to Christchurch seemed interminable. Sleep was hard to come by, but we kept going, changing drivers as required. The outskirts of the city and the first cordon were reached just before 5am.
The ‘road closed’ sign and attendant police were not what brought home that we were entering a situation quite out of the ordinary. That was achieved by the armoured personnel carrier sitting adjacent to the roadblock as if daring anyone to try and break through.
APC’s and other army vehicles would come to be very common sights over the next week, as would the combination of Kiwi and Singaporean soldiers assisting the NZ (and later Australian) police in the manning of the cordons.
Our small convoy found its way to the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) located in the new art gallery. The time was 5am and upon entering, we were greeted by an official who looked like he had been on duty continuously since the day of the quake. He did not seem to know what to do with us, nor did his colleague. Unsurprisingly, there were few people in the building at this time. ‘Breakfast’ in the form of last nights pizza leftovers was however available.
As we waited for information, another Civil Defence official let us know that the operations were being controlled out of Latimer Square. Despite being only a half dozen blocks away, this could only be reached by going outside the cordon and right around the CBD.
Latimer Square had been an early triage point. Its close proximity to the CTV building as a large and safe open space virtually guaranteed that this location would serve a key role throughout the crisis. As the following days progressed, this area became base of operations for both the Task Forces and Response Teams and base camp for the task forces, both NZ and international. The art gallery remained the overall EOC as well as being a further operations base for some RT taskings.
Eventually, we were directed to Latimer Square for further information. From there, we were directed to a scout camp on the outskirts (Rimu camp in Yaldhurst). By now, day was breaking and we had our first proper glimpses of collapsed buildings and wrecked streets as we drove through the city.
Reaching the campsite a little after seven am, we found a number of other response teams in residence, including Hutt Valley, Palmerston North, Whakatane and others. Team vehicles and trailers were all loaded up and ready to go. More than I had ever seen in one place outside an exercise.
The plan was that after setting up camp and a few hours sleep, we would report to Latimer square for tasking.
The meal we prepared on waking ended up being the only meal we prepared ourselves the whole deployment. (More on the catering arrangements later).
Gear was checked and the team left for Latimer Square. Now in bright sunlight, the destruction was more obvious and quite surreal. We drove past sights that would come to be familiar over the coming days; The car perched on top of the pile of rubble on Tuam street outside a devastated parade of upmarket shops, and approaching Latimer Square, the row of cars with the collapsed building on top. These stayed untouched the whole time we were there.
Parking up, we found the Operations base (BOO), signed in and settled down to wait for our first tasking. This proved to be a long wait, but unfortunately, not the only one we had all week! In the time we had, we were able to ‘explore’ the Square. One whole half was taken up by the task forces. This included the NZ, Australian, Japanese, Taiwanese and later the Chinese contingents. The half that the response teams were based in also housed the Singaporean team, and was to house the Americans and UK teams when they arrived the following day. One result of this was that the area allocated to the RT’s shrunk daily!
On the plus side however, we were closest to the catering.
A few of us wondered to the end of the fenced off area. Beyond the fence was a row of TV cameras and media crews. A short distance away, several diggers could be seen at work on a large collapsed building. It suddenly dawned on me where we were. This was our first sight of the CTV building and the sight of the recovery works going on less than a block from where we were standing was one that would recur throughout the deployment.
After nearly two hours of waiting, we received the first task – To carry out welfare and property checks in the suburb of Woolston. Upon parking up in a garage forecourt, we were almost immediately approached by a local concerned about the welfare of his father in an adjacent house. Kevin checked this out, to find that the man was ok, but the main concern was that the medic alert alarm system wasn’t functioning. The main phones were however.
We were split into pairs and issued streets. The checks began. At the first house that me and Bernie visited, we found a large family in residence and were greeted by a child calling to her parent – “The earthquake people are here”. The property had been damaged in the September quake and had been damaged further this time round. The family were living in the garage at night!
Damage all round was variable, although most houses seemed liveable in. We carried out our checks and filled out our forms. The reception from the residents was good, although in return, many seemed nervous and ‘wired’. We were the first official presence they had seen and they were keen to talk. Power and water were both on, but sewage was out. Some properties had suffered badly from liquefaction. One resident had already cleared his driveway with a bobcat, leaving a channel through the silt some 6 to 8 inches deep.
We had been going for only about an hour, when we were recalled to Latimer square. The task had not been completed!
No more taskings this day. Instead, we spent the rest of the day being offered food and drink by the eager and helpful caterers, unloading a truck of water and Powerade for the RT’s and watching a live broadcast being made by TV1 news looking towards the CTV building.
Eventually, we were debriefed and returned to the scout camp.
Friday 25 February – The Eastern Suburbs
Friday started early with the noise of a very large plane seemingly landing right on top of us. ‘Here’s the Americans’ I thought. This turned out to be right. We arrived at Latimer square a little after 7am, to find the American team setting up camp. They had arrived on a chartered United Airlines 747. This had proved not big enough to house all of their gear and they had had to leave two thirds behind!!
This is probably as good a time as any to mention the drive in, in the morning. From the camp in Yaldhurst to Hagley Park, life continues. Traffic flows normally. Pedestrians are walking. Life seems pretty much normal. Damage in Riccarton is relatively light and tends to be isolated to individual buildings, which are fenced off.
Past Hagley Park however, the first cordon is reached and everything changes. Within the cordon, you enter a surreal world of shattered buildings and blocked roads. Life is totally different. Every person, every piece of equipment, every effort is concentrated on rescue or recovery. The atmosphere is intense, focussed and more than a little weird. I had to constantly remind myself that this was actually real.
Roads entering the city were variable. Coming past Hagley Park, the first damaged roads are encountered. For much of the deployment, most roads within the CBD and many outside were in a very poor state with holes, humps, pools of silt etc. Later on, some evidence of repair could be seen and the piles of silt were gradually removed.
Back to Latimer Square – Our first deployment of the day was back to Woolston, the area of the day before. This time, we were issued with the correct forms and were asked to mark the pavements outside each property with its status (clear or not clear). This lasted even less time than Wednesday and we were again called back to Latimer square after covering only a few houses!!
Some time later, we were asked to support an engineer in an outer suburb (not sure where). On finding him, he did not need USAR assistance. Back to Latimer square again! This drive was memorable for the long line of manhole covers sitting proud of the road. The road had sunk around the sewage pipes, leaving the manholes sitting high!
Lunch at Latimer Square – Then another task. This time to the eastern suburb of Mount Pleasant. Over the Ferrymead bridge and on the road to Sumner, these areas had yet to be visited by rescue teams. The bridge itself was in the process of being repaired following the September quake, when this one hit. It was again severely damaged and had only just reopened with a weight limit of 3.5 tonnes. Calculations were made and it was decided that the vehicles would just make it.
On the way, we drove past a ‘BBQ Warehouse’ where the front slabs had collapsed.
The bridge itself was very bumpy and the temporary structures built on either side to support the bridge could clearly be seen to be leaning out of true. Past the bridge, the roads deteriorated further, with cracks and slippage and the appearance that the whole lot was sliding into the adjacent harbour. There was much traffic, mostly heading the other way. I made a comment that they all seemed to be heading out of town. I think I was right in many cases!
We parked up at the base of our sector adjacent to a house where a sidewall had blown out. A wooden bedstead could be clearly seen in the gap.
I was paired up with Bernie and tasked to start at the base of Maffeys Rd and proceed up one side. Audrey and Craig were to start on the other side. Melvern and Kevin checked the street lower down, whilst the remainder of the team drove up Maffeys Rd to start at the streets higher up.
Unsure where Maffeys Rd began, we picked a house and started there. This turned out to be inhabited by a severely shocked resident, who was having difficulty coping. His main property damage came from water pipes, but there were large cracks under the house. We did what we could for him (which wasn’t much), left him with the phone numbers and moved on. Liquefaction here had been strong. His car was buried up to its axles!
For each property, we were required to fill out a ‘level one’ building inspection report and if residents were present, a welfare report. I wondered what happened with these reports, and whether the people, like this gentleman who clearly were in need of urgent assistance, were going to get the help they needed at an early stage. This one house took two of us over twenty minutes. An idea of how big the task was. We were indeed the first people he had seen, and like in Woolston the day before, people wanted to talk. It was neither practical nor fair to cut them off early. Stress was clearly very high all round, with many people on edge.
It turned out that this house was not Maffeys road at all, which started a few houses up. We walked on, checking and marking as we went! (Each house was marked on the pavement outside with ‘RT16’, the date and C or NC. We were not tasked with entering closed properties (That would come to a later team), but could enter a house if the resident was present. Proceeding up Maffeys road, the road surface was severely damaged and had collapsed at one side. It was only passable at all because a load of gravel has been tipped into the giant crack running across the road.
We noticed a steady trickle of cars coming down Maffeys road. Many of these were loaded up with belongings. Stopping each in turn, we confirmed our belief that these were residents leaving town. We tried to get names and addresses from as many as we could!
The inspections up Maffeys road continued. This road is very steep and was badly cracked. Very few residents were home. One empty house had been abandoned so quickly, the key was still in the lock and a bag was just inside the door. We decided to enter to check the house was empty. This turned out to be the case, although interior damage was severe.
The degree of property damage was very high with severe levels of damage to nearly every house. Very few properties appeared habitable. Some houses had lost the entire exterior block cladding, with the building paper visible all round. Another had had nearly every tile on the roof misplaced. Houses were leaning to greater or lesser degrees. Windows were broken, or had fallen out completely. At one house though, we did encounter an insurance assessor who was checking on temporary repairs to secure a property. Other houses showed signs of attempts at clean up with boxes of glass swept up and windows boarded. In some houses, the tobies (water taps) had been isolated.
We were to later find out that this area had suffered ground accelerations in excess of 1G. The houses quite literally had taken off before coming back down again! This area was only a few Km’s from the epicentre.
From the elevated position of Maffeys road, we could see some rugby fields near the water. Large patches of grey silt from liquefaction could be seen.
Two army Iroqouis helicopters flew overhead, the distinctive ‘wop wop’ fading away as the helicopters disappeared around a further hill.
One houses driveway had collapsed, leaving a light truck tipped over the edge.
The searches continued for a couple of hours up Maffeys road and down La Costa lane until the team was once again recalled before the task had been completed.
We returned to Latimer Square, where after dinner, we were debriefed. There were no further tasks this day.
The UK team, the last of the international task forces arrived this day too, taking up the last spots in Latimer Square.
Saturday 26 February – Engineer support
Saturday started with the now familiar routine of forcing myself out of the sleeping bag and into wakefulness! Getting ready and heading into Latimer Square for breakfast and team Leaders briefing at 07.30.
Despite the early start, we were not issued with a team task. Instead, the morning was spent with ‘hurry up and wait’. Characterised by frequent visits to the mess area and chatting with members of international teams to pass the time. The catering area was getting more organised each day. The volunteers from the Brethren were always available to hand out food and drink to the rescuers. Much of this was donated. Today, a wooden archway was built to control entry and provide a hand sanitising area. (There was no hot water anywhere in the Square. Instead, hand sanitizer was used frequently!)
During the morning John Key visited the Square. We had heard he was coming and assumed he would spend his time with the Taskforces and International teams. On hearing that he was on his way through, a few of us went to see him walk by, on his way (as we thought) to the Americans. However, on the way by, he was introduced to the Responders lined up and stopped to say a few words to every one.
Just after lunch, volunteers were requested to assist with engineer support tasked out of the EOC (art gallery). Gene, Melvern and myself volunteered and were driven to the EOC by a very circuitous route. In a direct line, it is only half a dozen blocks, but about a fifteen-minute drive by vehicle.
After a short wait at the EOC, the three of us, along with other responders were given our taskings. These were, one responder to support two engineers carrying out level one inspections of a city block. I was issued with a map and phone number for ‘my’ engineer. I contacted him to find his location and along with the others, was given a lift to the area. Another long round trip to a block in the lower half of the CBD between Madras and Manchester Streets. Gene was on the other side of Manchester Street, Melvern was further north.
The task was to provide safety support, i.e. another overview of what was around, whilst the engineers inspected properties and prepared paperwork. This allowed me time to look around. After being dropped off initially, I could see the expanse of destroyed building stretching up Manchester Street. The three of us proceeded along Southwark Street to Madras Street. Along the way, we passed a car park with a car badly damaged by an adjacent brick wall.
Half way through, we were on Madras Street. With my still poor local geography, it took me a while to work out what building was being worked on a few blocks away by several diggers and cranes. It was the CTV building, with Latimer Square visible just beyond.
Damage in this block was mixed. Some buildings appeared undamaged and were stickered green. Others had leaning walls or cracked brickwork and were stickered yellow or red accordingly. One café still had cakes in the display cabinet and the tables and chairs had been stacked up neatly!
In another area, a concrete slab had collapsed on top of vacant parking areas.
Towards the end of the block, we passed an old hotel / pub, which had been damaged in September and again this time. Exposed lath and plasterwork could be seen. This building was ticketed ‘red’. The end of the block took us back to Manchester Street. I realised how quiet it was.
To the south, the visible damage was lighter. But as I turned north, a scene of great devastation was revealed.
Shop front after shop front had collapsed. Mounds of rubble and bricks were strewn everywhere. Enough of a path has been cleared to allow passage along the road. The scene stretched for as far as the eye can see. Hanging in the distance over all, was the Hotel Grand Chancellor. From this angle, a slight but distinct lean could be seen.
No crowds were walking, no cars driving. The silence was total and a little unnerving. I could be the only person for miles. Not quite though. The two engineers that I was escorting were completing the paperwork for an adjacent property. Another green, yellow or red sticker was issued.
Looking north, another team could be seen in the distance on the same task as us. We continued with our block.
Upon completing the block, we decided to walk back to the EOC, there being a fairly direct route that skirted Cathedral Square and the central blocks of the CBD. The first part of this route was up Manchester Street past the rows of collapsed shop fronts seen earlier. The whole frontage had collapsed, leaving rooms eerily visible on the upper layers. In places, scaffolding had collapsed adding to the mountains of rubble. Turning left onto Tuam Street, we passed the end of Columbo Street, where the two buses crushed during the quake were still present. The street end was closed off. Shop damage here was very heavy, with nearly every building partially or totally collapsed. I am not sure how many people died in the buses or the lower portion of Manchester Street, but the number was significant.
We eventually arrived back at the EOC and reported in. My two engineers were not retasked this day, so I waited for Melvern to arrive from his block. His return path had taken him near the Pyne Gould Corporation building!
We managed to hitch a ride back to Latimer Square, where we eventually rejoined RT16. They had commenced searching a light industrial CBD block. (Tuam to St Asaph Street and Barbadoes street to Fitzgerald Avenue). This search continued until nightfall. We returned to Latimer Square for dinner and debrief and then back to the scout camp.
Sunday 27 February – Property Searching
Following Breakfast and briefing at Latimer Square, the block of the previous day was continued. The team was to spend the whole of the next three days on property searches within the CBD. The purpose of this was to clear each block in turn, thus allowing the cordon to be brought in past those blocks that had been relatively lightly damaged and within which, businesses could be allowed to start the cleanup and get back on with their trade.
RT16 soon developed a routine, whereby one or two team members went on ahead to try and get phone numbers of property owners or alarm companies, in an attempt to get a keyholder to open up a business without entry being forced. This tactic was quite successful and enabled the team to proceed fairly rapidly on the task. We were escorted at all times by a policeman. These were usually Australians and were able to authorise forced entry if required.
Once entry was gained, several team members would quickly search the whole building, including side rooms, store rooms etc. Buildings with obvious serious damage, or those with red tickets were not entered.
Sunday morning’s block was towards the southeast corner of the cordon, between Tuam and St Asaph streets (North / South) and Barbadoes street and Fitzgerald avenue (East / West). Damage was varied, as was silt damage from Liquefaction. Amongst the buildings searched, was a bottle store. This shop was opened by the owner. The team was greeted by the aroma of 5 day old spilt wine and spirits. The mess was considerable with broken bottles and glass littering the floor, stained red by the sticky mess.
Nearby, was a paint store. Although seemingly ok from the front, (again opened by owner), this store suffered some of the worst silt damage seen. This was in some areas so deep, that 10 ltr paint buckets were nearly buried, with only the rims, or wire handles protruding from the muck. This store was also one example where the owner was concerned to retrieve the cash from the till, so he could pay his staff.
As the team searched through the racks of fallen paint cans, we could see a gaping hole at the rear. This turned out to be an entire concrete slab that had fallen from the rear of the store onto a car beyond.
Later in the block search, the team had worked round to the rear of the store, where the crushed car could be more closely inspected. Also in the area, an adjoining car park wall had collapsed, crushing several cars under brickwork. This allowed easy entry to the rear of the paint store where the car could be checked. Silt here had covered the car up to the axles. The cars in this area were already marked clear.
Several warehouses were searched, where racks of shelves had collapsed or shifted and aisles were filled with boxes of stock. All needed searching.
A deli / foodstore contained an abandoned trolley with customers goods still stacked. Again stock was littering the aisles and bottles had broken all over. At the owner’s request, RT16 retrieved the cash registers.
During the day, the Red Cross team was working the block opposite.
Upon completing this block, we returned to Latimer Square for lunch and retasking. The afternoon saw us commence a large block at the southern end of the CBD between Wilmer Street and Moorehouse Avenue.
The Moorehouse avenue frontage was mainly car yards with the remainder being light industrial and some offices. This block was a joint tasking with the Red Cross team.
As Moorehouse Avenue was the edge of the cordon, we found ourselves in the unusual position of having heavy traffic moving past. A change from the desolation of other searches.
We were recalled to Latimer Square at 6pm. A relatively ‘early’ finish to the day.
Monday 28 February – Rest Day
Today, RT16 continued with block searching. I however, took a rest day. With several days still to go, I felt the need for a days rest. All other teams were deployed, leaving me alone at the scout camp, until the security guard turned up. The day was spent with a combination of camp chores, laundry, eating ancient freeze dried meals, and exploring the vast collection of home baking left for the response teams in the camp kitchen.
In the afternoon, whilst lying in the tent, a fair sized aftershock struck. Whilst I felt it as a good sized knock, the rest of the team were at that time on the 10th floor of an apartment block!! The team returned later in the evening.
Tuesday 1 March – 1 week on – Block search and 2 minutes silence.
RT16 was tasked to search a large block of mainly mixed residential houses and apartments. Located at the upper end of the CBD above Latimer Square, the block stretched from Bealey Avenue to Melrose Street, and Barbadoes Street to Madras Street (East / West). A residential street (Otley Street) ran through the middle of the block, increasing the number of properties needing searching.
We began work at the garage on the corner of Bealey Avenue and Barbadoes Street. The garage was closed as the fuel tanks were possibly damaged. The ground around the tanks had sunk. Like other stores, there was much stock damage inside. Todays police escort was an AFP Sergeant from Perth, Pete or ‘PK’.
This block contained many older residential properties that had suffered considerably with collapsed walls and chimney stacks. Other properties were virtually untouched.
Although within the cordon, many properties were still being lived in, which greatly assisted with the searching. Some residents were very distressed and clearly in need of assistance, which we were unfortunately unable to supply. We could do little other than complete welfare forms and hand out contact cards!
Mixed in with the houses were some small apartment blocks. Entry was a mixture of keyholder and forced entry.
Lunch was timed around the planned 2 minutes silence at 12:51. We returned to Latimer Square, expecting the silence to be called within the camp itself. However, as the time approached, we were all instructed to walk down to the CTV site one block away. This included all search teams present, and support staff, including the caterers.
We walked down the road, to see the site slowly revealed. At this time, the bulk of the debris had been removed. However, the charred lift shaft remained, along with a quantity of slabs and other rubble. The site was quite shocking to those like us, who had not seen it up close before. The atmosphere was sombre and subdued. As more personnel arrived, we spread around two sides of the block.
A chaplain spoke, then the two minute silence followed, broken only by a solitary police radio. After more words, the teams were dismissed to return to Latimer Square. Already subdued by the experience, it was about to take another turn! As I walked along, I began to hear bagpipes playing Amazing Grace. As the corner of the site came closer, we could hear clapping. Where was this coming from? A group of family had been allowed in for the service and were standing on the corner applauding the rescuers as they walked by. One elderly man was holding up a photograph, possibly of his daughter. There were no words that could be exchanged and most of us carried on trying to hold in emotions until we were back at the Square! I saw one tough looking Australian fireman with tears in his eyes. There were many more.
Later, we returned to complete the block of the morning. At one point, we met up with the SPCA Animal Rescue Unit, who were trying to retrieve an abandoned dog from a house.
One house searched had lost the whole sidewall, leaving rooms exposed but bizarrely undamaged, like some giant dolls house.
Latimer Square was now at its peak of effectiveness. It had become a self-contained village housing several hundreds. Facilities included a fuel dump and medical facilities. There was even a camp masseuse and camp counsellor.
The masseuse (A professional sports masseuse and her partner) had shown up early in the deployment to offer support. They were eventually given their own tent and as word got round, queues of responders and Task Force members built up.
Annah (the counsellor) deserves a section on her own. From the first day, she had been working to assist those in need. As the Base of Operations became established at Latimer Square, she became the counsellor to the response teams. Throughout the deployment, she was available to chat to and to discuss the day’s events with.
Also on this day, a giant Marquee was erected to cover the catering area. The floor was covered and tables set up. Over the next two days, the catering was handed over to a professional catering company. The Brethren had completed their role of turning out thousands of meals every day in an ad hoc but highly organised operation.
Wednesday 2 March – EOC Taskings
Following the now familiar early rise, drive to Latimer Square for breakfast, and wait for tasking, RT16 was tasked to support operations out of the EOC (art gallery). We understood that we would be assisting engineers in carrying out level 2 inspections. Due to the inherent hazard of level 2 searches, Responders would be allocated in pairs.
RT16 then made its way the (as the crow flies) short journey to the art gallery. At this time, this journey took around 10-15 minutes.
Along with other RT’s tasked to the EOC (Victoria Uni and Gisborne were two that were present this day), we started the day with more ‘hurry up and wait’. The HQ tent of Saturday had been given over to Media, with RT taskings now coming from a much smaller tent next door. Further along, a green army marquee was the RT’s shelter.
As tasks were issued, the task sheets were brought from the control tent and given to the controller of the day – Roger from the Victoria Uni team. He would then ask for volunteers for whatever the task happened to be.
My first task along with five other RT16 members was to accompany staff from the Environment Canterbury Headquarters to remove essential documents and equipment. The ECAN HQ is next door to the Copthorne Hotel. This building was considered so potentially unstable, that the team was restricted to a 30 min recon and 30 min removal operation.
With transport limited to Christchurch City Council vehicles, RT16 rode to the operation in the back of a Ute, a task that would normally result in arrest!
The ECAN HQ consisted of several buildings – the main office block, and adjacent single story ‘bunker’ which also housed the server room and CDEM base. There was also a third block adjacent to the Copthorne, which was not entered. This building was considered too dangerous to enter.
The main block was checked first by engineers with RT support. Several windows needed to be knocked out to prevent them falling onto people below.
As the safety officer, I was giving 5-minute countdowns over the radio.
The plan for the equipment salvage, was that one team would enter each building. Each team consisted of several ECAN staff with two RT16 members in support. In the main building, the top floor was accessed first, then the team worked on down, removing items from each level as they passed. No access was allowed to a higher level once staff had left it.
In the bunker, the target was the server room in the far corner of the building.
As equipment was removed, this was placed outside. The ECAN staff were then allowed to re-enter the ground floors of each building. Occasionally, staff re-entered the opposite building, making an accurate personnel count difficult. However, at the end of the thirty minutes, all staff were counted out.
As safety, my instructions were to sound the whistle over the radio if evacuation was required. I picked a spot from where I could see both doors that the Responders and ECAN staff were using as well as the whole of the Copthorne Hotel. I could also maintain a clear escape route to the rear.
Following completion of the task, we returned to the EOC.
My only other tasking this day was a two-man mission (with David), escorting two solicitors to clear documents from their offices. This task was to the top left corner of the CBD, and brought new vistas of shattered buildings into view!
The rest of the team carried out a variety of tasks this day, including a mission to refuel a cell phone tower generator, which gave Gene the opportunity to view the city from the top of the Radio Network tower.
The EOC was crawling with media as usual from many nationalities. TV1 and 3 were both making live broadcasts and orange overalls found their way into backgrounds on more than one occasion.
During the middle part of the day, strong winds damaged the media tent, bending a scaffolding pole in a significant bow and causing the RT tent to attempt flight. Being good journalists, the media filmed or took photos of us saving their tent! At one point, both tents were being restrained by the manpower of several response teams. Large concrete blocks, with a person sitting or standing on them were lifted into the air by the strength of the wind.
Eventually, orders were given to take the RT tent down to prevent it from being blown away completely!
In the evening, we returned to Latimer Square for dinner and debrief.
Thursday 3 March !
Early on Thursday morning, Bruce, Audrey and Craig flew home.
For the rest of RT16, Thursday started out with high expectations. This was our last operational day of the deployment and we hoped to have a useful task. The briefing indicated that the RT’s would be tasked to rubble clearance in collaboration with the police and demolition contractors.
We then heard that the operation was on hold, pending a ‘legislation change’ at lunchtime. After second breakfast! The morning was spent buying equipment at Mitre 10.
After lunch – No update and no tasking! The afternoon was spent hanging around Latimer Square with increasing frustration and occasional visits to the mess tent. Around 4.30, we were called back to BoO, where we were informed that the taskings were ready!
The unfortunate IC who had the forgettable task of giving this news offered the suggestion that the teams wait until the following morning. This was accepted.
As well as all the RT’s, three international task forces were also prevented from operating this day. It was estimated that some 1600 man-hours were lost. An incredible waste of manpower considering how much work was to be done.
RT16 were commencing the journey home the next morning, whilst RT15 and 17 were only available for half a day.
For the evening, we went to the Yaldhurst Tavern ‘Yaldi’ with the Whakatane and Rotorua teams. Transport was arranged by the pub and food laid on. A good wind down evening before the journey back.
Friday 4 March – The journey Home – Part 1
RT16 broke camp and made the long drive to Picton, stopping in Kaikoura on the way. Making the trip in daylight this time and clear weather, the scenery through the Marlborough wine country was spectacular.
All teams were staying at the same motel. Dinner in the evening was at Picton RSA.
Saturday 5 March – The Journey Home – Part 2
The three Bay of Plenty teams caught the 10am ferry back to Wellington. Despite a gale warning, the crossing was reasonably calm.
Then came the long and interminable drive up the North Island. Stopping again in Bulls, we reached Tauranga at around 9.30 that evening.
Home at last!
It takes some considerable time for the thoughts and experiences to settle down in a coherent fashion. Later on, you find yourself looking at events with a different point of view than the one you upheld either at the time, or shortly afterwards.
For just over a week, I was witness to and a small part of something quite incredible. To quote Dickens – “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. I saw the human spirit at its very best whilst at the same time the visions of shattered lives and a shattered city were sometimes difficult to behold.
The massive level of support for Christchurch was certainly unprecedented in my experience.
The size of the international search and rescue effort with official representation from Seven countries; Australia, America, UK, Singapore, Taiwan, China and Japan (and unofficial from two others (Mexico and Israel)) was quite humbling.
The deployment of nearly every registered and unregistered response team was another first. Although this part of the operation took several days to truly reach peak efficiency, the RT’s showed what could be achieved and how important they are to NZ.
The support that we as a team received was genuine and heartfelt. From the mumbled words of encouragement of a man on the ferry that first Wednesday night, to the New World manager who refused to let us pay for two cartons of beer, we were supported the whole way through.
Am I glad I went? Yes. At the time we left, some had a feeling that we could have done more and were perhaps underused. In hindsight, I believe that we performed about as well as we could under the circumstances. A degree of chaos and confusion is only to be expected in the early stages of a disaster on this scale. It was suggested that we went down too early, that the operation was reaching peak efficiency just as the response teams were leaving. These points may be true. What is also true is that we as a team were not in a position to dictate grand strategy. RT16 completed its first ever full deployment, for an extended period, in a moderately stressful atmosphere as a strong and cohesive team, with no major operational breakdowns. For that, we should be satisfied.
Would I do it again? – In a heartbeat.
At the time of writing this, some five months on, the demolition process in the CBD is grinding painfully on and the people of Christchurch still have a very long road to travel before the new city rises from the rubble of the old.
Peter Seager (RT16)