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Friday, March 11, 2011

Into the breach for Christchurch earthquake heroes

Into the breach for Christchurch earthquake heroes

Last updated 05:00 12/03/2011
The most powerful man in Christchurch is on a short break. On Wednesday evening, he wound up a press conference, had a couple of meetings and fled the city of his upbringing to go back to Wellington for three days off. He needed it.

John Hamilton, who is married with two adult sons, was immersed in New Zealand's worst natural disaster in decades from the moment it struck.

Outwardly, his lips were dry and his answers to endless media queries were starting to become a little strained.

Within 24 hours of the quake, Mr Hamilton was granted sweeping powers to save lives and restore safety to Christchurch.

The legislation guarantees him "all the powers that are reasonably necessary or expedient" to do his job.

That meant ordering for buildings to be demolished, cordons to be erected and spaces to be taken over for the sake of saving the city. Those powers have already been extended twice and will likely be extended twice again, at least.

Mr Hamilton understands the weight of his responsibilities. He has 3 1/2 decades of experience with the air force, where he had leadership roles culminating in a four-year stint as chief of the air force between 2002 and 2006. In that role, he was heavily involved in joint planning for the initial Kiwi deployment to East Timor.

He portrays all of his military background in his appearance and performance. He could not possibly be more of an opposite to Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker or Orion chief Roger Sutton as he literally stands to attention at the daily media briefings. He talks in staccato, official-speak, with few signs of emotion.

That doesn't mean he's not feeling the gravity of what's going on in Christchurch, or that he is a humourless bore. It's not unusual, for instance, to see him walking to or from the quake command centre with officials smiling and joking.

In front of the empty CTV building site this week, he revealed his personal roots in Christchurch – he went to school at Christ's College, which has been heavily damaged, and he studied at Canterbury University. "I find it very hard to come to grips with what I see around me," he says. "It is just mind-boggling."


There are moments when coroner Sue Johnson feels devastated by the carnage wreaked on her city.

"There are times in the middle of the night that I wake up and just feel so, so sad about what's happened. Even as someone used to dealing with death ... I could never say I have not been affected by this."

Ms Johnson, originally from Blackpool, England, has lived in Christchurch for 26 years. A mother of three daughters and a grandmother to one, she is also a registered nurse in Britain. She completed a law degree at Canterbury University and was appointed a coroner in 2007.

In 2009 she travelled to Victoria, Australia, to study the identification process for victims of the Black Saturday bushfires.

The experience was "hugely helpful" as she now works to identify the many quake victims, some of whom were badly burnt by the fire at the CTV building. "As tragic as it is, you do observe other people's disasters and you learn from them to prepare for your own."

In her role as the region's coroner, along with Richard McElrea, Ms Johnson meets twice daily with the identification board to work through information about the victims supplied to them by the police disaster victim identification team.

"All that information gathered from the family needs to be reconciled with information that has been gathered from the body, from say, dental records or fingerprints."

"When they think they've got a match, the coroner's role is to hear all this information and decide whether we can be completely satisfied they have identified the correct person. We've got to be absolutely sure that the body we return to the family is their loved one."

By Thursday afternoon, the board had identified 117 people, Ms Johnson said. Only two cases had been sent back so more information could be gathered.

The severity of injuries suffered by many victims would make it impossible for their family to safely identify them, Ms Johnson said.

"We have a lot of human remains to identify, such as legs or bone fragments."

Sometimes these would belong to bodies who had already been identified but in other cases this would be all that remained of a victim.

Those working on the identification process were all "emotionally affected", she said.

"It's an enormous disaster which occurred in just a mere moment."

In her rare moments of free time, Ms Johnson pounds the pavement in a break from the gruelling task of victim identification.

"I run long distance. That for me is a way of clearing my head and collecting my thoughts."


For electricity network boss Roger Sutton it's the photos of Christchurch's twisted buildings and suffering people that he finds most upsetting.

He has been in charge of the massive effort to reconnect the hundreds of thousands of residents left without power after the February 22 earthquake.

Yesterday, power had been restored to 99 per cent of the city, excluding the central city which remains cut off because of restricted access.

"We are hoping by tomorrow night to have all but a few hundred people and the CBD reconnected."

A married father of three sons, Mr Sutton tries to attend as many community meetings around the city as he can, often riding his bike to talk to affected residents.

"A lot of customers have suffered a lot of disruption.They are finding it very frustrating. I know it is very hard and we're doing everything we can to make it work for them."

Mr Sutton grew up in Hamilton and studied engineering at Canterbury University. He married his wife in the Christ Church Cathedral.

When the quake hit, Mr Sutton was eating lunch by himself in a cafe in Manchester St. "I got under the table, it was pretty scary, I stayed there for quite some time."

When he went outside it "looked like a bomb had gone off", he said.

After checking on the welfare of Orion staff, his first priority was to check on the damage to the city electricity grid.

While working frantically all afternoon, Mr Sutton learned that not all of his family were safe.

"In the middle of all this my mother-in-law, Anne Malcolm, was in the CTV building."

Mrs Malcolm was later pulled from the rubble with severe injuries. She is expected to be discharged from hospital in six weeks, Mr Sutton said.

He is adamant he and his family will remain in Christchurch.

"I love Christchurch and I feel very committed to this city. I really want to make it work here."


For Superintendent Russell Gibson it was the silent, night-time tour of the central city that brought home the scale of the earthquake. Mr Gibson, who grew up in Rotorua and has been in the police force since 1974, has been the night commander of the police's earthquake response.

Married for 32 years with three children, he is the North Island's central district commander and lives and works in Palmerston North.

He was in his car when he heard a radio news bulletin saying there had been a large earthquake in Christchurch. An hour later, at 2pm, he was called by Deputy Commissioner Rob Pope. By 5pm he was on an air force Orion to Christchurch. It would be 11am on Wednesday before he went to bed.

The past few weeks were unforgettable. "I have felt real, immense pride in the police: that will be one of my enduring memories."

So many staff had acted heroically in the days after the quake. "From pulling people out of the rubble in highly dangerous situations, to assisting with amputation of limbs of people trapped. It's been described as God's work. Some of it was horrendous. You have to stand back and say we are so lucky to have people like that working for us."

The disaster was a massive tragedy for many Canterbury families. "When you have such a large death toll it is easy to think of them as a number. But each one of these numbers is a person with a family who loved them, and each person must be treated with the utmost respect and dignity."

Several years ago, Mr Gibson attended a conference in the United States when the police officer who headed the Lockerbie bombing inquiry described how police had assigned one officer to each family of the dead. It had been his idea to institute the policy in Christchurch when dealing with the hundreds of families who had lost loved ones.

"It is important for them to know the police are here for them, and many of them have a real, emotional bond with our staff now."


Leading the teams hunting through the mangled central business district is a bit like driving a car for Jim Stuart-Black. "I go down on site so that I can provide support to the folk working," he says.

"I'll get alongside them, but clearly, I'm not on the tools. My job effectively is to have hands on the steering wheel, a foot on the accelerator and a foot over the brake, so that I can keep the machine moving at the right pace."

Mr Stuart-Black, the Fire Service's director of special operations, came to New Zealand from Britain eight years ago.

He's based in Wellington but is constantly on the move around the country – and world, in his other role as a United Nations disaster assessment team leader.

That job has transported him lately to work on the ground after the Samoan earthquake and tsunami, as well as the Koshi River floods in Nepal and India.

In Christchurch, he's been responsible for the Urban Search and Rescue effort of more than 300 staff from seven countries.

The buck stops with him on who goes where and when, so naturally he fronted the news last week that there was virtually no hope of finding any more survivors and the rescue efforts would have to change to recovery.

- The Dominion Post

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