An inquest into the collapse of the CTV building in Christchurch has been told no one was in overall charge of the rescue operation.
Coroner Gordon Matenga is investigating the deaths of people in the central city building as a result of the 6.3-magnitude earthquake on 22 February last year.
The inquest is focusing on eight people who initially survived the collapse, but later died when rescuers could not reach them. The building also caught on fire.
Addington Fire Station officer Alan Butcher commanded the first fire appliance to arrive on the scene, almost three-quarters of an hour after the collapse.
He told the hearing in Christchurch on Wednesday that no one appeared to be in overall charge and he was not able to set up a command centre, as he was required to, because there were only eight fire fighters present.
Mr Butcher admitted this was a mistake but maintained they did their best in very trying circumstances, even driving across a damaged bus depot to reach the scene after roads became impassable.
He said if he had been playing it by the book, he would have ordered members of the public off the rubble because they were endangering their own lives to save others, but the circumstances meant it was every hand to the pump.
Another officer, Stephen Warner, agreed it was not possible to establish a formal command point. He said that if he had been a senior commander, his first priority would have been to establish what the major emergency sites in the city were.
Desperate attempt to save victim
Earlier, a policeman described a desperate attempt to rescue a woman from the CTV building after making cell phone contact with her almost 10 hours after the office block collapsed.
Tamara Cvetanova was trapped in a classroom of the King's Education School on the third floor of the smouldering building on 22 February last year.
Constable Stuart Martindale told the inquest he spoke to Dr Cvetanova on her mobile and she said her hand was trapped and believed that she had lost some of her fingers.
Mr Martindale said he climbed on top of the rubble along with Dr Cvetanova's husband, Alec Cvetanova, and called out for her before directing a digger to remove concrete beams. A further search was made without success.
The inquest heard details of text messages sent by some people in desperate need of help. Dozens of messages and phone calls were sent from the rubble to friends and family in the first hours after the building's collapse.
The host family of a foreign language student received a message which read: "Madras Street, Kings Education, we need help please".
One call from Dr Cvetanova, almost nine hours after the 6.3-magnitude quake, indicated that she was still alive, along with five students trapped nearby.
Mr Cvetanov made 25 attempts to call his wife. Detective Grant Collins analysed the phone records and told the Coroner on Wednesday that because of overloading on the cellphone network only 16 of calls connected, lasting between four and 26 seconds each.