Inquest told of quake rescue indecision

10:40 pm on 1 November 2012

A man who supplies rescue equipment to the Fire Service has described leading the charge to save people from the rubble of the CTV building because fire and police crews were too indecisive.

An inquest into the collapse of the central Christchurch building is focusing on eight people who survived its collapse in the 6.3-magnitude earthquake on 22 February last year, but later died when they could not be reached by rescuers. The building also caught on fire.

Douglas Watt told the hearing on Thursday that when he arrived at the scene soon after the collapse, he was immediately alarmed by the lack of urgency when it was a race against the clock to pull survivors from the building before the smouldering fire took hold.

Mr Watt said dozens of police officers and fire fighters were standing or sitting around the edge of the rubble.

"I was getting very anxious. You could see quite a number of police here and these police sitting down. There was obviously a point when there was a bit of a pause in the whole thing, but I realised I had to do something."

Mr Watt leapt onto the rubble and began directing a digger to carefully remove pieces of concrete. He yelled into the rubble and heard a high-pitched squeal and then reached inside the narrow 30cm-high cavity and with help managed to pull a woman out.

Eleven people were eventually removed from the cavity, but not all survived.

Fire Service 'struggled with own equipment'

Craig Thompson was one of the many tradespeople brought in to help. He told the inquest the Fire Service struggled to use some of its own equipment in the desperate attempt to cut through three floors of concrete to reach another man trapped underneath.

"The Fire Service did not appear to know how to use the concrete cutter. My colleagues and I intervened by using the concrete cutter.

"We managed to get through one floor before the cutting blade was worn out and there was no more fuel. I discovered that the Fire Service had only one blade for the saw and no more fuel."

Mr Thompson's firm supplied extra blades and more fuel, but only after an argument with fire fighters over the type of fuel needed.

They managed to reach the man who had to have one of his limbs amputated before he could be removed.

USAR appeared lost - crane driver

Jason Campbell worked for Smith Crane & Construction and was operating the biggest crane in the city on the day of the quake.

Mr Campbell helped at the CTV building to lift fire fighters onto the roof of a burning lift shaft to check for survivors before moving to the PGC building and said he stepped in because the Urban Search and Rescue was floundering.

"The USAR were a wee bit lost on some of the points, and we ended up taking control of that job for the first wee bit. The boss got in there and said, 'I want compressors, I want jackhammers ... I want all this gear and I want it in here now.'"

Mr Campbell told the hearing it was left up to his company to organise the deployment of concrete cutters and compressors to help with the rescue there.

Council performance questioned

The inquest also questioned the performance of the Christchurch City Council.

Richard Raymond, the lawyer assisting the Coroner, asked Civil Defence controller Jane Parfitt why it took a firm with a specialist underground listening device two hours to get approval from the council.

"It may be suggested that in an emergency response like this, where you have someone offering services of a specialist nature again in the first critical 12 hours of rescue, that two hours filling in forms is a bureaucratic hurdle we could possibly do without."

Ms Parfitt admitted this was not good enough, but said everybody was doing their best in very difficult conditions and with a limited amount of information.

"My family were all away from Christchurch and they all knew more than I did about what was actually happening. There's lots of room for improvements."

Jane Parfitt said in future, the council's emergency operations centre will join forces with police and fire emergency services so that they have better communication.

The inquest continues on Friday.