Christchurch terror attack inquest: Understanding of 15 March transitioning from 'darkness to light'

6:05 pm on 15 December 2023
Al Noor Mosque

Christchurch's Al Noor Mosque. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Questions that families of the 51 shaheed killed in the Christchurch terror attack have held for four years have finally been answered, an inquest has heard.

On Friday afternoon, after seven weeks of evidence from dozens of witnesses, the inquest into the worshippers murdered at Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre on 15 March 2019 concluded.

In her closing remarks, deputy chief Coroner Brigitte Windley said the work of the inquiry was not over, and it would take time to absorb the significant amount of evidence heard before any findings could be made available.

Coroner Windley reiterated that the victims of the attack remained at the forefront of the inquiry and acknowledged the immediate families for their participation.

"The evidence we've heard in this inquest is vital to fully understanding the circumstances of the deaths, in so far as the actions or inactions of the emergency response agencies and their staff on 15 March 2019 are relevant.

"Only with that understanding is it possible to consider if the response and the inevitable care gap could be improved in the future, despite our strongest desire that a response to such an attack will never again be needed on our shores."

29th November 2023 Iain McGregor/The Press/Pool
Christchurch Masjidain Attack Coronial hearing.
Coroner Brigitte Windley.

Deputy chief Coroner Brigitte Windley. Photo: The Press / Iain McGregor

Coroner Windley said she was confident that the collective understanding of the events on the day of the attack were in transition from "darkness to light".

She praised the "impressively rapid" response from police and arrest of the terrorist, as well as the speed of St John in extricating patients once the removal began.

But to understand the full picture, some uncomfortable questions needed to be asked. The inquest had revealed the delay in getting ambulances to the mosques, as well as police leaving injured victims alone in Al Noor for more than 10 minutes, Coroner Windley said.

The fact that some key pieces of information were not known by witnesses until they came to light in the inquest proved its value, she said.

"As hard as it this inquiry process may be, especially for those whose actions or inactions are under scrutiny, I firmly believe this inquiry is not just for those 51 who lost their lives and their loved ones that they left behind, but for all of us, especially those who may be called on to step into danger in the future.

"Sadly, we can no longer say that large scale terror attacks are unprecedented in New Zealand. Those who will respond deserve to have lessons from [the] March 15 response identified and learned, and to have the necessary protocols, training, and resources to enable them to best respond in a coordinated way in the most challenging of circumstances."

Coroner Windley reiterated the deaths were a result of the "deliberate and heinous actions" of the terrorist and the inquiry was not intended to lay blame.

Lawyers Kathryn Dalziel and Anna Price embrace at the conclusion of a 7-week inquest into the Christchurch terror attack.

Lawyers Kathryn Dalziel and Anna Price embrace at the conclusion of the inquest. Photo: RNZ / Niva Chittock

Counsel for police, St John, Fire and Emergency New Zealand, as well as families of the victims and survivors also made concluding statements.

Anne Toohey said her clients were grateful for the inquest and opportunity to participate.

"Through this process, questions they have had for nearly four years about what happened to their loved ones have been answered."

Toohey said the first responders, and those who arrested the terrorist, were brave and she thanked them.

She said her clients' loved ones, too, were brave, describing actions they took in the face of the attacker.

Counsel for police, Mark Zarifeh, said the terror attack was a horrific act full of hatred and violence.

It was incredibly traumatic for all involved, including police staff, with some still deeply affected to this day.

Zarifeh said police and St John put their own lives at risk in a desperate attempt to save others.

Police accepted the response was not perfect and the organisation was committed to making changes to improve their response should such an attack ever happen again.

Lawyer Fatimah Ali reads her closing statement at the conclusion of the inquest into the deaths of 51 shaheed during the Christchurch terror attack on 15 March 2019.

Lawyer Fatimah Ali gives her closing statement. Photo: RNZ / Niva Chittock

Lawyer Fatimah Ali acknowledged the 51 shaheed and beloved members of the Muslim community who had lost their lives, as well as the families who had attended the inquest - both in person and online - for its duration.

"I finally acknowledge, once more, the Shuhada, their families, the survivors and trauma-impacted communities and all those who continue to contribute to their recovery and healing."

Counsel for families Kathryn Dalziel said 15 March was an attack on the Islamic faith, born of white supremacy.

She said it was not the first time her clients had experienced hate for their faith and hoped the public nature of the inquest would reinforce that the attack was a crime against humanity.

Questions, concerns, and contradictions her clients had were now answered and without the inquest, they would have been left in the dark, she said.

"Nothing can take away the pain or trauma our clients have experienced and continue to experience, but we have seen some of the pain has eased with information and hope for the future through understanding."

Coroner Windley reserved her findings.

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