12 Mar 2023

For victims and their families, there are still lingering questions about the Christchurch terrorist attack

2:09 pm on 12 March 2023
Al Noor Mosque

Al Noor Mosque, Christchurch Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

By Emily Clark, for ABC

This week marks four years since a terrorist walked into two Christchurch mosques and killed 51 people, injured many more and forever changed the city and its Muslim community.

It was 1:40pm on 15 March, 2019, when the attack began, and one minute later police received the first emergency call.

The first police arrived in the surrounding area at 1:46pm, according to court documents.

The events that transpired from the moment the attack began are due to be investigated via a coronial inquiry. And its first inquest was set to begin in May.

But on Friday 3 March that four-week public hearing was adjourned. For families desperately waiting for details of that day, news of the delay was bittersweet.

It means their lawyers have more time to get across the large volume of material emergency services are disclosing to the inquiry, but it also means they will need to wait even longer for their last chance of getting closure.

Families of victims say they have been waiting four years for their questions about what happened in their loved ones' final moments to be answered.

As earlier coronial hearings have heard, some are asking whether a different police response would have meant their injured loved ones received better paramedic care and increased their chance of survival.

In one hearing, lawyers for one family alleged police caused additional trauma to victims, "which may have contributed to the ease in which they subsequently died".

Coroner Brigitte Windley decided to include events "from the commencement of the attack until completion of the emergency response" in the scope of her inquiry, including "the emergency response efforts, and whether that response may have affected the survivability of the deceased".

That was a very important inclusion for families, but it meant an immense amount of evidence was brought into the inquiry and their lawyers needed more time to get through it.

Aya al-Umari's brother Hussein was killed during the attack while he attended Friday prayers.

"I was very conflicted," she said upon news of the adjournment.

"On one hand, I want the motion to start in this inquiry because it's a long process - and [that's] not just for me and for getting answers about Hussein, but the wider picture is that at the end the inquiry will formulate recommendations. We need to get to that stage. We are four years on and the [inquest] hasn't started."

But, Aya said, on the other hand, she understood more time was required to ensure the "quality of the inquiry".

"I want to understand Hussein's last moments, so that in itself will give us closure, yes," she said.

"It will really help us move forward."

Aya al-Umari with her brother Hussein and their mother Janna Ezat (centre) in their kitchen, celebrating what would be Hussein's last birthday, in January 2019.

Aya al-Umari with her brother Hussein and their mother Janna Ezat (centre) in their kitchen, celebrating what would be Hussein's last birthday, in January 2019. Photo: Supplied - Aya al-Umari

New Zealand held a royal commission into the attack, but its terms of reference focused on whether the attack could have been prevented, not the response of police "once the attack had begun".

And terrorist Brendan Tarrant's decision to plead guilty to the 51 charges of murder, 40 charges of attempted murder and one terrorism charge meant there was no trial.

As she adjourned the inquest, coroner Windley said she understood how important the first inquest would be to the community.

"For immediate whānau (family), it offers the hope of access to previously unavailable information," she said.

"I hope it may also offer a measure of closure.

"Those involved in responding to the attack also have an interest in ensuring their conduct on that day is fully understood and contextualised.

"We all share a common goal of establishing the facts and seeking to identify recommendations or comments which may reduce the chances of similar deaths in the future."

New Zealand Police told the ABC it was unable to comment on the matter before the coroner.

Thousands of police documents

Police talk to witnesses near a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019.

Christchurch families hope to access more information from New Zealand police about what happened on 15 March, 2019. Photo: AP/ Mark Baker

With the May date for the inquest approaching, legal teams were running out of time to get their own experts to analyse evidence from emergency services.

The coroner said they were now dealing with a "voluminous" amount of material, some of which they were yet to review.

In her adjournment decision, coroner Windley wrote that one of the issues raised by legal teams representing families of the victims "was the disappointing lack of detail in the recently filed Police briefs".

"Counsel argue they provide insufficient detail for a proper investigation of the issues, particularly in terms of what decisions were made, by whom and on what basis," she wrote.

For the often small and community-based legal teams representing the families of victims, the sheer amount of evidence has the potential to be overwhelming.

The inquiry had reviewed more than 7500 documents from the police file alone, according to information released by the coroner.

Information from other agencies included 737 radio communications, 32 emergency calls and 100 audio recordings from the Emergency Operations Centre.

A police officer stands guard outside the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand on 15 March, 2020. The first anniversary of the Christchurch terror attacks.

A police officer stands guard outside the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand on 15 March, 2020. The first anniversary of the Christchurch terror attacks. Photo: AFP/ Sanka vidanagama

Just one tranche of digital exhibits required the review of about 20,000 photographs, some 180 emergency calls, more than 2300 radio communications, and CCTV from more than 120 CCTV cameras totalling more than 145 hours of footage.

More than 7300 social media pages, 750 images, 250 videos and more than 580 emails also needed to be reviewed.

The importance of the inquiry was perhaps matched by the magnitude of it, with more than 100 interested parties.

The first inquest, is now expected to be later in the year, had been expanded to six weeks.

Remembering the victims

New Zealand has no national day of remembrance for those killed on 15 March, 2019, but that was at the request of some of the victims' families.

Hamimah Ahmat's husband Zekeriya Tuyan was shot at Al-Noor Mosque. He died after 48 days in intensive care.

In the sea of her grief, 15 March was when the most painful memories rose to the surface.

"This time of year brings back vivid memories of the morning after, all the imagery of the weeks following, the experience in the ICU with my late husband," she said.

"There is no time frame for grieving and healing.

"This is the time when everything comes back, rushing in front of our eyes or in our minds."

Christchurch otanic garden wall with hundreds of flowers laid in memory of those lost in the mosque shooting

An outpouring of grief was shown by New Zealanders after the attack, with many laying flowers at mosques and at the Christchurch botanic gardens Photo: RNZ / SIMON ROGERS

She asked that New Zealand use the anniversary of the attack to reflect on what change had been made and the work that was yet to be done.

"I want people to think about the lessons that they have learnt from March 15," she said.

"Everyone asks me, 'How are you doing?' But my question is back at them: How are they doing? What are the lessons of March 15 that they have learned? Have we changed as a society? Have we moved forward together?

"That's what I would like them to think about."

Dr Ahmat is the chair of Unity Week - an initiative designed to promote the values of inclusion and acceptance across all of New Zealand that will run until March 21.

Aya agreed the focus of remembrance should not be on the day, but said she would appreciate a monument or a place anyone could go to remember those who lost their lives.

For her, the coronial inquiry was still an opportunity for closure and for a conclusion.

"On top of any individual questions about Hussein … another priority for me is I want something to conclude for the benefit of New Zealand," she said.

"What happened is huge, and the thing is we live this day in and day out. It needs to be at the forefront of people's mind.

"There needs to be big changes to give value to the souls lost."


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