21 Mar 2011

NZ search and rescue team returns from Japan

8:02 am on 21 March 2011

New Zealand Urban Search and Rescue personnel who have returned from Japan are now on a mandatory eight-day stand-down.

The team of 52 people has been withdrawn from the country though not because of the risk of nuclear contamination from the stricken Fukushima power plant, the Fire Service says.

Fire Service national commander Mike Hall says the decision was not an easy one but the New Zealand team's skills are no longer best suited to the needs of Japan.

The head of the New Zealand Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team Jim Stuart-Black said he was struck by the loss of life and the sheer power of nature following the earthquake and tsunami.

He said conditions were challenging, as the team slept in tents and the temperature plunged to as low as -17°C at night.

They were working 130 kilometres north of the Fukushima plant and were monitoring radiation levels every couple of hours, Mr Stuart-Black said on arrival at Auckland International Airport on Sunday.

Most of the team headed there after working on the Christchurch earthquake.

Team member Richard Twomey said he had never seen devastation on such a massive scale as that in Japan.

"If you took Christchurch and multiplied it by 100 you would be getting close", he said.

"To come down the valleys to the scene from a distance it just looked like sticks and then when you did get to the beach there was just nothing, 500 houses were just gone."

The rescuers recovered only bodies from the area they worked in and found no survivors.

The Fire Service says the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and Switzerland have also chosen to bring their teams back.

Travel warning remains

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade continues to advise New Zealanders against non-essential travel to Tokyo.

It is also advising New Zealanders in northern Honshu to leave unless their presence is essential.

For those people wanting to leave Japan, commercial flights are operating and embassy staff in Tokyo have been working to help New Zealanders who want to fly out.

The ministry says it has confirmed the safety of 2162 New Zealanders in Japan.

Meanwhile, New Zealand's National Radiation Laboratory, which is giving the ministry regular updates, says there is currently no radiation safety hazard in Tokyo.