Awe-inspiring acts of courage

22:21, Jun 22 2014
Christchurch earthquake survivor Brian Coker
HOLDING ON: Brian Coker and wife Helen at Waikato Hospital after his transfer from Christchurch. He had both legs amputated.

Awe-inspiring acts of courage that saved the lives of people trapped inside the unstable remains of wrecked buildings after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake are being recognised with special bravery honours.

Two doctors, are being awarded the New Zealand Bravery Decoration for an act of exceptional bravery in a situation of danger for the rescue of a man whose legs had to be amputated using a penknife and a hacksaw.

Another 25 people, mostly firefighters and police officers are receiving the New Zealand Bravery Medal for acts of bravery.

Dr Bryce Curran
BRAVE ACT: Dr Bryce Curran says it was a ‘‘team effort’’ that saved Brian Coker from the PGC building.

Many of the emergency personnel crawled into the collapsed multi-storey Pyne Gould Corporation and Canterbury Television buildings.

In some cases they squeezed through tunnels as small as 30cm between collapsed floors, unable to wear protective gear because the space was too small.

Some rescuers tried to get to a woman trapped in a burning area of the Canterbury Television building, with only wet clothing wrapped around their heads to protect them against heat and smoke.


 Dr Lydia Johns-Putra

A brief change in wind direction enabled them to get down inside the building, reach the woman and pull her free.

A team that tunnelled into a space about 30cm high inside the PGC building to get to a trapped woman felt a large aftershock, during which they reported “feeling concrete pressing simultaneously against their chests and backs”.

The two receiving the bravery decorations are Christchurch Hospital anaesthetist Dr Bryce Curran and Dr Lydia Johns-Putra, an Australian urologist who had been attending a conference.

Curran’s citation said he made several forays into the Pyne Gould Corporation building to administer morphine to trapped victims.

Then he joined Johns-Putra, Firefighter Scott Shadbolt and police Senior Constable (now Sergeant) Danny Johanson to free a trapped man, Brian Coker. Both Shadbolt and Johanson are among those receiving bravery medals.

Curran said he had ''no idea'' what to expect when he was dispatched to help on the PGC site after the quake.  

''It's a weird thing. It's actually like you're watching a movie,'' he said.

He gave pain relief to a young man trapped by his foot and rescued soon after, and to a man ''terminally'' trapped.

He was then called to help Coker, stuck in the middle of the wreckage, trapped by his legs among broken beams and glass.  

''That wasn't a very nice place to be.'' 

Curran, Johns-Putra, Shadbolt and Johanson quickly realised Brian Coker's legs would have to be amputated to free him.

“The man was in danger of bleeding to death with his legs pinned between a concrete pillar and a collapsed floor section. There was no way to remove the concrete safely and a decision was made to amputate both of his legs,” the citation said.

Dr Curran administered morphine and ketamine to provide anaesthesia and Johanson put tourniquets on Coker's legs. Dr Johns-Putra then began the amputation procedure lit by torches and using a hacksaw and penknife.

“She grew fatigued from the effort of operating the saw in a confined space and passed the hacksaw to Dr Curran who took turns with the  police officer and firefighter in completing the operation. An aftershock occurred during the operation,” the citation said.

''It was awkward and tiring because of the physicality of it,'' Curran said.  

Curran said it was a ''team effort'' that saved Coker.  

''I guess it's because there was four professionals there who were willing to help and not walk away that Brian survived,'' Curran said.  

A tarpaulin was put under Coker as soon as he was freed, and he was carried to a waiting ambulance. 

''He was pretty sick. He wouldn't have lasted much longer if we didn't get him out. It's pretty remarkable that he's done so well.''  

Curran rode with the rescued man in the ambulance and helped resuscitate him on the way to hospital.

Johns-Putra said she  found herself watching the ''surreal'' scene until she realised she could help Coker.  

''There were still ongoing aftershocks. Leaving him any longer would have had it's own danger of more injury to him...but I certainly would say [amputation wasn't] something we rushed into as a light decision.''  

Her experience was ''life-changing''.

''I'm embarrassed to think that because clearly other people's lives were changed much more. I had no physical scars and I went back to work and back to normal, but I know firsthand how quickly things can change for people.'' 

He said he thought hard about accepting his bravery award.

''I have mixed emotions about the award because there were so many other incredibly brave people, doing incredible things who will never be recognised.'' 

He agreed saving Coker was a team effort.

Amputating his legs ''wasn't an easy decision'', but they believed he would die otherwise.

''I can only imagine how difficult it was for Brian and would like to acknowledge his incredible courage throughout and after this ordeal.''

Johanson had been exposed to trauma during his 23 years as a police officer, but nothing like what he experienced that day.

''It's something I won't forget, but feel that I was just doing what needed to be done.''   

Coker said he and his wife were ''very pleased'' his rescuers were being publicly recognised.

''All I can do is thank them and, quite honestly, I can't thank them enough for what they did. Words are totally inadequate.''  

The earthquake on February 22, 2011 caused the deaths of 185 people.

Others receiving the New Zealand Bravery Medal are:

Senior Firefighter Steve Acton of Rangiora, Senior Sergeant Michael Brooklands of Amberley, Senior Firefighter Luke Burgess of Waihi Beach, Station Officer Alan Butcher (posthumously), Lieutenant Commander Kevin Carr of St Albans, Firefighter Shane Cole of Christchurch, Constable Shane Cowles of Parklands,  Senior Firefighter Kevin Crozier of Woolston, Senior Firefighter Mark Green of Halswell, Senior Firefighter Terry Gyde of Sumner, Senior Firefighter Craig Jackson of Dallington, Constable Michael Kneebone of Rangiora, Firefighter Josh Kumbaroff of Somerfield, Daniel Lee (formerly Constable) now living in Western Australia, Senior Firefighter Mike Lennard of New Brighton, Senior Firefighter Simon Payton of Papanui, Senior Firefighter Richard Platt of Templeton, Station Officer Paul Rodwell of Northwood, Senior Firefighter Steven Smylie of Rolleston, Firefighter Cory Stewart of Prebbleton and Senior Firefighter Mark Whittaker of Cust.

Also receiving the bravery medal is Tony Tamakehu of Huntsbury in Christchurch, who owns a company that supplies specialist lifting and rigging equipment. He and staff from company Smith Crane used cranes to open holes in the collapsed PGC building, progressively going down through the pancaked floors.

Hover over the images and click on names to read of acts of bravery:

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Fairfax Media