Waihi firefighter: CTV rescue was a team effort
Waihi Beach firefighter Luke Burgess believes his New Zealand Bravery Award belongs to his colleagues just as much as himself.
"I think it is an individual award that represents the whole team, because there is no way that I could have done what I did without knowing the guys had my back," Burgess said.
Burgess earned his award for acts of bravery following the collapse of the CTV building during the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake.
Along with a fellow firefighter, Burgess tunnelled through rubble and debris of the crushed fourth level of the building to reach survivors.
In places there was only 60 centimetres of clearance, making using breathing apparatus or helmets impracticable. They were eventually able to reach and rescue two women.
Debris had to be passed backwards past the rescuers and down the tunnel, as there was no room to turn around.
Firefighters from the team were stationed at the tunnel entrance so that when there were significant aftershocks they could quickly pull the tunnellers out by their feet. Eventually the team of tunnellers, including Burgess, also found a small group of students trapped under a beam.
Two bodies had to be removed before the students could be reached.
One student was trapped by her ankle and it took a long time to free her, but amputation was avoided.
Another student was trapped by his head, but was pulled from beneath the beam and extracted through the tunnel.
A third student could not be freed until an amputation was carried out by a civilian doctor helped by another team of firefighters, through an access hole from above.
The rescue efforts of Burgess and his team were carried out in dense smoke from the fire and under the constant threat of aftershocks.
"Time became very abstract, I wasn't wearing a watch and I had no idea what the time was. I was focused on what was happening," he said.
Being a member of Urban Search and Rescue, Burgess had been trained to deal with the pressure, but nothing could have prepared him for the share scale of the situation. "It was nothing that I hadn't seen before, but it was the scale. It was the size and the scale of it.
"We go to crashes and we see some things that we would not rather see. But that many, all at once?
"I was there with a really cool bunch of people, amazing people, and we did what we needed to be done, to the best of our ability.
"I knew my mates were right there with me, and that made it easier," Burgess said.
Burgess felt honoured to receive the award.
"I feel very flattered, pretty humbled. Really proud for the team. It was something that needed to be done," Burgess said.
Burgess didn't fully understand the magnitude of the efforts he and his team were putting into the rescue.
"In hindsight, you realise how big an event it actually was, I was just involved with immediately what's going on, what needs to be done, how can we do it?"
After the quake Burgess and his young family moved to Waihi, to be closer to his family. The disaster had made him look at life a little differently.
"I think I've got an even more positive outlook on life now. There is no point getting upset about things.
"I got a real appreciation of what is important to me, what really matters. One of the big things I took out of it, is family and friends and I certainly make the most of any opportunities to be with them", Burgess said.
Burgess has been part of the New Zealand Fire Service for almost 14 years.
"Not many can say that they love what they do. I love being in the fire brigade."
But, he can't help reflecting on the meaning of his award.
"They're big words, bravery medal. I think it carries a lot behind it. I feel very honoured."