CTV inquest: Fire service slipped up - US expert

MARC GREENHILL
Last updated 05:00 06/12/2012

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A United States disaster-response expert has praised the heroism of Christchurch earthquake rescuers, while delivering a stinging criticism of Fire Service senior managers.

Ernesto Ojeda, a captain in the Los Angeles Fire Department and 20-year Urban Search and Rescue veteran, gave evidence yesterday at a coroner's inquest. The inquest into the deaths of eight victims who were alive after the Canterbury Television building collapsed in last February's earthquake, but were unable to be rescued is in its final week.

Ojeda trained the first Kiwi Usar team in 1995 and helped set up operational guidelines.

Ojeda said mistakes were clear, but he hoped improvements would be made.

The CTV rescue was the "perfect storm of difficulty" because of the complete pancake collapse with few voids, deep-seated fire and smoke, and the risk of further collapse.

The fire and police first responders "risked their lives repeatedly", Ojeda said.

"Through your efforts many people were rescued. I believe that you went beyond the call of duty and you should be commended."

However, he said the three Fire Service executive officers in Christchurch after the quake "struggled to respond effectively".

By 11pm, 13 executive officers were in the city, but none took command at CTV.

Groups at the scene were well run, but worked independently of each other and did not understand the chain of command.

It was a "missed opportunity" to bring structure to "organised chaos", Ojeda said.

"This is the biggest event of your life and you're not going to tend to it?

"You'd have to get a crowbar to get me out of there and I don't think other of the chief officers I know of would get to that site and not leave somebody to set up and implement a command post.

"It's going to be the biggest event these guys ever have in their life. How can you not? This is what you train for all your life." Ojeda was also critical of the lack of accountability for rescuers working at the site, especially with the instability of the lift shaft.

Every person's name and location should have been recorded, he said.

"I'm not in the business of exchanging lives, I'm in the business of saving lives. If that [lift shaft] had fallen over, there'd be another 100 people dead easily.

"So, you rolled the dice and came up a winner this time. For me, I'm not going to take that gamble because the most important thing to me is my people."

Ojeda said decisions made in difficult times weighed heavily on those forced to make them.

"Not for a day, not for a week, not for a year, but for the rest of your life," he said.

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"You'll go back, look at those decisions and turn them over in your head.

"You'll think if it was the right one, and even if it was the right one, you'll still relive that."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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