The call: 'Daddy I won't make it'

Last updated 06:00 31/03/2014
Alex Cvetanov

STILL IN TOUCH: Alec Cvetanov at the site of the CTV building collapse, February 22, 2011, where his wife Tamara Cvetanova was trapped.

Chang Li
Chang Lai was killed when the CTV building collapsed in February 2011.

Alec Cvetanov on CTV report

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They were scared, injured, some hopeful of rescue.

Under the rubble of the CTV building eight people waited.

They were not to know they were trapped at the worst disaster site in a city full of them.

Their building was the only one to collapse completely. It was on fire, people had died and people were trapped.

At 12.51pm on February 22, 2011, the eight had been in the Kings Education language school, on level three of the building. They were taking English classes to improve their chances of working in New Zealand.

Two pancaked concrete floors and piles of debris separated them from rescuers who faced a terrible dilemma. They had to deal with the fire, but if they poured water on the rubble, they could drown survivors.

If they lifted the debris, they could give the fire more oxygen and cause further collapses.

Six of the eight students were trapped close to each other on the Madras St (east) side of the building.

It appears they were in a tunnel in which they could hardly move. But for their cellphone lights, it was dark.

The fire in the rubble in the northwest corner of the building meant they could probably smell smoke drifting through gaps in the debris. They would have heard sirens, helicopters and engines. Breathing was difficult and they could see some of the dead.

Tamara Cvetanova, a doctor originally from Serbia, had lost the tips of four fingers. Rika Hyuga, a Japanese nurse, had a broken leg and Ezra Medalle, a nurse from the Philippines, had her legs trapped.

Medalle's boyfriend, Jessie Redoble, also a nurse, was trapped near her but could hardly move. Filipino nurse Rhea Sumalpong had her hand ensnared by concrete.

Nothing is known about the condition of the sixth person in the group, Emmabelle Anoba, also a Filipino nurse.

In other pockets under the rubble Chang Lai, a Chinese nurse, and Mary Louise Amantillo, a nurse from the Philippines, lay entombed.

Amantillo was the first to use her cellphone to sound the alarm. Starting four minutes after the earthquake, she made 10 phone calls and sent 32 text messages. Her first message said: "Ma, I got buried." Forty minutes later she texted, "Ma, I can't move my right hand."

She last made contact just before 4pm. At 1.33pm, Chang Lai rang her father in Guangzhou, China, where it was about 8am. "Daddy I won't make it," she told him. He immediately contacted the Chinese Embassy in Wellington.

Her first call coincided with the arrival of the first fire truck at the disaster site - 42 minutes after the earthquake. Christchurch's main fire station was just a short walk away.

Lai made two other calls, one to her parents, with the last at 2.14pm.

The first message from the group of six was a text message at 2pm sent from Hyuga's phone to Christchurch woman Shelley Bromley with whom she boarded. It appears the group had access to only two cellphones.

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The message was picked up by Shelley's husband, Mark, and at 4.27pm he called Hyuga's number and spoke to Redoble.

Redoble told him Hyuga was near him, trapped and still alive.

During the wait, Redoble used Hyuga's phone to make several calls to alert people to the group's predicament.

Then there was a long silence from the group.

Between 3pm and 4pm, Senior Station officer Stephen Warner made the decision to use heavy machinery to start lifting heavy beams that had piled up on the building's east side.

Digger drivers at the scene feared they would crush people trapped beneath but firefighters could not attack the fire without getting closer to the core.

Rescuers were pulled off the east side of the rubble and lined up along Madras St.

They were told to scan the debris around the diggers and wave out if they saw signs of life.

Within a few hauls of debris, rescuers started waving their arms and a woman who had her foot jammed beneath concrete was pulled free.

A man, without a scratch, crawled out of the same pocket.

He was the last live rescue on the east side of the building.

The silence from the group of six was broken by Cvetanova who made her first attempt at calling emergency services at 9.34pm.

Four minutes later she spoke to police and explained that she was trapped in a tunnel with other survivors.

She then spoke to a constable working at the site at 10.21pm and about 30 minutes later, she spoke to her husband, Alec Cvetanov, and tried to explain her location.

He had been at the site since about 6pm after leaving home, telling his two children he would bring mama home. He grew increasingly distressed and frantic.

In the phone calls, his wife told him she wasn't scared because she knew people were trying to rescue her.

Alec Cvetanov tried to get rescuers to concentrate on where he thought his wife and others lay buried.

Between 11pm and 11.30pm he climbed onto the rubble and began tapping on the fallen slabs. In a phone call, his wife said she could hear tapping.

Rescuers used hand tools to make a hole in the slab but found nothing.

Urban Search and Rescue teams arrived around midnight and found several bodies.

They called out, listening. Ian Penn, a Urban Search and Rescue technician from Palmerston North, got a response to his efforts. Luke Pickering, who had brought his Sewerin acoustic location device to the scene, also got a response and heard a female voice.

Tamara Cvetanova made her last call to police at 12.50am on February 23.

The call was connected for 18 seconds, but nothing was said.

About 1.30am, Cvetanov saw a collapse in the pile as a digger working with a scissors attachment was cutting through a beam.

He would always wonder if this was the collapse that killed his wife and others. The bodies or remains of the eight students were recovered over the next few days.

- Fairfax Media

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