CTV rescuers cleared of blame

MARTIN VAN BEYNEN
Last updated 08:02 31/03/2014
DANIEL TOBIN/Fairfax NZ

NZ Fire Service Chief Executive and National Commander Paul Baxter talks to Martin Van Beynen about the findings of the coronial inquest into the CTV building deaths.

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Failures by the Fire Service and Urban Search and Rescue (Usar) did not contribute to the deaths of eight students at the CTV site in the aftermath of Christchurch’s 2011 earthquake, coroner Gordon Matenga has found.

Matenga conducted an inquest in 2012 into the deaths of  the students who were known to be alive after the collapse of the CTV building in Madras St at 12.51pm on February 22, 2011.

His report was issued on Friday but embargoed until this morning.

He found that Tamara Cvetanova, 42, Rika Hyuga, 30, Ezra Mealle, 24, Jessie Redoble, 24, Emmabelle Anoba, 26, Rhea Sumalpong, 25, Chang Lai, 27, and Mary Louise Amantillo, 23, died from crush injuries, the effects of fire or injuries suffered after the collapse.

He said five of the eight students were still alive on the eastern side of the collapsed building at least 12 hours after the quake.

The search and rescue effort at the site, which has been criticised for being unco-ordinated, leaderless and ill-equipped, had not contributed to the deaths, he said.

‘‘My view is the police, Usar, firemen and members of the public were doing all they could in a difficult situation to effect rescues and save lives. The rescue efforts of those who worked at the CTV building were outstanding, courageous and selfless and a number of people were saved because of it.

‘‘More people, more resources, better communication and a better structure would, I am satisfied on the evidence, have improved the situation overall and may have improved the chances of saving more lives.’’

However, he was not satisfied ‘‘to the standard required’’ that such improvements would have resulted in locating and saving the lives of the eight students.

Matenga found two main shortcomings in the performance of the Fire Service and Usar (mostly firefighters who are specially trained to extricate people from collapsed buildings).

*Failure by senior Fire Service staff to establish an overall incident controller and command post at the CTV site.

*Failures in getting Usar staff and their gear to Christchurch.

Police, who were at the site first, should have made a clear handover to the Fire Service.

‘‘There was confusion amplified by dividing the site into two sectors. . . . The problems were further compounded once Usar arrived on the scene. Mr Berry [senior Usar officer] did not regard himself as being in charge of the NZFS while he was there, although others did.’’

Transport difficulties meant Auckland and Palmerston North Usar staff were not at disaster sites until about 12 hours after the quake, Matenga said.

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The delays were caused by the air force not having a large aircraft available and the need for equipment to be repacked to meet stowage requirements. The equipment belonging to the Palmerston North Usar taskforce, who were assigned to the CTV building, did not arrive until 4am on February 23.

Rescuers working on the eastern side of the building were not aware a listening device and concrete cutter were being used on the western side.

Core drills (tools that remove a cylinder of material) were unavailable and a concrete cutter was not used on the east side of the building until 9am the next day, he said.

He referred to expert evidence from Ernesto Ojeda, a captain in the Los Angeles Fire Department, who said correct tools and more men cutting more holes would have significantly increased the chance of finding survivors.

The coroner reserved his worst criticism for Fire Service executive officers.

‘‘It is difficult for me to understand why it was felt at the time that one or more of those 13 executive officers could not have been sent to the CTV site to set up a proper structure and provide support for those working there. The officers missed the opportunity to show clear leadership.’’

Fire Service chief executive and national controller Paul Baxter said the earthquake was recognised as one of the most ‘‘complex and challenging natural disasters for emergency responders in the world.’’ 

The Fire Service had acknowledged it needed to be ‘‘even better’’ prepared.

‘‘It is widely accepted that a natural disaster of this scale presented challenges beyond the training, experience and resources of the service, particularly given multiple sites.’’

PM PRAISES RESCUERS

Rescue services went "way beyond the call of duty" in trying to save the lives of the eight students trapped in the CTV building, Prime Minister John Key says.

The release of the coroner's findings into the deaths was "an awful day" for families, as it brought everything back to the surface, he told TVNZ's Breakfast this morning.

It was also "awful" for the fire and rescue services, who came under criticism in the findings.

"I remember the scale and severity and the carnage and chaos that was taking place and those people did everything they could to save lives, absolutely everything," Key said.

"They went way beyond the call of duty."

But there were areas where improvement was needed, he said.

"I think everyone will go away now and say, 'what were the lessons learnt, what could we do in case there was a repeat of this sort of situation?'".

The main thing to take away from the findings was the coroner did not think there were actions that would have contributed to saving the lives of the students, Key said.

"I'm not sure you ever get absolute perfection on the day because you're asking people to operate under circumstances which are really, truly challenging."

- The Press

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