On February 22 last year the CTV building site was the scene of countless acts of heroism by firefighters, police and civilians. Many lives were saved in the collapse that killed 115 people. Without them, the collapse would have killed many more. But should more people have been saved? MARTIN VAN BEYNEN investigates.
Cellphone calls and text messages from earthquake victims trapped in the rubble of the CTV building make chilling reading.
This exchange at 9.48pm, close to nine hours after the earthquake hit, with Tamara Cvetanova, a King's Education student on the third floor of the building where 79 people were killed.
Communications: Yes. How are you?
Tamara: Tamara, it's Madras, actually Madras. Ah, we are on the, ah. I am here with, ah, three or four students who are alive, other, other are dead. The ceiling has collapsed. Ah, we are next to the CTV. Could you send someone to help us please.
Later in the same conversation:
Tamara: Please send someone because we can't breathe. We can't move.
Communications: OK. Well are you safe at the moment?
Tamara: Yes. We're safe but I have no fingers on my left arm and I'm bleeding. The other students have jammed, ah, left hand.
Four Filipino nurses, Jessie Redouble, Emmabelle Anoba, Ezra Medalle and Reah Sumalpong and Japanese nurse, Rika Hyuga, were trapped near Tamara.
From text messages sent by the Filipino students, it's known Medalle's legs were trapped as were Sumalpong's hands. Redouble sent a text message about 2pm.
"This is Jessie please need help. The legs of Ezra is stuck. I need yr response."
None of these survivors came out of the CTV building alive.
The agonised exchanges haunt their families and rescuers and raise the inevitable questions about what more could have been done to save them.
Given the brave and selfless deeds on February 22, it seems almost churlish now to be querying the rescue effort - but that's what Christchurch engineer Alec Cvetanov is doing.
He has more cause than most. Tamara was his wife. The Serbian paediatrician, who was studying English, was still alive and talking on her cellphone 12 hours after the earthquake. The four Filipinos and one Japanese student, may still have been alive around her.
Cvetanov, 52, who received his wife's crushed and badly burnt body weeks after her death, understandably wants some answers.
"I want to make sure her life was not wasted. That people will learn from her death for the future."
Coroner Gordon Matenga has ordered an inquest into the circumstances of Tamara's death, which will entail a probe into the emergency response and whether the response may itself have contributed to her death.
Cvetanov and his lawyers Vaughan Taylor and Nigel Hampton QC believe a much wider review is sorely needed. They are not encouraged by recent remarks from Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean lamenting that coroner's recommendations are often ignored.
Looking at the twisted remains of the CTV building, it is astounding any of its occupants survived. But many did and some walked uninjured from the wreckage.
Rescuers were confronted with overwhelming problems. A fire had taken hold around the lift shaft - the only standing part of the building. There was a constant danger the fire would spread rapidly through the pile and cause the lift shaft to collapse. Firefighters have also told The Press the fire was so deep-seated it was almost impossible to put out without removing layers of rubble.
Aftershocks continued to rock the site.
The building had collapsed towards Madras Street, which meant those on the west side of the building had the best chance of survival. On the east side, the beams which held up the floor slabs had piled on top of each other, creating a steeper face and other obstacles for rescuers trying to gain access to the inner part of the rubble.
A broad ranging Fire Service review of the response to the earthquake released in August last year also pointed to factors which might have impacted on the CTV effort. Due to the absence of key managers, crews were left to work in extreme conditions for long periods without management support and leadership, the review said. Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) staff were lacking senior staff, and confusion was caused by senior managers "operating across a number of roles and levels of operation".
"Arrangements relied on key individuals rather than a team approach."
What the review does not say is that USAR has different rules and processes for rescues.
A well placed fire fighter told The Press some of the rescues at CTV would not have been attempted under USAR procedures.
About 95 per cent of the survivors were rescued in the first six hours with most of the effort predictably being on the west side of the building.
Unfortunately, Tamara Cvetanova was in a classroom on the east side overlooking Madras Street when the earthquake rolled through Christchurch.
Exactly where her body was found in the rubble pile on February 24 is uncertain, as the recovery team did not accurately pinpoint the location.
However, thanks to Telecom records, much is known about the efforts Tamara made to communicate with the police and her husband - and them with her. The records show 112 calls were made to or from Tamara's cellphone number between 12.52pm on February 22 and 11.04am the next day.
Her first recorded call to 111 was made at 9.34pm and was cut off. Due to Telecom problems, the longest call she made at 9.48pm lasted only five minutes, 35 seconds.
Her last contact with the police was at 12.50am in a call recorded as a "no speech emergency call". It lasted 18 seconds.
By 5pm on February 22, Alec Cvetanov, a highly skilled mechanical engineer at Metro Glass Tech, was increasingly worried about his wife. He left their two children, Todd, 10, and Katerina, eight, with neighbours, and set off to look for her. His first thought after the earthquake had been to pick up Todd and Katerina and now he told them, "I promise I will bring Mama home".
He figured, correctly as it turned out, Tamara would still have been in class, probably having her lunch, when the earthquake hit. She liked to save money by taking her own sandwiches. Once in town, the first signs were bad. Tamara's blue green Honda Domani was still in the car park on Gloucester Street and he could see dark smoke rising from the collapsed CTV site.
"I couldn't believe somebody could have survived," he says.
Repeated phone calls to Tamara went unanswered and he had to beat a police cordon to get closer to the site. By about 6.30pm he had joined a group of shell-shocked relatives waiting for news of their loved ones and he talked to David Horsley, a New Zealand teacher from Toyama in Japan.
Horsley gave Cvetanov hope, as he knew some of the students he had accompanied from Toyama to King's Education had survived and were still being pulled from the rubble.
Tamara's classroom was on the opposite side of the building to where the Toyama students had been having lunch.
By 10pm the rain was pelting down and Cvetanov, who trained as a fire fighter in the army in his native Macedonia, went out into the weather, mainly to be alone.
At 10.48pm, Cvetanov, who had last tried to call his wife at 6.55pm, finally got through and spoke to her for about 20 seconds.
"I was so excited she was alive," he says. He alerted police who brought him closer to the chaotic east front of the building. He noticed two diggers moving back and forward and one or two beams had already been removed and dumped on Madras Street.
Cvetanov says he managed to reach Tamara about four times between 11pm and 12pm. The phone records show his last contact with her of over 10 seconds was at 11.25pm.
"She was not scared because I told her the police and fire service were trying to rescue her and she believed they would. She felt calm. She had faith in the rescuers. She could hear engine noises and I told her I would climb up and knock on the concrete slab with a stone."
Tamara, he says, could hear the knocks and could even hear him calling her name. He reckons he was knocking in a 10 square metre area about a metre from the side of the building rubble. He claims work was stopped only once to listen for voices but nothing could be heard.
Cvetanov says he last spoke to Tamara at 1.13am when they agreed she would turn off her phone to conserve its battery. Phone records, however, show his last call from his own cellphone around this period was at 1.21am and the call was only two seconds.
Around the time of the calls, when Cvetanov had climbed on top of the rubble pile, he says he was joined by two non-uniformed people with two "antiquated-looking" listening devices. One of them said he could hear women's voices, Cvetanov says.
A USAR officer also came onto the slab and, at Cvetanov's direction, knocked on various sites and also got replies.
The apparent confirmations of life under the rubble did not, in Cvetanov's view anyway, galvanise rescuers.
Frustrated at the lack of activity he began throwing rubble off the building and was then moved away by police, apparently worried about his safety.
A police officer was left with him and he was not left alone for the rest of the morning. He claims at one stage an officer threatened to arrest him.
"I knew Tamara was alive but the police would not let me back on the building to try to save her.
"The police were not doing anything to try and save her either.
"I got really concerned and frustrated about that."
Wet, cold, and bedraggled, Cvetanov watched the site and says at about 1.30am he saw a partial collapse on the east side of the building when a Southern Demolition digger was cutting through a beam.
The morning wore on with no apparent co-ordinated attempt to rescue Tamara and her companions, says Cvetanov.
Not until 9am did a USAR team with concrete cutters cut three holes in the slab above Tamara. He watched smoke pour out of the holes.
It's difficult to know how accurate Cvetanov's recollection is. He was distressed and very frustrated at what he saw was inaction from the rescuers.
In a statement to the Coroner, police constable Stuart Martindale confirms some of Cvetanov's account but differs in some respects.
Martindale, normally in the traffic section, says he obtained Tamara's cellphone from another rescuer who got her number from police communications. He first spoke to her at 10.21pm for 59 seconds and again at 10.44pm for 47 seconds.
He then got a digger to remove some large beams.
"When these beams were removed a large group of us ran forward and started to search the area and remove smaller debris."
Cvetanov, he says, was then brought to where he was standing.
"He was in a distraught state. He had a grey blanket around his shoulders and was soaking wet. I called her a number of times; both times he spoke to her in Serbian."
These calls appear to have been made around 11pm. Martindale says he called for the machinery to be turned off and asked for silence. He and Cvetanov called out her name and USAR dogs were also brought onto the slab.
They then returned to Latimer Square for a spell, but returned and waited for the machinery to remove more debris. They climbed onto the slab again and he managed to ring through to Tamara who wanted to speak to Cvetanov.
"He told me she was going to turn the phone off in an attempt to save the battery. I urged Alec that he should keep talking with her as long as possible to try to pinpoint her location."
They were not able to get her on the telephone again.
Whatever the exact sequence of events, Tamara was still alive at 12.50am. How she died will never be known. Her body was found crushed and burnt but because her lungs were not autopsied, it can't be determined if she was killed by smoke or from being crushed.
The obvious questions are why firefighters could not stop the fire from spreading to Tamara's location and why no attempt was made to cut a hole through the slabs to find her and the other survivors.
Did the removal of beams cause a collapse that killed Tamara and others? And who was actually making decisions about her rescue? Did they even know she was there?
Or is it simply the case that some people in these desperate circumstances will die because priority is given to others?
Cvetanov does not blame the digger driver or anybody else, but believes the rescue effort on the east side of the building lacked leadership and co-ordination.
Cvetanov is not alone in having concerns about the rescue effort. In statements to the Coroner, several police officers who worked at the site remain sceptical of parts of the rescue.
Kaiapoi police sergeant Mike Brooklands initially took charge of the site when he arrived at 2pm and was still at CTV at 1am.
He believes the rescue started to slow down "dramatically" after USAR arrived. Around 1am, a USAR officer ordered everyone off the site and started a search with dogs. USAR also directed no more water be put on the fire due to the risk of drowning survivors, he says.
"We were receiving text messages from people that were trapped. There were upwards of 12 plus persons still alive who were in communication with us. These people did not survive."
Brooklands says Southern Demolition should have been allowed to remove the slabs to allow searchers to go further into the rubble.
"In this event, a decision was made by USAR to do what I assess as effectively nothing."
Rangiora Detective Sergeant Rex Barnett is also scathing of USAR.
"What was needed was a more organised approach. I felt the efforts of those present were considerably hampered by one USAR member. Any attempts to remove the concrete beams were vetoed by USAR who appeared overwhelmed by Occupational Health and Safety concerns and preoccupied with their role."
He is supported by the owner of Southern Demolition, Alan Edge, who arrived at CTV about 3pm.
He thought the best way to get to survivors in cavities in the rubble was to carefully slide the concrete slab floors over the beams. The manoeuvre would have carried some risk but would have found survivors more quickly and allowed firefighters better access to the seat of the fire.
"I needed to be allowed to cut through the concrete to reach the fire. The concrete was able to be cut easily because it had fractured so much in the collapse.
"A major frustration was the amount of people that were on top of the pile trying to manually move debris. That was a total waste of time.
"The digger operators that work for me have amazing control over these huge machines to the extent they could scrap an office desk clean without marking it all."
Edge says it was hard to voice his concerns or suggestions because no-one seemed in overall control. His machinery could have been used much more effectively if USAR staff were aware of what his drivers could have achieved.
The Fire Service is now preparing for the inquest ordered by Matenga and has hired law firm Duncan and Cotterill to represent it. Lawyers have spent the last few weeks meeting with firefighters who were at the site.
The service has commissioned West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service Chief Fire Officer Simon Pilling to examine management aspects of the earthquake response in more detail than its review last year. The second review however will not focus on operational decisions made at the CTV site.
National commander Paul Baxter says any rescue from a collapsed building requires careful risk assessment and "we choose the best techniques likely to work under the circumstances".
"Firefighters will always do their absolute best to save lives."
He says it's not appropriate for the Fire Service to comment on the specifics of Tamara Cvetanova's death as the matter is now before the Coroner.
"In our view, our evidence will show the response was entirely appropriate given the magnitude of the event.
"We are committed to learning everything possible from what was a national, catastrophic event. We have already examined our overall operational response and are making changes as a result. None of the areas identified for improvement affected our response to the needs of the public. They were related largely to administration, clarity of roles and leadership, and some procedures that were overlooked in the extreme pressure of the early emergency response."
Cvetanov is now bringing up his two children on his own and has moved closer to their school, Burnside Primary. For now he wants to stay in Christchurch but finds it difficult working at a taxing job and bringing up the children on his own. Cvetanov works fulltime and the children are in after-school care until he finishes work each day.
Tamara's life was her family, he says, and he misses her pivotal place in the family.
They met when he returned to Serbia in 1999 and she came to New Zealand in 2000 to look around and decide if she wanted to stay.
Cvetanov still hopes something good will come of his wife's death and emergency services will learn something from it.
"It is killing me to think she could have been rescued if things were done differently."
- © Fairfax NZ News