"This is the end" - survivors speak

Last updated 16:32 17/02/2012
Poi
Louise Tankersley of Ngai Tahu had her baby daughter Te Ao with her on the fifth floor of CTV building when the Feb 22 earthquake struck.

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One of the most spectacular survival miracles of February 22 last year occurred at the CTV building when some workers on the fifth floor collapsed with the building and found themselves alive on the ground floor. MARTIN VAN BEYNEN reports.

In her farm kitchen, Angela Osborne makes her children's school lunches and a cheese sandwich for herself to take to work. In the rush to do a hundred things and get the children to their primary school, she forgets to kiss husband Simon goodbye, before she heads off to the city.

Christine Hunt parks her car in Barbadoes Street, opposite the Christchurch East School, and walks to work in Madras Street about five minutes away.

Also heading in the same direction is Liz Ford, who drives in from Huntsbury with her husband Lionel, a delivery driver. She has packed a lunch of her usual crackers, cheese, yoghurt and a carrot.

Pablo Godoy also makes his children's lunches, gets them off to school in Beckenham and hops on his motorbike to ride into town. Coming across Lyttelon Harbour on the ferry is Nilgun Kulpe. She catches the bus from the wharf to the city and stops to get a coffee at her favourite cafe; in Cashel Street, where she jokes with the owners.

In Sydenham, Mairehe (Louise) Tankersley is up early feeding her eight-month-baby Te Aowharepapa. The baby is mainly breast-fed but is just starting on solids. Tankersley, who is Ngai Tahu, thinks ahead to a busy day which will include a cultural awareness session she will lead in town. Te Ao goes everywhere with her.

***

It is February 22 and today they are all heading to the same place. The Canterbury Television (CTV) building in Madras Street where all but Tankersley work for Relationship Services Whakawhanaungatanga, a Government-funded counselling organisation, which grew out of Marriage Guidance.

The service provides a wide range of counselling, including trauma counselling, but its main business is referrals from the Family Court. Godoy, a former army intelligence operative officer, is the service's clinical leader.

Ford, an administrator, has over a decade with the service and Hunt, who works in administration and also does counselling, started about a year ago. Osborne has been a counsellor for the service since 1996 and Kulpe, who grew up in Germany, joined about five years ago.

They arrive at work at different times but all take the lift to the fifth floor where the office occupies half the floor. The other half used to be a gym but it closed. The front door opens on a waiting area and reception area. Kulpe shares her lift with some Asian students who get off at the third floor for their Kings Education English classes. They say, "Have a good day" as they get out.

Nina Bishop, a Relationship Services administrator, whose life revolves around her work, is already busy and Kulpe gives her a cheery good morning.

***

Relationship Services has been in the CTV building for about 10 years. Staff are used to the building shaking. The shuddering started when the fire-damaged former Farmers Building in Cashel Street was demolished and then the ground shook again with the construction of the IRD building opposite.

After the September 4 earthquake, a neighbouring building was demolished in another earth-shaking exercise. Although the continual shaking is wearing and annoying, the RS staff believe their building is safe because of a fiction that has somehow taken hold.

The fiction is the building has a rubber foundation that absorbs the forces of an earthquake and protects the building. They believe the building has the same protection as Parliament Buildings and Te Papa in Wellington. It does not. The confidence is shared by the families of the Relationship Services staff. Simon Osborne thinks his wife works in the safest building in town.

That morning Kulpe and Osborne have clients and Godoy gets stuck into some paperwork in his office. Tankersley wraps up Te Ao warmly and heads into town to do some messages, including dropping the car at Auto Electric City for repairs to its electric windows. The firm gives her a courtesy car and she transfers the baby seat into it.

The idea behind the cultural awareness sessions is to keep the counselling team up to speed on Tikanga Maori. Tankersley knows all the counsellers well and they know they can call on her at any time.

The meetings are normally held in a room in the middle of the building next to the lunch room but it appears to be occupied when Tankersley arrives. She finds Bishop and counsellor Andy Winchester in the lunchroom and stops for a cup of tea and a chat.

Winchester suggests having the session in the more attractive setting of the room on the south-west corner of the building, which was previously the regional manager Moira Underdown's office. The room has windows on two sides (west and south) and is light and airy. A box of toys is in one corner for the children of clients to use.

***

It is now midday and 10 counsellors - Osborne, Kulpe, Winchester, Qing Tang, Anne Malcolm, David Millar, Betty Inglewood, Pip Ranby and Liz Cammock are eventually seated in a semi-circle facing Tankersley, whose back is against the north wall of the room. Te Ao is a sociable baby and she is crawling and happy about being picked up for a cuddle.

Osborne and Kulpe, both skittish about earthquakes, deliberately sit close to the door and Ford finishes her cup of coffee in the lunchroom. Hunt works behind the reception area with Bishop and Godoy is at his desk in his office next to the room where the session is taking place. Tankersley has Te Ao on her lap as she has just fed her.

Then it starts.

Hunt, standing at the reception counter, looks over to see the photocopier heading (east) across the floor. She thinks, "Oh, f ..." Her earthquake training from school takes over and she throws herself under a desk. Bishop goes the other way and with everything crashing around them, Hunt hears screaming and feels the crashing and banging.

The thought of the building collapsing and falling never enters Hunt's mind and she doesn't realise what happened until a day or so later. When things come to a halt, she is trapped under the desk in the dark. Her arm is in "weird" position and she can't move it. Despite it being broken in two places she has not felt the impact. She is only a couple of metres from Bishop, but cannot see her.

When Ford realises the shake is not just one of the frequent jolts Christchurch has experienced since September, she heads for the doorway but is thrown to the floor. She puts her arms over her head as the table falls over, followed by the door and the walls. When the banging and crashing stops, her first thought is, "I'm alive." Her legs are trapped but she can wriggle around enough to get comfortable. "Some one will come and get me," she thinks.

***

"Go for doorway," is Osborne's immediate reaction when the building starts to tremble. She feels an "incredible violence" and believes it will take her life. She senses the building is toppling east towards Madras Street, but like Ford and Hunt has no feeling of the building collapsing.

A filing cabinet moves across the floor to hit her around her arms and torso and she screams and yells like the others. Osborne suddenly thinks about the baby and she can't see how Te Ao could have withstood "so much violence".

Kulpe has the same idea as Osborne and grabs the door jamb as she feels the shudder. Everything starts to fall apart around her. The ceiling comes down, the walls collapse, and pink batts and dust rain on her head. A filing cabinet gashes her knee but she doesn't feel it as the floor tips downwards. A part of her thinks, "So this is how I will die."

Godoy stays at his station until he realises this is no ordinary aftershock. He dives under his desk and as the floor moves violently he feels the same sort of sensation as driving into a sudden dip in the road. In the chaos he thinks the floor might have tilted or collapsed but has no idea the whole building has crumbled. Building materials form a jagged V over his desk and he can hear sounds of distress from nearby. "Just our floor has collapsed so we will all get out," he thinks. He can see and his resting place is relatively free of fumes and dust.

He makes a point of not thinking the worst and, perhaps because of his army training, controls his breathing. He checks himself over - nothing broken - and decides to wait for help.

***

Tankersley looks at the time. 12.50pm. We need to wrap up, she thinks.

Out of nowhere comes a noise like thunder. She feels the whole building jolt sideways and knows immediately "this is the big one". As she makes for the door she thinks, "We are never all going to fit in the door jamb."

She feels the floor caving in and falls heavily on her right side against a coffee table, breaking ribs on both sides of her chest. All she thinks about in her terror is protecting Te Ao and she hangs on to her baby for dear life. Tankersley shuts her eyes and feels the fall. "This is it. We are dying," she thinks. Getting hit in the feet and ankles, she straightens her legs to take the blows to protect Te Ao. "She is going to die if I don't do something."

Then it seems to be over. Dust is everywhere, reducing visibility to nothing. Tankersley can taste grit, dust and what could be glass, and then she smells smoke. "Oh my God, we are going to burn to death."

She and others start yelling out to each other. "Are you OK? The voices are tinged with panic. Winchester yells, "We are on the ground."

Looking through a gap in the wreckage she can see Cashel Street and people looking up with their mouths wide open. Tankersley suddenly realises the whole building has collapsed and yet they have not been crushed or trapped.

***

Ford and Godoy smell smoke about the same time. It prompts Ford to have another go at moving the rubble off her legs. She thinks, "I survived all this and I'm going to die of smoke inhalation." She pulls clothes over her mouth and tries to breathe shallowly. Time starts to drag and she thinks horrible thoughts about not seeing her grandchildren and family again. She knows how quickly fire can spread through a building and prepares for the end.

The burning electrical smell prompts Godoy into action. He realises if the smoke gets to him, he will quickly run out of time. Panic is pushed away and he begins worming his way through a gap. He worries he will reach a dead end and then hears a woman's voice screaming, "There is a baby here."

A wall blocks his path but he tears at it with his hands and manages to punch a hole through gib board and insulation.

The first thing he sees after squeezing his 85kgs - another regret about putting on weight - through the hole is blue sky and he thinks the roof must have collapsed and feels relief because maybe it's not so bad.

When the shaking stops, Osborne, uninjured, collects herself and notices the baby, who is sheltered under Tankersley, is alive and unhurt.

She looks towards the stairs in the semi-darkness and hears Kulpe shouting for help. "Why bother," she thinks. "If we are like this and we are in a safe building Christchurch is going to be covered in buildings like this. There isn't going to be anybody to help."

Tankersley hears Kulpe yelling, "We have a baby up here!" "Will that make them come any faster to save us," she wonders.

But the rescuers come quickly. Seemingly out of nowhere men in suits and work clothes are climbing up the rubble. They pull roofing iron and timber out of the way and make a path through which the survivors can make their escape.

Each step somebody takes Osborne's arm and steadies her before she reaches the next person.

She feels heady with the realisation she has survived but then is overcome with worry about her workmates and her husband, who had told her he was going shopping in the city that afternoon. She looks at the crumpled building with horror and thinks everyone must be dead.

Te Ao is the first to be passed down the row of hands in the human chain formed from the pile to the street. They are helped out one by one. When Tankersley reaches the ground, a young girl is holding Te Ao and she thanks her. She finds it hard to grasp she and the others are alive and on the ground. After the terror comes an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

Before she leaves the wreckage she spots the poi Te Ao was playing with. She picks it up thinking, "It is going to be a long day. We might need this later."

When the shaking halts Kulpe sees her workmates coming up from the floor. They are covered in dust and shaken. She sees a little bit of blue sky and thinks "We'll get out of here. We are not buried." She is shocked when she looks through another gap to see they are only few metres from the ground. A young man climbs into the hole.

On the ground, Kulpe is embraced by a woman she doesn't know. "Oh my God, you are alive. You are alive," she says. Kulpe is too stunned to reply and she waits to see Inglewood and another counsellor Anne Malcolm lifted out. Both are seriously injured although conscious.

By the time Godoy fights his way through, most of the counsellors in the room are on the street and Godoy helps Millar and other rescuers extract Inglewood and help another woman further up in the wreckage to get down. Millar remains on the rubble encouraging rescuers to keep looking for Ford and the others.

Tankersley and the Relationship Services staff hug each other until an official marshals them all to Latimer Square.

***

Trapped by rubble and thinking, "This is the end," Ford suddenly hears voices coming from above. "I must be hearing things. How could anybody get on top of the building," she thinks.

The voices turn to yells. "Help. I'm down here and I'm OK," she shouts back. The yells come closer but then all goes quiet as the rescuers consider the fire and smoke. After a pause a piece of the wreckage is moved and she sees a patch of blue sky followed by hairy legs and shorts.

More wreckage is moved and, lifted by her armpits, she is pulled free and helped out of the hole. She looks around and is astounded to see the building down. Her ankle, from which a piece of flesh has been gouged, is bloody and someone gives her a dirty towel to wrap around it.

She is able to walk with the help of two people who hold her by her armpits and they shuffle along to the Latimer Square which has been turned into a triage base.

Lying in the rubble Hunt has also been thinking it must be the end. She is wearing a hoodie and puts the hood over her mouth as an acrid smoke wafts around her. "Is this going to take me out?" she wonders, in a daze. She yells for help as she lies trapped. A gust of wind clears the smoke for a short time and police officers suddenly appear.

One of the officers heard someone calling but wasn't sure, so waited for a break in the smoke. They see flames not far away so don't want to dally. A constable lifts her out. He notices her broken arm and says, "This is going to hurt." She goes in and out of consciousness as she is carried to the CTV carpark is then taken to Latimer Square in a red mufti police car.

By the time Hunt is extracted, all Relationship Services staff are out of the building except for Bishop, the only fatality from the fifth floor.

Ford who will eventually need two skin grafts and Hunt, whose arm will be in a cast for three months, are taken to hospital from Latimer Square.

Ford who will eventually need two skin grafts and Hunt, whose arm will be in plaster for three months, are taken to hospital from Latimer Square. They meet other staff there and are astonished they have all survived. Strangers in the square let them use their cellphones to contact family and Osborne is finally able to talk to her husband around 6pm. He hadn't made it to town when the earthquake hit. Godoy says goodbye to his staff and walks to Beckenham to pick up his children. Kulpe spends the next few hours walking through the shattered city trying to contact her loved ones. She goes with Osborne to Liz Cammock's ruined home in Avonside and Cammock and her husband drive them to the Osborne farm. Kulpe is picked up by her husband at 11pm.

Tankersley is taken to the Bealey Ave Medical Centre for treatment and a friend picks her up to take her home at 1am. She is deeply shocked and distressed and flies to Hastings with Te Ao next day to stay with family. She will not return to her Sydenham house for two months.

About three weeks later the Relationship Services staff all meet again at Burwood Hospital where Malcolm is receiving treatment and rehabilitation. Inglewood remains in Christchurch Hospital. They hug each other in a great outpouring of emotion. They cry for Bishop.

***

All the RS staff are given six weeks off although Godoy goes almost immediately on to organising Relationship Services counsellors from around the country and local staff (who were not in the building) into psychological first aid teams.

During the six weeks the staff are in constant contact and take it gently. Hunt and Osborne initially feel numb and Kulpe cannot sleep in her house for weeks. Her wound must be stitched by her local doctor in the open air because she cannot stand being indoors.

But in some ways Ford now feels almost invincible. Her worst nightmare has happened and she has survived. But it still takes her six months to go back into a mall and that is in Auckland. They support each other.

In Hastings, Tankersley initially has trouble just getting out of bed. Every day things feel too hard. When she returns to Christchurch she can hardly bear to leave the house. She feels like every building she goes into is going to fall down. She is angry at herself for not coping better. She survived, her baby is alive. She is grateful but the fear doesn't go away although gradually the good days outweigh the bad ones.

Te Ao who was very quiet on the day, does not appear to suffer any ill-effects and Tankersley is careful not to let her own trauma show in front of Te Ao.

***

A year later Relationship Services is re-established in a new one-storey building in Bealey Avenue. All of the counsellors who plunged down with the building remain with the service, although Malcolm and Inglewood are still recovering from their injuries. Godoy has moved his family to Nelson and is the clinical director for Relationship Services, West Coast, Marlborough and Nelson.

Ford is working full time again and Hunt works for the service on a casual basis. Working in the counselling field has helped their recovery and they feel the experience has them more compassionate with clients.

"As counsellors we take some things for granted. Like that self care is important and not an indulgence. Like talking to peope we trust and making yourself vulnerable to colleagues," says Osborne.

Ford says the strong team culture of the RS team and the fact they have known each other for a long time is invaluable.

"Nobody can understand what we have been through except us. We don't have to pretend we don't feel sad or don't feel angry. It's OK to feel all these things and not bottle them up."

Osborne: "I'm more sensitive and meet clients more as equals. We have both survived an experience."

Ford says she tended to be a practical, get-on-with-it-sort of person but is now more subdued and sees things in less black and white terms.

All have a slightly changed outlook on life. Hunt is keener to make the most of life and Osborne appreciates her relationships more. She doesn't rush around as much. Ford doesn't let special occasions slip by as easily.

Kulpe planned a six-month world trip before the earthquake and initially thought it would have to be canned.

"A miracle has happened and I have not survived to abandon my dreams. More than ever it was a time to live now," is her new attitude. She borrowed the money for the trip which took her to Europe and the Pacific.

Tankersley spends much of the time at home with Te Ao.

"I already had an appreciation of life especially after Te Ao was born. She has always been a miracle child. My later years have given me a huge appreciation of every day. Every day is a miracle. It reminded me what matters in the long run is the people you love.

Godoy says it wasn't until recently he had a chance to slow down and reflect.

"I guess in many ways I have put the experience in its place as I was walking to get my children after it happened. My reconciliation came down to genuinely realising that no matter how we wish it to be different, so many things in life are out of our control and all you can do at times is the best you can. That philosophical view seems to have freed me from guilt, shame, pride, sadness, or even joy of surviving. Secondly, I felt a calmness of spirit that somehow was connected to my upbringing which taught me to fight the good fight by being in the service of others. Guess it fits with my belief in the divine."

The personal stories of Qing Tang, Anne Malcolm and Kendyll Mitchell and her children Dita and Jett, who were also on the fifth floor on February 22, are told in Trapped, a book about earthquake survivors, written by Martin van Beynen.