Christchurch earthquake heroes - 'we're only doing our job'

Last updated 05:00 02/03/2011

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Christchurch Earthquake 2011

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Laurie Welsh almost lost his own life in the stairwell of the Pyne Gould Corporation building. Michael Yeates burrowed into the same building.

Sarah Cook ran from her home to her son's school in bare feet. It wasn't till the next morning, after a night spent pulling bodies from the CTV building, that she gave in to the pain and had glass removed from her feet by an army doctor.

Heroism runs in station officer Omar Yusaf's family. His 20-year-old son Kim cycled into the CBD, evaded a police cordon, and found his distraught sister Kalilah, who was in Cashel Mall when the earthquake struck.

He carried her home on his bike.

Their efforts over the past week have clearly put a strain on Mr Welsh, whose brother's nephew was killed in a crushed bus.

"I've been in the job 23 years, mate, and I've seen some gruesome stuff but nothing like this.

"I went home and talked to the wife about it, you know, just get some of your feelings out. You can't bloody hide it up, you know. It's good to talk to the missus.

"I was a bit teary-eyed, mate. Seeing a woman in there who had been crushed and tried to get her out and she was too trapped by her whole body.

"This is somebody's mum, somebody's wife." The woman was dead.

The aftershocks as Mr Welsh crawled through rubble and climbed staircases were frightening. "You're not bullet-proof, like this job makes out sometimes."

Mr Welsh, nicknamed Nui, almost found that out the hard way. In the Pyne Gould stairwell, having just replaced his helmet, he was felled by falling masonry.

"If I didn't have my helmet on, it would have killed me ... The guy said it just looked like a big pile of rubble had fallen on me and he thought it had killed me."

After the adrenaline wore off, he saw a doctor and was forced to take two days off work.

Mr Yusaf was in the station mess when the quake hit. As he and his colleagues raced into town in a truck, they were stopped by a bystander who told them the Pyne Gould building had collapsed.

They arrived on foot, with only the tools they could carry, and were confronted by the full horror of the crumpled building.

"It was a five or six-storey building that had literally just fallen over on to its side and you could see hands waving out of the rubble between the floors.

"You could see people, hear people hollering out to be rescued. Everything was happening very fast but I remember just being struck by the scale of the job."

One man was so badly trapped that they tried to free him using car jacks to lift the twisted metal but were forced to find a doctor. The man died several hours later. "He was just so well stuck."

The work was "extremely hard" and the father-of-three, whose house was damaged, said he feared for the lives of his crew and the fate of Kalilah.

"I remember looking across from where we were on the side of the building into the central city, when we were holding on because of the aftershocks, bracing ourselves and seeing sides of buildings falling away.

"So I knew that she was in there somewhere but I had no way of getting to her," Omar Yusaf said.

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"I just had to keep doing what I was doing and trust her teachers had managed to get her out of the building and to a place of safety. I found that absolutely terrifying.

"In a situation like that – I don't mean to sound callous because I love my daughter as much as anyone – but if I concentrated on her then I'm just not going to be able to function here.

"It sounds crazy but I had to put her out of my mind and trust that she was being looked after by somebody."

Kalilah had been badly affected by the carnage. "I don't think I've got the courage to send my daughter back to school in the inner city.

"As it was, she was in one of the most dangerous places she possibly could have been. She had an extremely traumatic day.

"She's only 13 years old and saw buildings collapse on to people. She saw burnt corpses in Latimer Square.

"She was very nearly crushed by a piece of stone in the building she was in but was thrown out of the way by a teacher she was talking to at the time. And I imagine I'm not alone in my mistrust in the central city as a place to be."

He did not know what the fate of the ruined central city would be. "A lot of people say Christchurch will rise again, Cantabrians have the spirit – and we do, there's no doubt about it.

"It's whether or not we want to put ourselves in situations we see as risky."

Mr Yeates said the scale of the carnage would take its toll on the fire crews. It was worst when it was quiet.

"I don't know what people are going to be like after this one ... Just the looks on some of the guys you work with, just their eyes after Tuesday and you can tell.

"There's some harrowing stories out there about what people have seen and done. We've all seen death but so much in such a little time?

"It's going to play on your mind for a long time."

Though his two-year-old daughter was too young to understand the enormity of the tragedy, she knew what her father did. "She was watching it on TV and goes, `Daddy's in there, eh. Daddy's helping people.' That's pretty cool."

All four firefighters said they did not expect praise.

Still with his sore shoulder but back on the job, Mr Welsh summed up. A friend of his had helped haul dead bodies from a crushed bus and was badly affected. He called Mr Welsh a hero and told him he did not know how the fire crews coped.

"I said, that's what we're trained for, mate, and we can't do it without the support of all these guys, right down to the guy who cleans the shit house ... and the guys making the bloody lunches for us and dinners.

"People see us as heroes, mate – honestly, we're just doing our job."

- The Dominion Post

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