Fire officer defends CTV decisions

MICHAEL WRIGHT
Last updated 15:40 31/10/2012
alan butcher std
John Kirk-Anderson
INQUEST: Fire Service station officer Alan Butcher.
Stuart Martindale
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/Fairfax NZ
Constable Stuart Martindale.
Grant Collins
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/Fairfax NZ
Detective Grant Collins.

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Christchurch Earthquake 2011

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The first senior fire officer on the Canterbury Television building site has defended claims he failed to establish command after the February 2011 earthquake, saying "the book goes out the window".

Station officer Alan Butcher told a coroner's inquest into eight of the 115 deaths at the site after the quake that he did not have the time or resources to "sit back" and take command or ask a higher-ranking officer to do so.

Butcher's Addington crew and one other crew with a station officer (SO) were the first on the scene.

The two SOs did not discuss taking charge of the site, Butcher said.

"The book goes out the window when you're stuck like this; you are doing the best you can," he said.

"There was no [time] at the time to be able to sit back and discuss. You're in there working. The fire brigade was stretched. There's no doubt about it.

"Generally in an incident like that, more trucks and a more senior officer arrives and the senior officer takes charge."

Counsel assisting the coroner Richard Raymond asked Butcher why he did not follow the co-ordinated incident management system (CIMS) designed for emergency services to co-operate in major emergencies.

"CIMS or anything like that is not working at this stage because you do not have an overall site commander," Butcher said.

"There is nobody there. You're too busy working."

Raymond asked whether CIMS was for "exactly that purpose - to identify an incident controller so that the site can be properly managed?"

"We were just stretched," Butcher replied.

"There is no spare person ... to command the site."

Raymond asked whether Butcher expected Fire Service assistant area manager Dave Burford, who visited the site in the afternoon, to assume command.

"Possibly, yes," Butcher said.

Raymond acknowledged that it was difficult for Butcher "to talk about senior officers [but] I put to you that it's simply incorrect for you to say that it would be a luxury for an officer who outranks you to assume command in a situation like this''.

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''It's not a luxury it's a necessity, isn't it?" he said.

"In general terms, yes," Butcher said.

"But this wasn't general terms. I don't know where he went or what his next move was."

Butcher said Burford told him to concentrate on the fire and let others manage the rescues, and they never discussed command.

Communications at the site were "frustrating", Butcher said.

The only radio line to the fire communications centre was at the fire engine and he had to shout over it to get his initial call for more resources heard.

"I gave up waiting for a space to allow me to speak and instead just yelled over the top of everyone else, such was the sense of urgency."

Butcher said if he had the time again he would not have done anything differently.

"We did what we do best, putting out fires," he said.

Officer searched in vain

A police officer earlier told the inquest how he searched in vain to find a woman trapped in the Canterbury Television building after it collapsed in the February 2011 earthquake.

Constable Stuart Martindale told the inquest, which is being streamed live on the Justice Ministry's coronial services unit website, that when he learnt just after 10pm on February 22 last year that a woman who was trapped had been ringing for help, he started calling her cellphone.

The woman, Tamara Cvetanova, was one of eight people who were known to have been alive after the building collapsed but were unable to be rescued.

The others were Jessie Redouble, Emmabelle Anoba, Ezra Medalle, Reah Sumalpong, Rika Hyuga, Chang Lai and Mary Amantillo.

All were students at the King's Education English-language school on the third floor.

Martindale said his early attempts to contact Cvetanova were unsuccessful.

When he finally connected, he heard "a female voice and she made a sound like a screeching sound".

"Then the phone went quiet," he said.

Another attempt soon after was Martindale's only "effective" call to Cvetanova.

"I said 'hello' and I got a reply," he said.

"A female voice said 'hello' back.

"I asked her what her name was. She said her name was Tamara.

''I asked her where in the building she thought she was and where she was immediately prior to the earthquake. She stated that she'd been in a classroom on the third floor and that the classroom was near to a reception area.

"She said that she remembered that she was on the Madras St side of the building.

"She told me that she was trapped in a small space and that she was lying down and had no room to move."

Martindale ascertained Cvetanova was injured, possibly missing fingers on her left hand, and was with several other people.

He and a police supervisor went to the spot where they thought the group was based on Cvetanova's description and instructed digger operators to remove the larger debris.

"[Then] a large group of us ran forward and started to search the area and remove smaller debris. We were unable to locate anybody under the rubble."

Martindale then met Cvetanova's husband, Alec Cvetanov.

"He was in a very distraught state," Martindale said.

"He had a grey blanket around his shoulders and he was soaking wet."

Both men had some idea were Cvetanova was, and Martindale called for silence on the site so they could try to find her.

"Alec and I climbed up on to the rubble and then we started to call her name. I had called her phone number again and Alec talked to her while we were doing the voice appeals,'' he said.

"We also tried hammering on the concrete slabs to see if she could hear us."

Again, the search was unsuccessful.

Under questioning from Fire Service counsel Helen Smith, Martindale said the site was "hustling".

"It still haunts me to this day. It was absolute dead silence, but the ... alarms were pretty haunting."

Cvetanova's body was found at the CTV site on February 24.

Counsel for the Fire Service yesterday applied for the names of staff giving evidence at the inquest to be suppressed. Coroner Gordon Matenga said he would consider the request, but it was withdrawn soon afterwards.

Survivors shared phones

Detective Grant Collins earlier told the inquest that his investigation of cellphone records of several people who survived the collapse showed they shared phones to contact family and friends.

"Based on the records I have reviewed, there is no information survivors could have provided ... post-collapse that could assist rescue crews to pinpoint their ... positions," he said.

 The cellphone of Hyuga, a Japanese national and student at the King's Education English-language school, made 11 effective calls on the afternoon of February 22 last year, Collins said.

Hyuga attempted to contact her host family, who lived in Burwood, and two Filipino students, Redouble and Medalle, did the same.

The pair, who arrived in New Zealand to study English just two days earlier, contacted a couple they were staying with on Hyuga's phone.

Their first text message asked for help, the second said the message was from "Ezra and Jessie", perhaps to clarify they were calling from someone else's phone, Collins said.

Many messages were delayed, Collins said.

The text message from Redouble and Medalle identifying them as "Ezra and Jessie" was received before the one sent asking for help.

Other family and friends of the trapped were contacted on Hyuga's number, Collins said, showing she shared her phone and that many of the trapped were in "close proximity" to each other.

A friend of Sumalpong, another Filipino student, received a call from a man he did not know, who told him he was with Sumalpong.

A text sent from Sumalpong's phone in a Filipino dialect had the translated phrases "still trapped" and "numb limbs", Collins said.

Phone networks were overloaded after the quake, he said, and many calls and messages were not successful.

Hyuga's phone automatically resent messages until early on February 23, but Collins estimated her battery went flat at 4.30pm on February 22.

The "dire predicament" of those trapped meant it was likely they would have continued to call for help if possible, he said.

- The Press

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