CTV collapse 'incredibly complex'

EVIDENCE: Jim Stuart Black.
EVIDENCE: Jim Stuart Black.

New Zealand's entire Urban Search and Rescue task force may not have been big enough to deal with the devastation of the collapsed Canterbury Television building, an inquest has heard.

Fire Service special operations national manager Jim Stuart-Black, who oversees the Usar division, gave evidence on the fifth day of a coroner's inquest in Christchurch this afternoon.

The inquest is hearing evidence into the deaths of Tamara Cvetanova, Jessie Redouble, Emmabelle Anoba, Ezra Medalle, Reah Sumalpong, Rika Hyuga, Chang Lai and Mary Amantillo, who were known to have been alive after the building collapsed in the February 2011 earthquake but were unable to be rescued.

Sockburn senior station officer and USAR member David Berry.
Sockburn senior station officer and USAR member David Berry.

Stuart-Black said emergency services had struggled to respond quickly to the February 2011 earthquake, given the magnitude of the damage.

"It was chaos in the early hours and instant management does not exist or develop immediately ... We were dealing with an incredibly complex situation,'' he said.

"The emergency services were doing the best they could with the resources they had available."

He said the situation after the quake was so rare that international search and rescue organisations had since developed "a range of new processes" relating to the recovery of bodies and information management, among other issues.

"There are very few countries that have enough capacity that they can meet, in short order, the demands of a situation like Christchurch."

Stuart-Black said the complexity of the CTV building's collapse meant that rescue efforts would have stretched the country's Usar teams, even if they had been able to deal with the building by itself.

"If we'd had the luxury of being able to focus on just that site ... I believe such was the nature of the devastation at that location, it would have absorbed all of New Zealand's Usar capability," he said.

CTV rescue 'confusing'

A senior fire station officer who took part in Urban Search and Rescue efforts at the collapsed Canterbury Television building was earlier pressed to explain why he did not assume control of the site.

Sockburn senior station officer and Usar member David Berry's role told the inquest he did not view himself as the person in charge of the site as he was attending the scene as a Usar member rather than a Fire Service representative.

Counsel assisting the coroner Richard Raymond asked why Berry did not take control, given his status as the most senior fire officer at the site.

"It's a well-known precedent that when a senior officer arrives he assumes responsibility for the site,'' Raymond said.

"You were the most senior officer attending for the New Zealand Fire Service and/or Usar as part of the Fire Service; you should have accepted control of the site. Do you agree or not?"

Berry agreed that it could have been "confusing" for other firefighters there, but his Usar uniform should have indicated that he was not attending as a Fire Service representative.

He said he had intervened to help co-ordinate rescue efforts because of the lack of organisation at the site.

"It's just that the training kicks in. Naturally I've been trained to take over that role, so I just stepped up and did what was required," he said.

Coroner Gordon Matenga told Berry he did not believe the chain of command should have been considered confusing.

"It's not that confusing to me. It seems to me that you were the senior ranking officer, so you should have assumed control. That seems to be the natural order of things," he said.

Earlier, Berry spoke about arriving near the CTV site about 3.15pm after seeing smoke coming from the building during a helicopter ride into the city centre.

Shortly after arriving, he undertook a "360 inspection" of the site to assess the situation and see what work was going on.

"I remember seeing so many people. It didn't look as though anyone was in charge and things were rather chaotic."

Berry said there were two lines of people "working like human chains" to remove debris and pass along rescue tools.

"It wasn't very effective, and things were going in all directions."

After helping to organise the group, he handled the western side of the building, while another Usar member co-ordinated work on the eastern side.

The pair communicated using a runner as Berry did not have any radio equipment with him, which made co-ordination difficult.

"I like to talk to a person and get a feeling of what's happening one on one. It worked, but it just wasn't effective as talking one on one," he said.

Rescue workers on the western side created a metre-high tunnel to rescue survivors and remove victims from the building.

Berry said firefighters were cutting their heads on the narrow tunnel as they went in, and the conditions were difficult to work in.

"It was hot, sweaty, smelly. There was a lot of smoke and there was also the smell of burning corpses ... It was pretty ugly."

He said the workers managed to save eight people, and pulled other dead bodies out from the site.

Berry said health and safety concerns "didn't exist at that stage", with the rescuers continuing to work through aftershocks.

"It was a free-for-all, basically: guys were being held by their ankles, and if an aftershock occurred he'd just be pulled out by his ankles."

He left the site about 4am the next day to go home.

Berry said he did not view himself as the person in charge of the site, and a Fire Service executive officer should have taken control of the rescue operation at the building.

"At no time did I consider I was in charge of the whole site ... There should have been someone above me communicating via a runner."

A senior officer could have been in charge of keeping track of how many people were working on site, assigning tasks to different teams and providing an overall perspective for decision-making.

"That's really important because a decision made on one side of the site to help could have a negative impact on the other side," Berry said.

He said a safety officer should have been appointed earlier, with officers for each side and another one in charge of the overall rescue effort.

The inquest, which is being streamed live on the Justice Ministry's coronial services unit website, will run for two weeks and reconvene for a final week at the start of December.

The Press