Official 'disturbed' by death claim

MICHAEL WRIGHT
Last updated 15:08 05/11/2012
Jim Stuart-Black
KIRK HARGREAVES/Fairfax NZ
Fire Service special operations national manager Jim Stuart-Black.

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Christchurch Earthquake 2011

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A senior fire and search and rescue official has rejected a claim he told a widower his wife "had to die" in the February 2011 earthquake.

Fire Service special operations national manager Jim Stuart-Black told a coroner's inquest today that the idea he told Alec Cvetanov, whose wife died when the Canterbury Television building collapsed during the quake, that her death was inevitable was "most disturbing".

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 coroner is investigating the eight deaths.

Cvetanov's lawyer, Nigel Hampton, QC, this afternoon asked Stuart-Black what he told Cvetanov about his missing wife after the collapse. "Your answer to him was it was just unfortunate and that some people like Tamara had to die. Did you say that to Mr Cvetanov?"

 "I didn't and I have to say that has been one of the most disturbing things for me to consider and reflect on," Stuart-Black replied.

"I cannot accept that statement. Under no circumstances did I think anything along these lines, let alone say it.

"My statement would have been that we're trying everything and that sometimes no matter what we do, we simply cannot get everyone out alive. I said very similar things to a number of people."

 Cvetanov ha yet to give evidence.

Earlier, Stuart-Black said he "couldn't see an overt sense of incident command on the ground" when he arrived in Christchurch on the night of February 22.

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 "That's an area that could have been done differently."

He eventually established that regional manager Dan Coward was incident commander after ringing Wellington to find out, but the two did not meet until after 11pm.

"It really was a case of just asking around until finally you got hold of somebody."

Hampton pressed him on why he did not appoint someone in command at the CTV site: "Surely you had an obligation to put someone in charge of that site?"

 "No, I don't think so," Stuart-Black replied.

 "There was an active fire going on so therefore this is mainstream Fire Service. From a Usar point of view, we didn't have the resources to establish control."

'Pressure' claim rejected

Stuart-Black earlier rejected a claim that "political pressure" saw rescue teams return to the CTV site the day after the quake. 

Urban Search and Rescue (Usar) teams working at the collapsed CTV building were ordered elsewhere in Christchurch on the morning of February 23 after several hours rescuing survivors at the Madras St site.

Fire Service special operations national manager Jim Stuart-Black told a coroner's inquest today that Usar teams were called back to the CTV site because noises were heard.

The teams were initially redeployed because it was believed they were of more use elsewhere in the city.

However, Usar task force leader Bryce Coneybeer said in a statement of evidence he received a phone call soon after his team left the CTV site to go back.

This was because of "political pressure from Wellington and international pressure from foreign embassies", and a "backlash" against the initial withdrawal, he said.

Stuart-Black rejected a suggestion from counsel assisting the coroner Richard Raymond pressure from "higher up" triggered the reversal.

"I can say categorically in no way shape or form was my decision ... coerced ... by any other person. The decision I took was made with information passed on to me with respect to noise."

Asked by Hampton, counsel assisting some of the families, whether Prime Minister John Key's intervention prompted the return to the CTV site, Stuart-Black said he had never heard the allegation.

"I had no discussion with the prime minister."

Hampton asked if the CTV redeployment was at the behest of the Japanese embassy, but Stuart-Black said he had no knowledge of that.

Coneybeer is scheduled to give evidence next month.

Earlier, Stuart-Black defended a decision not to call for United Nations support at the CTV building after the quake, despite other staff saying it was needed.

Stuart-Black, who oversees the Usar division, told the inquest into eight of the 115 deaths at the CTV building site that UN support was "not appropriate".

A UN disaster assessment and co-ordination (Undac) team can be deployed anywhere in the world within 48 hours, free of charge, if requested.

The UN website says "specifically in response to earthquakes", a team can help co-ordinate a search and rescue response, "essential if Usar is to function effectively".

"I ... maintain, based on the arrival times of international teams, [it was] not appropriate to have an Undac team in Christchurch," Stuart-Black said.

Usar task force leader Bryce Coneybeer said in his statement of evidence the On-site Operations Co-ordination Centre (OSOCC) set up in Latimer Square was "quite disjointed" as a result.

"The fact that a proper UN team was not requested meant that the OSOCC was not as efficient as it could have been," he said.

Undac teams can assist with operational planning, intelligence gathering, logistics, communications and media liaison.

Stuart-Black said the final decision to request a team rested with Civil Defence national controller John Hamilton, but he advised Hamilton against it.

"I provided my opinion [that I] didn't think it was necessary," he said.

I felt satisfied that the configuration of personnel and the experience we had ... was entirely appropriate."

Coneybeer should have voiced his misgivings, he said.

"I respect his judgment, but at no stage did he identify his concerns. I would have expected that he would have brought that to my attention," he said.

Coneybeer said in his statement that he and Usar task force leader Paul Burns "had to wear a numbers of different hats" at the CTV site and were "too busy to even question why we did not have more support".

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 CTV building collapsed in the February 2011 quake but were unable to be rescued.

- The Press

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