Fire officer regrets CTV decision

MARC GREENHILL
Last updated 14:26 08/11/2012
trevor brown
STACY SQUIRES
REGRETS: Assistant national commander Trevor Brown.
Paul Burns
STACY SQUIRES/Fairfax NZ
Urban search and rescue taskforce leader Paul Burns.

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A top-ranked fire officer regrets not taking command at the Canterbury Television site on February 22, 2011, to spare colleagues the scrutiny they now face, an inquest has heard.

Assistant national commander Trevor Brown was deployed to Christchurch from Wellington after the quake.

He told a coroner's inquest in Christchurch today that the first task was to visit the collapsed CTV and Pyne Gould Corporation buildings to assess the management resources at the two sites before resting to take over as incident management controller.

The PGC site was ''well-managed and well in command'', with two executive officers from Dunedin on site, Brown said.

At the CTV site,  he believed senior station officer Ralph Whiten had ''good command'' of the operation.

However, with the benefit of hindsight, Brown regretted not taking over.

''I consider that if I had taken the lead as commander at CTV I could have deflected a lot of the criticism that my firefighters feel is directed at them after all the work they have done during that period. Rightly or wrongly, that's how they feel,'' he said.

''[Criticism] rightly would have been directed at the actions that I took correctly or didn't take correctly. That's my job. That's what I could have done to help them.''

Firefighters were ''probably our own biggest critics'', Brown said.

CTV rescuers refused to take a break

Christchurch rescue crews urged to take a break from the earthquake response told bosses: "Get stuffed, this is our city."

Day nine of the inquest today heard evidence on the deaths of eight victims who were known to have been alive after the CTV building collapsed in the February 2011 earthquake but were unable to be rescued.

Urban Search and Rescue (Usar) task force leader Paul Burns, a senior fire station officer, led the Christchurch response on February 22 last year.

He told the inquest that staff working too hard caused welfare issues, but it was difficult to convince local crews to take time off.

"On one side is criticism for pushing the boys too hard and then on the other side the boys are saying to me, 'Get stuffed, this is our city','' he said.

"The North Islanders [Auckland and Palmerston North Usar teams] were also saying, 'We've come down here to work, not sit on our a...."

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Burns was in Templeton on February 22 and traffic congestion prevented him from reaching the Usar base in Woolston for more than two hours.

He had seen footage of the CTV building collapse on television and told Dave Berry, who was leading the Usar response at the site, to take control because it "looks like Mogadishu".

Burns said his comment related to safety fears about the number of people working on unsecured rubble.

The operations base was moved to Latimer Square, after which Burns visited the CTV site.

"It was dark and I just couldn't believe what I was seeing. The building on fire and had pancaked," he said.

His view of the Madras St side was "utter devastation".

"With the fire going on, it was hard to see how anyone could survive."

The visit confirmed Burns' view that the CTV site was the top priority for resources.

The first North Island crews arrived about 11.15pm and were deployed to the CTV site and the Pyne Gould Corporation building collapse.

Burns said he was told four were trapped at The Press building and up to 20 at Christ Church Cathedral.

Australian crews arrived on the morning of February 23 and plans to fast-track them through the airport "worked perfectly", he said.

Counsel assisting the coroner, Richard Raymond, asked Burns whether he would have acted differently had he been in charge at the CTV site.

"No, I wouldn't have. Simple as that," Burns replied.

He said rescuers were limited by the gear available, which had since been addressed.

Burns believed a fulltime national Usar commander should be appointed.

Its Queenlander counterparts had four fulltime staff.

Usar crews and training in New Zealand were "world-class" but were let down by the administrative framework, Burns said.

The inquest will run for two weeks and reconvene for a final week at the start of December.

- The Press

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