Usar angry at Defence Force delays

05:23, Nov 09 2012
murray binning std
Auckland Fire Service area manager Murray Binning.

An Urban Search and Rescue national manager says he made it "very clear" to the Defence Force how much critical rescue equipment needed to be flown from Auckland to Christchurch after the February 2011 earthquake, and was assured it was possible.

However, when Usar's task force 3 turned up at the Whenuapai air force base near Auckland it found that the Boeing 757 could not carry the 15-tonne load required.

Auckland Fire Service area manager Murray Binning, a member of the national Usar management team, today gave evidence during the second week of a coroner's inquest in Christchurch.

The inquest is focusing on the deaths of eight people who were known to have been alive after the Canterbury Television building collapsed in the quake but were unable to be rescued.

Binning responded to allegations that Usar crews were inefficient and disorganised when they arrived at Whenuapai from 3pm to 4pm on February 22.

Kylie Upton
Air Force flight lieutenant Kylie Jane Upton.

Evidence from Flight Lieutenant Kylie Upton earlier in the day said the flight was scheduled to leave the airbase at 6pm but did not depart until 10.30pm after equipment checks, including weight and dimensions, were carried out.

Some heavy Usar equipment had to be left behind with two personnel, with a plan to fly it to Christchurch the following morning.

Binning, who was in charge of the Usar crews, said he arranged with Defence Force headquarters a flight for 60 personnel, three dogs and about 15 tonnes of gear between 1.30pm and 2.30pm.


Duncan Henry
Volunteer firefighter Duncan Henry.

He received a call back about 30 minutes later saying a Boeing 757 had been arranged and to be at the base by 5pm.

Billing said the arrangement was made over the phone with a woman whose name and rank he could not recall, but he had assumed she was a senior.

"I clarified the 15 tonne of gear was critical [to the rescue task]," he said.

"She said, 'Not a problem'.

"I expected we would be going by Hercules, but I didn't dispute it with her."

The flight was to go to Christchurch via Ohakea to pick up the Palmerston North Usar task force 1.

Billing said Usar was organised. The task force met at headquarters for a briefing, departing for the airbase at 4.15pm.

"We then ensured that all Usar members were registered, fed, completed medical checks and had complied with any other requirements for the deployment."

This included going through the individual kits and removing canisters not allowed on aircraft, he said.

Billing said he was not aware of issues with the weight and dimensions of the Usar equipment until just before boarding the plane.

A Usar logistics management told him the air force had found the Boeing 757 could not carry the crew and the 15-tonne cache.

There was only room for the crews and their personal equipment.

The equipment left behind would be taken to Christchurch on another plane, most likely the following morning.

"I was very angry and frustrated this had occurred without my knowledge and having been ensured over the phone by the Wellington-based DF person there would be no problem with [the cache]. I made it very clear. It was critical to our capability," Billing said.

He said the delays were frustrating. He was getting calls from colleagues in Christchurch saying "just get down here".

"The team was anxious to get on the ground in Christchurch before the Australian teams arrived," he said.

The crews had heard news reports that teams had already left Australia, he said.

Billing accepted the use of the Boeing 757 could have been a case of using what was available at the time and that the checks by air force crews were in the interests of safety.

There was no C130 Hercules at Whenuapai.

The coroner's hearing will resume on December 3.

Rescuers' flight to Chch delayed

A flight carrying Usar workers, police and St John rescue personnel was delayed from leaving Auckland four and a half hours while checks on passengers and equipment were carried out.

Flight Lieutenant Kylie Jane Upton told the inquest that the flight was scheduled to depart the air force's Whenuapai base near Auckland at 6pm on February 22, 2011.

However, it did not leave until 10.30pm.

Upton was told a Boeing 757 would be carrying 60 people, three dogs and light equipment to Christchurch to assist at rescue sites.

They were getting regular updates on the situation in Christchurch and what was needed.

Police, Usar and St John teams started arriving at the air base terminal between 3pm and 4pm, expecting to leave on time.

However, there was much confusion about passengers and equipment, she said.

Usar members continued to arrive after 4pm.

Equipment arrived "in dribs and drabs", including some heavy equipment that could not be carried.

"We could see big gaps in what we were told [about capacity] and what people turning up at our terminal were told," she said.

Upton said air force personnel followed strict safety guidelines about what could be carried on flights.

Flight crews needed to be clear about the weight, dimensions and configuration of the freight so the aircraft was properly balanced.

Dangerous air cargo could not be taken without specific permission. All passengers needed to be properly identified before flying.

Upton said Usar personnel became increasingly frustrated at the "perceived confusion" and delays while equipment was checked and passengers identified.

"Because they were very keen to get down there and do there job, we found it to be an emotionally charged environment," she said.

One Usar member was expelled from the aircraft because he breached security, went on to the tarmac and boarded without permission, Upton said.

This caused a further delay, but time was not taken to report it higher up the ranks because it was not "a normal day".

"Once the individual was off the aircraft, the focus was again to get the aircraft airborne and down to Christchurch," she said.

Upton said the air force crews were aware of the need for haste that day.

However, loading had to be done according to air transport regulations to ensure the flight would be safe.

"We do not take these responsibilities lightly," she said.

Upton said there still would have been delays if Usar squads were carrying only personal equipment as it would still have had to be checked.

The inability to take all the Usar equipment was indicated to a Usar liaison person as early as possible, she said.

Upton said there was a need to build understanding between the air force and civilian organisations like Usar through training.

She did not recommend suggestions to have pre-established pallets of Usar equipment ready to go.

It may need to be reconfigured depending which plane was carrying the gear, and they would also require regular inspection, she said.

"Regardless of how prepared Usar is, the air force must still be satisfied the load is safe," she said.

Volunteer firefighter frustrated 'no-one took over'

A volunteer firefighter who helped with rescue efforts at the CTV site after the February 2011 quake says he was frustrated to hear there had been contact with people in the rubble just as he was called off.

Duncan Henry told the inquest today that there were issues with the search cameras his squad used at the site.

Henry, the manager of environmental and emergency management at Massey University, was giving evidence during week two of the inquest.

Henry flew to Christchurch from the Ohakea airbase after the quake, arriving at Latimer Square about midnight on February 22.

His squad started working on the CTV building from about 1am and worked mainly on the southwest corner of the site until about 11am on February 23, he said.

On arrival, he saw a person being removed from the southeast corner. He understood it was the last person removed alive.

The fire was still going and the rubble was about 10 metres high.

Henry said his squad took only short breaks as a lot of the work was not physically exhausting.

He said that about 11am on February 23 his squad was instructed to stop working. Henry expected to hand over to another crew, but this did not happen.

As they were assembling, he said, he heard for the first time there had been contact with survivors in the building, but did not know when this had been.

"There was a sense of frustration at leaving the site and no-one taking over," he said.

He had a break for a few hours before returning to the site.

On the third day, he was doing house checks in Sumner, a valid job, but he was concerned there was still a lot of work happening in the central city and that crews were short on resources.

Henry said his squad had problems with camera equipment.

It had two search cameras but the screens were failing.

Henry said he spent some time trying to make one working camera out of two about 9am on February 23 as no-one could work out what the issue was.

He was not expecting any more to be available and asked for a message to be sent to police.

Some police search-camera equipment was eventually brought to them, but it was not nearly as good.

Henry said he was also frustrated by delays getting to Christchurch on the day of the quake.

He said there was a few hours' delay waiting for the plane to arrive at Ohakea after he arrived there about 4.30pm, as it was flying with other response crews from Whenuapai.

The crew spent more than an hour unloading at Christchurch Airport before heading to the central city.

The Press