CTV collapse: Widower asks for answers

EVIDENCE: Urban Search and Rescue operations manager Aaron Summerhays.
EVIDENCE: Urban Search and Rescue operations manager Aaron Summerhays.

The widower of a woman who died in the Canterbury Television (CTV) building says he just wants answers, not fingers pointed.

The final week of a coroner’s inquest today heard evidence into the deaths of eight victims who were known to have been alive after the building collapsed in the February 2011 earthquake but were unable to be rescued.

Alec Cvetanov, who campaigned for a review after the death of his wife, Tamara Cvetanova, raised concerns about the rescue co-ordination, resources devoted to the area where his wife had been communicating from by telephone for up to 12 hours after the collapse, the lack of cameras and listening devices, the use of heavy machinery to clear rubble and his treatment by emergency services during and after the rescue effort.

DR TAMARA CVETANOVA: Trapped 12 hours before her death.
DR TAMARA CVETANOVA: Trapped 12 hours before her death.

He fought back tears as he asked for answers to whether she was killed by the fire that swept through the building or later collapses of the rubble.

Cvetanov was upset at not being allowed to identify the body and said his wife’s exact cause of death was never released.

Police told him her body was ‘‘smashed, broken and burnt’’ and the cause of death was ‘‘the earthquake’’, he said.

SOME RELIEF:  Alec Cvetanov lost his wife in the CTV building.
SOME RELIEF: Alec Cvetanov lost his wife in the CTV building.

The review campaign was solely about lessons that could be learnt, Cvetanov said.

‘‘I want all the rescue services in New Zealand to learn from Tamara’s death so that somebody else does not die in similar circumstances in the future, here or abroad.’’

Cvetanov told the inquest he made contact with his wife about six times between 10.48pm and 11.25pm.

She had been at King’s Education on the building’s third floor at the time of the quake.

The first call cut out after 20 seconds, but Cvetanov was able to make contact again less than a minute later.

‘‘I was excited and yelled, ‘Where are you?’ She said, ‘In my classroom’.’’

Cvetanov said he knew the room was near the window on the eastern, or Madras St, side.

Several short calls between Cvetanov, his wife and police were exchanged before he was able to glean more information.

She told him she had lost the tips of four fingers on her left hand, but was otherwise uninjured.

She was scared but had faith rescuers would get her out, Cvetanov said.

His wife was in a ‘‘tunnel’’ with five others and her cell phone was the only light.

She told him she could hear engine noises, so he climbed on to the rubble and tapped with a piece of concrete.

Cvetanov said his wife told him she could hear the knocks and him calling her name.

Their final call at 11.25pm lasted 21 seconds, in which Cvetanova said she would turn off the phone to conserve battery power.

She rang police for the final time at 12.50am, but was not found alive.

Urban Search and Rescue operations manager Aaron Summerhays said crews cut a vertical tunnel into the rubble in the area where Cvetanov believed his trapped wife was communicating by telephone.

USAR members reported a "live hit",  where a person had responded to tapping and concrete saws were used to cut a hole, Summerhays said.

Progress was slow because the rubble was tightly compacted.

The areas opened were large enough only to shine torch light in and no large voids could be seen, he said.

The rubble pile was a "scary place to work" because of aftershocks and the instability of the damaged lift shaft.

Staff went "above and beyond" standard safety practices, he said.

Summerhays told Cvetanov he could not be sure who the person knocking was.

Cvetanov then asked if he believed his wife was still alive.

"I said I couldn't answer that, but there was a chance," Summerhays said.

Crews found two bodies, a male and female, but no sign of Cvetanova or the five people believed to be trapped with her.

The inquest is being streamed live on the Justice Ministry's coronial services unit website.

The Press