Firefighter drawn back to PGC site

VOLUNTEERS: Lyttelton firefighters Dave Simpson, Roy Montgomery and Glen Walker in the days after the February 2011 earthquake.
VOLUNTEERS: Lyttelton firefighters Dave Simpson, Roy Montgomery and Glen Walker in the days after the February 2011 earthquake.

Volunteer firefighter ROY MONTGOMERY found himself helping at the PGC Building on February 22, 2011. On anniversaries since, he has been drawn back to the site.

Iam among the lucky ones. As the anniversary of February 22, 2011 approaches each year, I have had the luxury of pondering what to do with myself on the day. If I do nothing no-one will notice. I will not be missed at any commemorative event if I am not there.

After all, I was out of harm's way when the shock struck. I lost no family members, nor loved ones, nor work colleagues, and I did not have to endure directly any of the subsequent pain and suffering of those injured by that event.

In the immediate aftermath I was a minor player in what unfolded and my contribution negligible compared to the actions of others. However, at one point, I was right in the thick of it.

I work at Lincoln University in a field, metaphorically speaking, that very few associate with that institution: urban and regional planning and environmental policy.

At 12.50pm on February 22, 2011 I'm sure I was thinking "planny" thoughts, even in my lunch break. A minute later I most certainly wasn't.

Like most of my colleagues, once the initial shaking subsided I assumed that this event was the Greendale Fault Act II.

Switching from my otherwise practically-useless-in-an-emergency academic guise to another one, that of volunteer firefighter (a "spare man" for the Lincoln brigade when I am at work and a regular volunteer for Lyttelton the rest of the time), I found myself gravitating towards the various emergency management-trained staff on campus, with the aim of securing the campus and then gauging wider community needs if the university situation was stable.

But like everyone around me, when word - or, more accurately, texts - came through that things were very bad in the heart of Christchurch, thoughts went straight to immediate family who were almost certain to be close to what had happened and was happening.

To cut short a complicated story of broken texts, frantic phone-calls and third-hand information about road closures and traffic gridlock I found myself on the edge of southern Hagley Park around 3pm with no particular place to go: family safe, although scattered and emotionally shattered, and no prospect of getting to them or to Lyttelton before dark at the earliest. No point trying to drive anywhere.

Suffice it to say that by late afternoon I was standing at the back of the PGC Building in a borrowed structural firefighting uniform (thanks to the Hanmer Brigade for that), trying to make myself useful as and when required.

I was variously an equipment gopher, messenger, stretcher carrier, ladder prop, stand-by rescue crew member. I did not "pull anyone out" in the literal sense and if I helped anyone out of the building it was post- extrication.

There were times when I went into the confined spaces of what was left of the building but, as I said earlier, I was a minor player and the heroic stuff was carried out by passers-by, trained emergency services personnel, the Hanmer crew, visiting urologists, contractors and others who did their bit when the moment came.

Still, I was there, and until the day I die "PGC" will evoke particular images whenever I hear or see the term.

I don't think I need final closure. In the 10 or so days following that afternoon I was routinely back working with my fellow brigade members in Lyttelton.

That helped.

So did the perceptiveness of one of our ranks who photographed and interviewed us. There is a book if anyone wants to read it.

Nor do I need to recount either the tragic or the heart-warming things that I saw. Those stories have, I think, been told already more reliably either by way of inquest, survivor accounts or the testimony of those bereaved.

Yet as each year passes I am moved to think about the simple fact of having borne intimate witness to something that I hope only a few will ever see.

On February 22, 2012, the day of the week, work commitments and the fact that the CBD was largely off-limits made my decision for me about whether I should go back there. Anyway, the dust was so far from settling on the PGC site and other places.

The Royal Commission process that had begun in late 2011 had rolled over into 2012 and various organisations were carrying out inward-looking reviews on how they had handled things. Maybe we were all too busy for calm contemplation in 2012 then.

Lunchtime, Friday February 22, 2013 was different. I was already in town as it happened.

On my occasional, yet vaguely deliberate, driving by the area during late 2012 and early 2013 I could see that the PGC site was being prepped for access or at least closer viewing, albeit in very modest form.

If I wanted to, maybe I could go back there for the first time. So I did.

There was a checkpoint of sorts but a look into the soldier's eyes was enough. A small crowd was gathering, not quite sure what to do with themselves or each other but compelled to be there at that time. If I say "dignified sheepishness", maybe it captures the awkwardness but also the profundity of just being there.

Gradually, after the difficult moment, it came out in quiet conversation: who you are and why you are here. Hugs, tears, handshakes and even the odd joke. See you next year maybe?

Cut to Saturday, February 22, 2014. This time there is no cordon and it is a brilliantly warm, sunny day. I get there just in time. A few of the same faces, slightly smaller crowd and this time I wear my Fire Service "blues" because I am not sure if anyone on the rescue side of things will turn up.

There were dozens and dozens of them in 2011 and, as I said, I'm just a bit-player in all, but that's where we all were. From the low- key conversation that takes place after the same awkward moment, I get the feeling that being there and being visible was the right thing to do.

The questions and conversation are mainly about reconstructing how things unfolded on the day and filling in the odd bit of detail. It is not morbid talk but it seems to me there is much unfinished business.

I am sure the official Hagley Park event did a lot of good as did the other organised events.

Right now the PGC site is OK. The CTV site is an embarrassment. There are other sites as yet unacknowledged. To me, commemoration and recovery is not just about putting on shows or erecting memorials.

It is about reconciliation with the enormity of what has happened and most of that is through simple talk.

Anyway, back to the other Saturday afternoon.

Someone said, tentatively, "Maybe next year we bring our families and share a picnic by the river".

"OK, you arrange the weather to be like this and I'll see you next year."

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