It was then published on Russell Brown’s Public Address in his Hard News column. I grabbed it and posted it here too because I think this piece shouldn’t be censored. It’s a beautiful, well written response to the CTV / Fire Service crisis and it deserves to be read.
To hear criticism of the fire service response to the CTV collapse is difficult. I was part of that response.
I was at CTV late on the night of the quake. I was part of the first crew from Sumner. Our own district was smashed to bits and we had worked since just after 12:51pm with the injured, the dead, and the living. We would have days ahead of us but town needed help and so our chief released three volunteers at a time. We nervously drove in.
When we arrived I looked to report our crew to the Officer in Charge but nobody was obviously in that position. CTV, like much of the city, was a mess. Everything was unclear. We met a firefighter we knew who was looking for equipment and got it from our rig. We followed him and found ourselves as part of a large team, swarming like ants over the rubble.
The heat of the work in firefighting gear was terrible and the dust stuck to your sweat. The nagging smoke tugged at your lungs and every now and then overcame your eyes. We wore flimsy paper masks over our nose and mouth but many of us ripped them off. Looming above us was the elevator shaft. Each large aftershock made everybody pause. There couldn’t have been a single person who didn’t think of being crushed.
After perhaps 20 minutes I pulled at some corrugated iron. It wouldn’t budge and so a guy next to me (I think he was a civilian) helped.
Underneath was a dusty form and although partially obscured it was unmistakably a body. I raised my hand in the air and yelled for a gurney. The message went down the line. We pulled the body out only to find another, further under. Again we pulled at the tin but this time I had to tug a little at her legs. The third body was even more difficult but all I recall, and will never forget, was that she had a coffee cup clasped in her hand. We lifted them up and sent them on a slow journey back to their families.
The bodies were recognisable, all three were young, female and Asian. There was a sign next to them saying ‘Change your contact details here’. I have sometimes thought about their final moments; what they were doing before they huddled together as the terror came. I don’t like to reminisce on the quakes and I avoid reading or watching things about them, but sometimes little questions like that pop into my brain. I hurry them back out again.
Another of those questions has stemmed from the criticism of the fire service. Did it contribute to people dying that day? After finding the bodies, I was given a delivery hose and fired a lot of water down the rubble. I was trying to put out the fires that we could not even see, way down below us. The whole thing was huge, dangerous and hard. Even now my thoughts aren’t clear.
In some parts there were firefighters, burrowing under the rubble. Deep into it. Pulling out the living. I believe six were extricated while I was there. I cannot begin to describe to you the bravery of the people who crawled into those spaces as the earth still rumbled and moved.
At some point toward midnight we were all pulled off the site to better coordinate efforts. I lay on the ground drinking water and I allowed the first signs of tiredness in. I had seen no media, heard no radio, I wondered if the rest of the city looked like this.
We returned to our home station where we had no power and no water to wash ourselves. Our job was only just beginning. The tiredness I felt at on February 22 would compound in coming days.
CTV was just part of one big effort, but it appears clear that we didn’t do everything right that night and it’s important we learn from it. But for me, I couldn’t have been prouder of each and every person I worked alongside then and in coming days: the firefighters, the police, the ambulance officers, the armed forces, and the civilians. I will never forget the effort, courage and selflessness. I will never forget that coffee cup and the person holding it.
And while I cannot speak for the Fire Service and have been careful not to talk about operational matters, I note the national commander has not apologised to victims’ families for the failings of the fire service that day. I have no such hesitation in saying sorry, unreservedly sorry, for what could have been done better. God knows, though, we gave it our best.