Tension between USAR and Air Force on quake day

6:32 am on 10 November 2012

Tensions between the New Zealand Air Force and Urban Search and Rescue teams in the hours after the Christchurch earthquake in February 2011 have been revealed in court.

Friday was the final day of an inquest into the deaths of eight foreign nationals who initially survived the collapse of the CTV building in central Christchurch in the 6.3-magnitude quake but were unable to be rescued.

Flight-Lieutenant Kylie Upton works in operations and logistics and told the hearing that the Air Force was expecting to transfer 60 people, three dogs and equipment from the Whenuapai air base to Christchurch on the day of the quake.

She said USAR teams arrived at the air base at 5pm on 22 February, expecting to depart in an hour. The plane did not arrive in Christchurch until the early hours of the following morning.

However, she said the Air Force was not prepared for the vast amount of heavy equipment or light vehicles, along with explosive and flammable material that the teams had with them including two petrol canisters, LPG, combustible gases and a fuel cell cartridge.

Military rules require all goods to be itemised and all people accounted for, but this delay was met with anger and frustration from rescuers.

One of USAR's lead managers, Murray Binning, told the inquest it took three hours before his teams were allowed on the plane and he was furious to learn that not all their equipment or staff were allowed on.

In response to criticisms from USAR that the Air Force plane didn't arrive into Christchurch until early on 23 February, Flight-Lieutenant Upton outlined safety protocols that are put in place when transferring civilians and cargo.

She said that though police were efficient and organised at the base, St John Ambulance and USAR appeared confused.

The departure was delayed in trying to identify staff and cargo, as well as packing it on aircraft pallets. At one point she said a USAR member breached security and walked onto the tarmac and boarded the plane.

Lack of mapping information

A USAR technician described his frustration over lack of information from Christchurch City Council in the wake of the February earthquake.

Duncan Henry told the court on Friday he felt he was playing 'catch-up' in the 10 days following the quake.

Mr Henry was assigned to the co-ordination of personnel and resources around the city, but told the inquest that neither the Christchurch City Council nor the Canterbury regional council could provide the detailed mapping information he needed.

Mr Henry said the Fire Service's electronic command systems could not cope with the number of individual sites and coordinating the whole lot was "a massive challenge".

He said he was "inventing systems" on the spot to catch up on the 27,000 jobs that had been logged with emergency services.

Mr Henry said the Civil Defence national controller also needed the geo-physical information that the council could not provide.

In other evidence, he said some USAR staff didn't know how to use specialist listening equipment when they were deployed to the CTV site. He said it was not ideal to be coaching rescue staff in using emergency search and rescue equipment at the same time as handling a disaster.

USAR operations manager Royce Tatham said he would like to see more training between USAR, fire, police and Civil Defence personnel.

Mr Tatham said he felt USAR had the right type and amount of rescue equipment for the CTV site given the circumstances, contradicting evidence given by others.