1 Aug 2016

CTV building rescuers recognised for bravery

6:31 am on 1 August 2016

Three medical professionals who helped rescue English language students from the collapsed CTV building, during the Canterbury earthquakes have been recognised for their bravery.

Search and Rescue teams at the site of the CTV building in February 2011.

Search and Rescue teams at the site of the CTV building in February 2011. Photo: AFP / HO / USAR

Dr Chris Henry, Dr David Richards and paramedic James Watkins have been named among the list of the New Zealand Bravery Medal (NZBM) recipients, for their act of bravery at the CTV building in Christchurch on 22 February 2011.

They are among a total of eight recipients of the NZBM, while another three people have been awarded the New Zealand Bravery Decoration, announced today.

The magnitude 6.3 earthquake that struck Christchurch caused the collapse of the six-storey Canterbury Television building; a fire had ignited in the lower levels of the building, complicating rescue efforts.

The three men worked at the CTV site crawling on their stomachs through a tunnel made by the Fire Service, to reach and treat a group of trapped students.

David Richards said he was very proud to have the award.

David Richards said he was very proud to have the award. Photo: Supplied

Dr Richards, an emergency physician at Christchurch hospital, said he was humbled by the award.

"Some people would say it was brave but I don't think it was. In retrospect, it was a little foolhardy but it was what needed to be done at the time."

Dr Richards was just about to go to lunch when the earthquake struck and continued to work at the hospital for about two hours until it became apparent that help was needed in the field.

He worked in one part of the CTV building where five young women from an English language school were trapped.

He said the the tunnel to get to the women, was very narrow.

"If you can imagine a school chair, it was the height of it and width of two school chairs and we crawled in there and administered treatment to the patients."

The citation said smoke from the fire onsite was also present in the tunnel and Dr Richards made a number of trips in and out of the tunnel, wearing only hospital scrubs, over the course of several hours to assess three of the trapped students and provide medication where needed.

The citation said during the efforts to extract the second student significant aftershocks saw Dr Richards and Fire Service personnel pulled from the tunnel by their feet on two occasions.

"Over three or four hours and often when it was dark, rainy and smokey, he crawled in through the tunnel and one by one helped rescue three of the five women," the citation said.

Initially it was thought one woman would need her foot amputated but with the help of a fireman they managed to get her out with out having to perform the surgery.

However a second patient was not so lucky.

"When we got her out she immediately developed crush syndrome and had a rapid demise despite all our best efforts."

The third patient was relatively easy to extricate and survived; he then handed over efforts to Dr Henry.

Two days later Dr Richards visited the two girls, who had blacked out much of what had happened and couldn't remember anything about their rescue and a few days later were repatriated back to Japan.

"I have an awful feeling that one of them was repatriated to where the subsequent earthquake was in Japan, so she was out of the frying pan and into the fire."

Dr Richards said he had thought a lot about what happened and how he could have managed things better.

"The whole scene at the CTV building has been criticised a bit in the past.

"It's difficult, it was a very fluid situation and no one was really prepared for what happened. I'm still really upset about the girl who did die, that we couldn't save her. I think even in ideal situation we wouldn't have been able to save her."

Dr Richards said not a day went by when he didn't think about it in one way or another.

He said he was very proud to have the award but he wouldn't have been able to do it without the help of the emergency services.

Paramedic James Watkins was due to return to work on 23 February, after having time off but put his uniform on and headed into work to help and was sent to the CTV site, arriving about shortly before 2pm and working through to 2am.

The citation for Mr Watkins describes how he initially worked outside the tunnel to drag the firefighters working in the tunnel back out by their ankles when significant aftershocks struck.

He then made trips in and out of the tunnel to assist a doctor who was running IV lines to the trapped survivors, and to pass medication to the doctor to administer to the trapped people.

"Everyone just dived right in to do what they had to do. For me I kicked into my training."

One word describes for Mr Watkins what it was like on the scene: "Chaos".

He said he saw some horrific sights during that shift and had many sleepless nights afterwards.

"I had professional counselling and I needed that, I'm not ashamed to admit that because I didn't want to bottle it up. I needed help and I've dealt with it and the counselling has made it easier but just by getting notification [of this award] it's brought back a lot of memories of what I saw that day, emotions and sleepless nights."

He said at the time he didn't think about the risk to his life, "you just get into survival mode and do your job".

Chris Henry

Chris Henry said the events of the day were still pretty raw. Photo: Supplied

Dr Henry was in Christchurch by chance to attend a board meeting and was at an ATM machine when the earthquake struck, sending it three metres sideways, throwing him to the ground.

The Kaikoura-based GP said he realised he needed to help and eventually found himself in an ambulance making its way to Latimer Square.

After making a makeshift morgue with an engineer student, Dr Henry made his way to the CTV site where he helped with the rescue efforts.

"In the moment you've got to try to help and you try not to dwell to much til afterwards."

But he said the events of the day were still pretty raw.

He said they were conscious of the fact, as they worked in the narrow tunnels that there were people further in who were stuck.

"There were phone messages going to people's parents in Korea and coming back to the police and back to us saying 'there is someone right underneath you'. So that tension and the fact we weren't ultimately able to get them out was heartbreaking for families and difficult for us.

"How we dealt with that later, it's taken a lot to process that."

He said rescuers didn't debrief each other very well and it took about three weeks for him to realise that he wasn't dealing with it.

Dr Henry said he was embarrassed to be singled out as it was the ultimate co-operative team effort of his whole life.

"If I was going in to give pain relief you had to shuffle in on your belly and you just could not turn around because it was so low and so narrow. The only way to get out was if the guy behind you pulled you out by your feet."

The citation said Dr Henry made 20 trips in and out of the tunnel over a number of hours to support rescue efforts carried out in dense smoke from the fire and under the constant threat of aftershocks, providing reassurance and pain relief in the rescue of two survivors.

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