In this powerful extract from her new book, Chessie Henry interviews her father – a Kaikōura doctor who was caught up in the terrible drama of the Christchurch earthquakes.
Dad recounted this story to me on February 14, 2017, nearly six years after the Canterbury earthquake which claimed 185 lives. For some reason we were in my brother’s truck, driving the two and a half hours from Kaikōura down to Christchurch. I often struggled to pin Dad down for a talk— his hectic work schedule and general exhaustion made finding time for interviewing tricky. But that day, in the car, Dad was wide-awake and chirpy. He tied an old bungee cord around the steering wheel, strapping my iPhone to it so I was able to record him as we drove along. It was so haphazard—the incredibly noisy car, the dodgy recording set-up.
I thought I knew the basic outline of what happened that day, but this was the first time I heard it in such detail and I was genuinely shocked. The events of this interview are harrowing, and towards the end Dad had tears rolling down his cheeks as he spoke to me.
A week or so after this interview, we went to visit the earthquake memorial that had just opened in Christchurch. I watched as Dad moved down the line of engraved names, grouped together not in alphabetical order but in the locations people had died in. I traced the words carved into the wall with my fingertips.
“We remember: those who died, those who were hurt, and those who experienced loss. We offer our thanks: to those who came for us, to those who risked their lives for ours, and to those who supported us. Together we are stronger.”
Chessie: Okay, that should be recording now. You can start. Just go from the beginning.
Chris: Right. Is that the right end I’m talking to? Right. Okay. So I was there, Tuesday lunchtime. On my way to a two o’clock meeting—it must have been one o’clock, or whenever the earthquake was. I found myself rather reluctantly at Riccarton Mall—probably double-parked. I was in the entrance foyer, and I was standing at the ATM, and my memory of the whole thing was that, out of nowhere, the machine moved two metres sideways. And I found myself sitting on the floor. I just fell down, because the floor had moved underneath me.
Was there no warning at all?
No. Absolutely nothing. It just moved—I thought somebody had tripped me up. One minute I was standing there and the next I was sitting on the floor, and the machine was about two metres away from me. And I realised, then, that everybody in the whole place had fallen over. And then within a second or two of that happening, the shaking started, and there were people shouting and screaming. And then bits of the ceiling started cracking, and falling down. Bits of that kind of polystyrene . . . you know, ceiling. Not heavy. Things were really breaking, and I think a few of the shop windows were broken. But it wasn’t that bad.
Were you feeling worried?
Ah—no, not massively. I mean, I suppose I was just thinking, okay, this is an earthquake. I’d been in an earthquake before, actually . . . in the Philippines, oddly enough. In a former life. So anyway, I sort of staggered towards my car, and I remember realising, afterwards, that I never got my money out of the machine. I had a sinking feeling I’d left two hundred bucks behind.
I had the car radio on—you know, I listen to the national programme. And there was a news announcement to the effect of—oh, there’s been a massive earthquake in the Christchurch CBD. And the announcer was saying that it was all badly damaged. And I was driving up Riccarton Road at that point, away from town. I thought, well, maybe if the CBD’s badly damaged I should be heading there—to see if I could help. So I turned around, and started driving back in towards the CBD. And I gradually became aware that all the traffic that was heading away from the CBD, in the other direction.
Is that when you first suspected it could be really bad?
No, at that stage I still didn’t think it was that bad. I thought I’d head to ED, just in case. I’d previously worked in the emergency department, and I have a good ongoing relationship with all the ED specialists because we talk to them on the phone a lot from Kaikōura. So I felt I could turn up and say, “Oh look, can I do something useful?” But I didn’t have a clue how bad it was.
So I drove back towards town, down Riccarton Road and past Hagley Park. I was pretty close, really—I got to the hospital within a few minutes. I drove around to the ambulance entrance, round the back of ED. And I parked— God, I don’t know where I parked—and there was quite a lot going on: people rushing around, ambulances, generally a sense of something happening.
I went up to ED—to the ambulance doors of ED—and stuck my head in to see if I could offer to help. First person I saw was an ED consultant who I know quite well. And I said, ‘Can I help? Do you need any extra doctors?’ She said something to the effect of, ‘Well, actually we’ve got more doctors that we know what to do with, because the whole hospital is in emergency mode.’ Which I think basically means that all the patients are sent home, and all the doctors are put to work in emergency. At that stage, they hadn’t really got any patients because it was early days, and no one had come in yet. So she said, “We’ve got lots of doctors here, and we’re getting ready, but at the moment we don’t need you. Why don’t you get in one of the ambulances and just see where it goes. Go and do something useful.”
Were you starting to feel on edge at that stage? Had you thought at all about people being hurt, or needing to go and find Matt? [My brother Matt was attending boarding school in Christchurch at the time.]
I was definitely on edge. But I hadn’t thought at all about people being really hurt—and I hadn’t thought about Matt at all. Though there was a sense that something really bad had happened, I guess, because I think the hospital had no power— well it can’t have done, at that stage. I don’t know if I looked at my phone . . . or if I called home . . . The moment it really starts to dawn on you that all is not well is when you realise mobile signal is down, the traffic lights aren’t working . . . you know, when all the usual parameters for normal behaviour have suddenly gone. I still had no idea, but I was beginning to get a sense that yes, this could be bad.
Anyway, as it happened there was an ambulance that was just leaving, and so I knocked on the door, opened it up and basically jumped on in. There were two other doctors in the back who I knew—one was David Richards, and the other Stuart Barrington-Onslow. And they knew me—it wasn’t like I was a complete random who jumped in. So I said, “Hey look, can I help?” and they said, “We don’t know, but come along anyway.”
And as it transpired, this ambulance was taking us to Latimer Square to set up a sort of medical triage centre. I think it was one of several around the city. They’d already decided on some locations—I guess “they” meaning Civil Defence, or this might have been some kind of pre-arranged emergency plan. But anyway, somebody had made the decision that there was going to be a kind of medical post at Latimer Square. We didn’t really know what else was going on, because there was such a complete absence of communication . . . you really were in your own little world. In fact one of the problems later on was that we didn’t really know what state the hospital was in, and had no real way of getting in touch. But in that early stage I just got in the ambulance and off we went.
What was the scene like when you got to Latimer Square?
Well, that’s when it became pretty confusing. We were among the first to arrive, but there were several ambulances, some paramedics, some fire fighters . . . a lot of dust. Dust billowing up from the buildings around us. Some of those buildings had been quite badly damaged—there was glass everywhere. The Copthorne Hotel—a ginormous building—was quite obviously on an angle. That felt pretty odd.
It was all very confusing. And we were trying to organise it a bit—talking to the ambulance people, trying to work out a plan of action. One of the ambulance guys must have been in charge, and he was saying, “Okay, so we’re going to set up a receiving area here, and another area here . . .” I think they had some cones, and we started trying to make different areas.
Were there any patients at that stage?
Yeah, there were a few people sitting around on the grass. I was wandering around, kind of wondering what to do. Luckily I had a sort of high-vis vest, which I had grabbed from the back of my car. It was my PRIME [Primary Response in Medical Emergencies] vest, so it said PRIME DOCTOR on the back. At that stage I noticed there were three bodies lying on the grass, which someone had left there. Or I don’t know how they got there. Someone was trying to put a blanket over them, or a jacket over their faces. And that was the moment it sort of dawned on me, you know, how serious it was. And, because I wasn’t really doing anything else, I decided to create some kind of morgue area . . . to give them a bit of privacy.
Actually, the first person I really talked to was some guy who rode up on his bike. Literally came powering along on his pedal bike and jumped off and said, “Can I help?”
He said he was an engineering student, and so I said, “Well, what I’m trying to do is a make a morgue for these people.”
As it happened, a building at the end of Latimer Square had a whole lot of tarpaulins over it for some reason—it must have been under construction or something. And so I said, “If you’re an engineering student—you must have a pocket knife! Why don’t you go and cut down one of those.” He did, and we decided to wrap it around some of the trees in Latimer Square and make it into a little room. So that, as I recall, was probably the first useful thing I did.
But then people started arriving. It’s hard to remember at what stage everything happened. There were some really huge aftershocks. Big ones. And the buildings around Latimer Square, they were moving a lot. You could look at this fifteen- storey skyscraper and it would be rocking back and forth, the windows popping out.
Ambulance officers started bringing people in. And then people started dropping others off in cars, with people lying across the bonnet. Things like that. One person got carried in on a door. And while there was a lot of damage at Latimer Square—and there was—it was pretty obvious that there was a lot more damage about two blocks away. I later realised that was the CTV building.
The whole thing was very disorientating. There were clouds of dust everywhere. The aftershocks were noisy—there was a lot of crashing and breaking, things falling down. But mainly I remember the dust. All the injured people who got brought in were covered in dust.
How was the park set up?
Actually it organised pretty quickly. There were two stages to it: the initial stage and then a later, more officially organised stage. In the beginning it was designated areas and a quick sort of split-up of personnel. More ambulance people had arrived—quite a big group of doctors arrived who had actually been at a Paediatric Advanced Life Support course at the Copthorne Hotel. They already had roles established on the course . . . course leader, tutor, participants. So weirdly enough they came down with that structure already in place. One of the guys already had a big badge saying leader, and he just became the leader of that group. But anyway, Stuart and I, and the other ambulance people, had done a quick divvy-up of roles. I was doing initial assessment—
What do you mean by initial assessment?
Well, so . . . meet and greet, as we call it—a very rapid triage where you don’t try and do anything, you just assess people, and from there send them off to the relevant place. So anybody who was injured but able to walk—you know, nothing too serious—was going to be moved on to the nearby after-hours. I don’t know how that was happening, but it was. I think people were being ferried off in ambulances. Basically you have these 1, 2 and 3 categories. Status 0 means you’re already dead. Status 1 means you need life-saving intervention right now, like you’re in cardiac arrest or something. Status 2 means you need immediate care—a crush injury to the chest, something very serious. Status 3 is injured but okay—you’re going to be fine if you’re left for twenty minutes. A broken leg, for example. But you have to be careful; you know, it’s all well and good until someone bleeds out from their broken leg. Status 4 and 5 are the walking wounded, and they all went away somewhere else.
One of the decisions that was made right at the beginning was that if someone was status 1—i.e., they needed to be intubated right now or they would die, or they needed CPR right now or they would die—then it was pretty clear that these people were going to die. And that’s why triage can be a brutal process, because you have to ask what is the best use of the resources that we have. You have to put your effort into the people you think you can save. It wasn’t an official decision—and I don’t know how you’ll write this in your book—but there was an acknowledgement, let’s say that, between all the people who were there at the beginning, that we didn’t have the gear, the time or the resources to spend a lot of time trying to save someone who was clearly going to die anyway. We felt it was better to prioritise status 2 people who we could save.
Did you have many status 1 people come in?
I think about two. Two people turned up as status 1, and then died very quickly. So that was pretty difficult.
Were you overwhelmed? Did it feel like an insane situation at the time?
Yep, it did feel very stressful. Particularly because on the move, on your feet in real time, you’re trying to make sense of a whole different framework for what you’re doing. I saw someone, I remember, who had been crushed by a whole lot of falling masonry, and had a spinal injury. Her ABC was okay, but she couldn’t move her legs properly . . . you know, something that in normal life I would have thought of as absolutely top priority. And I was saying, “Oh, I think she’s okay, her ABCs are okay, let’s not worry about her for a minute.”
And Stuart said, “Chris, that’s wrong—because she has a potentially paralysing injury.”
And of course he was right, and clearly we needed to send her off to the hospital—which we were quietly hoping hadn’t fallen down in one of the aftershocks. And when I thought about it afterwards I thought, well yes, that was really stupid and obvious. But it’s very intense, in that situation—you almost end up swinging the other way, thinking, you’re not as bad as the person I just saw, you’ll be fine. It was difficult. It was a new experience for everyone— and you’re trying to make the right decisions, very quickly.
But after a while— weirdly enough—we ran out of patients, or at least, we had more than enough doctors, and it came to dawn on us that everybody who could get there had already got there.
And once you realised that everybody who could come in, had, what happened after that?
There was a certain amount of milling around at this point. Everyone was desperately waiting for news, trying to find out what was going on. I was with one of the paramedics who I knew and we were listening to his ambulance radio. And what we were hearing was that there was a really big problem at the CTV building. All these people were trapped, and they needed pain relief and assistance.
So this guy and I were listening to this, saying, “This sounds terrible.” And we didn’t have much to do at Latimer Square at that stage—we had become sort of supernumerary. So he and I decided we would go and see what we could do at CTV. I mean, God knows why we thought this. We didn’t have permission to go there, and in fact we knew the explicit instructions were for us to stay at Latimer Square. But rightly or wrongly we thought, well, it sounds like we could be more useful there. And so . . . we picked up a stretcher. I don’t even think we discussed it much; we just sort of got going. We got a stretcher and went to one of the tents, and started grabbing some basic gear. Drugs and oxygen and I can’t think what else . . . it was poorly organised, actually. We just grabbed whatever kit was readily available and we put it on the stretcher. I grabbed someone’s hardhat which was lying on the grass. We put a blanket over all the stuff and then we trotted off up the road.
So you just walked there?
We ran, actually.
Did you, at that point, kind of recognise how surreal the whole thing was?
Ah . . . I think it did feel pretty crazy. I feel a bit embarrassed about it now, really. It was so blatantly not part of the plan. It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time, that’s my only excuse.
You couldn’t see the CTV building from Latimer Square, but it was close. So we were weaving our way up the rubble- strewn streets, jumping over it with the stretcher. It was very dusty, I can remember thinking how dusty it was. But then we rounded the corner and the CTV building came into view. And, honestly, that was a whole other moment of revelation.
The entire thing had collapsed, and what was left was this ginormous pile of rubble about three storeys high. But the lift shaft hadn’t gone down, so that was towering up still at one end, and it was on fire. We could see flames and black smoke. . . and then all these people, swarming over the mess. There were helicopters flying over the rubble, diggers and cranes. It was overwhelming. It was so terrible . . .
So he and I ran up, not to the burning tower end, but the other. And pretty quickly people signalled to us to come over, so I think we must have been recognisable as doctors. He had his paramedic vest on, I had my PRIME vest. And we had the stretcher. We got waved up to this area that was maybe . . . halfway up the mound of rubble? But it was quite difficult to get up there. In the end we had to put down the stretcher, and we went up individually. It was like scrambling up the rock wall along the esplanade in Sumner, you know, big chunks of rock you had to climb up. As I was scrambling up I slipped over something, something slippery, and fell down onto my knee. And as I looked down I realised it was someone’s smashed head.
And then you have that moment, I suppose, that terrible moment of looking around and seeing what’s really there. And when I looked at the rubble, dotted all over the place were these sorts of clues—a vest here, or a jacket or a hat. Bits of stuff I initially thought had blown about over the rubble. But then I saw someone’s arm, and it dawned on me that these were bodies. Real people. And I guess that’s when I realised how truly, catastrophically bad it was. That was one of the worst moments—a reality check, really.
So with that thumping in my head, I got up to where this platform was and where this group of people had gathered.
How did everyone seem once you got up there?
Stressed, but also quite calm. Tired. Everybody was covered in dust, and streaks of sweat. And this was a group of ambulance and fire guys. They were standing around these two entrances, I suppose, where people had tunnelled—or started to tunnel— passages under the rocks, and had located some people. David Richards was up there—and he’d obviously been up there for a while, so he must have left Latimer Square at some stage too. He was saying to me, “Okay, so they’re bringing people out, it’s slow but they’re bringing them out.” And he stationed me at one of these tunnel entrances.
The initial task was to check people as they were pulled from the tunnels—essentially to see if they were dead or alive. If they were dead, then they were going to . . . stay there. And if they were alive then they were going to be scooted back to Latimer Square. So David said to me, “You do that,” and then he went off to one of the other tunnels.
What do you mean by “tunnels”?
They weren’t so much tunnels as natural spaces that had formed when the building collapsed. And people had been trying to clear rubble out of those spaces so we could get into them. In the beginning it seemed like the building had fallen down like . . . a Jenga game, you know. There were little cracks, bigger cracks and sometimes no cracks. This was a seven-floor building, right. But the ends of the building had moved apart, and these huge floor slabs had all dropped on top of each other like a stack of plates. But where I was stationed there happened to be a beam—a big crossbeam, like a girder, so maybe . . . 300 mm deep? The floor had fallen across the beam and then cracked, and it had created a little triangular space you could creep in through. And these floors hadn’t completely pancaked. Well, the bottom two did, actually— anyone between those floors was pretty seriously squashed. You could see the floor slabs, they must have been eight inches deep, and then there would be a gap of about six inches and then the next slab.
The floor we were at—well, the little space where you could crawl between the beam and the floor over top of it —was completely full of steel and rock and reinforcing rod . . . and furniture. The others had been working there for quite a while already, trying to move things and get people out. They’d brought out a few—some alive, some dead, obviously. What they were really doing was crawling into this tight space and trying to move the debris, either pushing it out with their legs or bringing it out in their arms. They were cutting their way in with hacksaws and stuff. It was an absolutely tiny space. So I would do a very rapid assessment of the people they brought out to see if they were dead or alive. If they were dead, there was an area off to the side on a flat bit of concrete where bodies were being put.
And this whole process was something that really came to haunt me afterwards, because it was surprisingly hard to tell. You know, normally if someone’s died you can check his or her pulse—no pulse. You can listen to their heart with a stethoscope—no heartbeat. Check for reflexes; you can flick their eyelashes or whatever, see if their body reacts to it. And sometimes you can tell by looking at them, as well. If someone’s ashen white or ice cold or stiff, then they’re dead. But the problem in this situation was that everyone was completely covered in dust—they all looked like they had makeup on. It was incredibly noisy, so you couldn’t hear anything like a heartbeat, and my own heart was pounding so much that all I could feel when I tried to take anyone’s pulse was my own heart. I could have held a bit of wood and felt it thumping away. Some people were clearly dead, but with others it was really hard to tell. Everyone was warm, because it was so hot in there. Underneath us was getting hotter and hotter from the fire. I think when you’re in such a state of panic yourself, a really simple assessment like what colour are they, have they got a pulse, are they breathing—it all becomes so difficult. I’d hold my face really close to people, to see if they were breathing, you know. But if someone’s using a jackhammer ten feet away from you . . . you can’t tell anything. So I found that pretty stressful. I mean, mostly it was fine, but some points . . . it made me really upset. This was actually how I found out I had PTSD. I was at some stupid resuscitation conference a month later, and they were saying, “Now we check the pulse! Now we check what colour the lips are!” I had a total meltdown. Started shouting. Told the guy he had no fucking clue about anything. And that’s when someone said to me, “Um, Chris, have you thought about taking any time off?”
Anyway, I remember at one point they brought out a woman who I thought was dead. And then I got into a panic because I suddenly thought maybe she wasn’t, and so I kept saying to the guys, “I want to go and check, I want to go and check.” I started getting anxious. And one of the paramedics who was there, another guy I knew, said to me, “Chris. She’s dead. Let it go.”
You just have to get on with it. You don’t cry or feel sad . . . everyone has such a desperate desire to help. But then there was a terrible disaster, because a woman was brought out who had been trapped for ages . . . a young woman, twenty- something. And she’d been squashed in this tunnel, essentially folded in half, her legs out straight and her body over them like a hairpin. Stuck like that for hours. She’d finally been brought out alive—to much jubilation. And she was in the category of being whizzed off to Latimer Square. Everyone who had helped her out was thrilled—laid her down on the stretcher, you know, “Congratulations, you’re fine, you’ve made it, you’re going to be okay.” And she got taken down to the ambulance and whisked away. A short while after that, a message got relayed back up to us saying that she’d gone into cardiac arrest and died in the ambulance. The reason was that when your muscles are crushed for a long time with no blood supply, the cells break down and release potassium. And if you suddenly decompress someone—or, in her case, unfold her—those toxins are released into your blood system, and can affect your heart.
It’s so much easier in hindsight—if we could run it all over again we’d have all gone to a tutorial the day before about how best to deal with crush injuries. I mean, I don’t think there was anything we could have done differently . . . But it was just such a devastatingly bad blow for us. We’d got this person who had been stuck for hours, and of course your natural instinct is to say, ‘God, lay the poor girl down, put a blanket over her, give her some pain relief.’
So things felt desperate then. And I think that was what sent me into the tunnel—because all these other people were stuck, and we could hear them further in.
What was that like?
It was horrible. I mean, you knew they were alive and in pain, but you couldn’t quite get to them. And now we were worried about people having the same problem as the girl who had just died. For some reason, which I’ve never quite understood, one of the ways you can try and prevent that from happening is by giving people Ventolin, like you do for asthma. Which seems a bit bizarre, but next minute we had all these boxes of nebulising masks arriving, like what you put on the face of someone with really bad asthma. And Ventolin. The idea was to try and run pipes of oxygen down into the little space we could get into, and to try and get masks on them and give them Ventolin.
So that became our next project. The nebuliser sets come in lengths of six or eight feet long, connected to bottles of oxygen. I said to one of the fire guys—because I was familiar with the whole nebulising set up—that I would go in and put the masks on people. David Richards was doing the same, I think. It became very MacGyver-ish, because you had all these tubes you had to tape together before trying to crawl into the tunnel to reach to all the people we could.
That was one of the first things that involved me in going into the tunnels. Oh, and of course people needed pain relief, so we were going in and jabbing them with morphine or whatever. A lot of them were foreign students who I think had been taking language classes in the building? It made it doubly horrible, because it was so frightening for them—you know, it was pitch black, dusty and we were coming at them with head torches and needles. Awful.
So you were actually crawling into the tunnel at this point?
Yeah, I was. David had said to me, “Are you up for going in?” and I’d said yes. So I gathered whatever gear I needed, and went in. The poor fire guys had been doing relays in and out for so long—they were hot and exhausted, it was a difficult environment. I mean, calling it a tunnel is really a bit of misnomer—it was only just wide enough to fit one man’s shoulders in, and you had to lie down on your belly, not on your hands and knees. You sort of had to shuffle, like a snake, with your arms out in front of you. You also couldn’t turn around, because there wasn’t enough room, it was so tight. So you had to be pulled out by your ankles if you wanted to get out.
In my recollection of the whole day, which I’m not sure is even true, the people were unbelievably quiet. Stoic, for the most part. They’d been trapped for hours. The guys behind me would be calling up, saying, “Shuffle to the right, you can get to a little space up ahead,” and so I’d be shuffling along. And then in amongst the gloom and the rocks I’d suddenly realise I was seeing someone’s upper body, or someone’s head, and they’d be looking at me with great wide eyes.
What did you say to them?
Oh I don’t know, really. I think I did my default, “You’ll be fine, it’s going to be okay. We’re going to help you.” Even in the knowledge that they might not understand me. I guess you’re hoping that just the sound of someone talking helps.
Did they say anything back to you?
Some did, some didn’t. Some were unconscious. The first person I came up to was actually dead. And I think then the next guy was trapped by the legs, but we managed to get him out.
It must have been such a nightmare trying to manoeuvre everybody.
It really was. And every time there was an aftershock, the plan was to pull everyone out. We didn’t want the tunnel to collapse on us all. I was wearing all the wrong clothes—I only had a shirt on—so I got scraped along my stomach and arms. Often we were two or three people deep when we had to pull everyone out again.
And the building was on fire—it was very smoky, so it was quite difficult to breathe, and it was noticeably warm. They were dropping monsoon buckets over us—so to add another level of sensory confusion, you were completely soaked. But inside it was very hot, and we tried not to dwell on the fire. There was a certain amount of irony in taking a pipe pumping oxygen into a confined space where there was already a fire, but we didn’t have another option.
Going in and out, in and out, with the Ventolin was painstakingly slow. There were two survivors who were the most memorable for me, who really stuck in my mind. One was this guy the firemen had already got to. He was facing directly away from us, and the only bit of him you could see was the soles of his shoes—you could see them because they were white. So he had these white sneakers on, and he was jiggling his feet and shouting. One of the reasons he was stuck was because someone was lying across the top of him, and they were dead, among other things. There was also an Apple computer—you know one of those old desktop ones, the distinctive apple- shaped ones. He had that jammed between his knees, between him and the roof. I don’t know why it struck me so much but, you know, he would have been at his desk doing his work. We had to kind of prise the body off the top of him, and then the computer, and get them both out. Eventually we freed him up; we pulled him, and someone pulled us, and we all sort of slid out like a string of sausages. And this guy—he turned out be a twenty-year-old guy—he’d been stuck for hours with someone lying dead across his back. He got out, and we were saying, “Are you okay? Are you okay?”
But he just stood up and dusted himself off. We were all standing around him with our mouths open, waiting to see what he would do. And he just stood up, and went around and calmly thanked everybody in the ring. Gave us each a little bow. And then he sort of . . . just walked off! With someone helping him, I sincerely hope. And he was fine. It was very humbling, his thank you. It was amazing.
Are you okay? We can stop if you want.
No, no. It’s okay.
The other person I remember—although this one was worse—was a woman who was caught by her foot. She’d been stuck for ages too, because about two-thirds of her foot was stuck between two enormous bits of concrete. We’d managed to clear the stuff around her, but she was seriously trapped by her foot. She was sort of on her side, I guess, with her foot nearest us and her body away from us. I think she’d already had some pain relief, and they’d tried to get her out by pulling her foot and trying to smash the concrete, trying to move it and so on. By this time it was late in the evening; it was pretty dark. And what had been happening, actually—in a kind of parallel story—was that underneath us was a pocket-space full of people who were all alive in this little room. We knew they were alive because they’d called their families on their mobiles, and the message had been relayed back to us. But we were taking a long time to get this girl above them out. We had people visiting us saying, “Look, there’s a group of eight people exactly underneath you, we know they’re alive and they can hear noise above them.”
There was a bit of debate growing about this, about how long it was taking us to rescue the few people above them, and how soon we should get in the big equipment and try to cut our way through to the room below. It was a pretty horrible predicament, and the fire was getting out of control at that point. So there was a lot of tension developing—we were too slow, there were more people underneath than above, and it was getting hotter. Everyone was telling us to hurry up, and we were saying, “We can get her, we can get her.” We didn’t want to give up on her.
So that was the driver of us thinking, right, we don’t have enough time to fluff around anymore. If need be, we’re going to have to amputate her foot in order to get her out. We were given, for this purpose, a kind of amputation kit, a terrible-looking array of equipment. There was a horrible big wooden tourniquet which I’d never even seen before; you could spin it around and it tightened up. And then we had a little surgical saw and some drugs, ketamine or whatever it was. The intention was to go in, knock her out, put the tourniquet on her leg and then cut off her foot.
Yeah, it was starting to feel pretty terrible. I felt awful. So we started to shuffle in again—we’d done it loads of times already but it was still quite an ordeal, clearing the space, getting your headgear on, trying to negotiate the supplies you were taking in with you. And whenever we went out to plan or get supplies, we always tried to send someone else in to do some comforting, so when we wanted to go back in we would then have to yell at them to shuffle out again and make room for us.
Could you tell her that you were going to amputate her foot?
Well no, not really. She was absolutely terrified. We crawled in and, up by her body, the space widened out a little so we were able to squish in shoulder to shoulder and talk about what we were going to do. It was difficult because she couldn’t speak English. We tried to comfort her, but I don’t think we were really helping. And she was absolutely petrified, because she knew something bad was about to happen. We had the saw. And we had to put this tourniquet on her leg, below her knee. That was a terrible moment, because she was screaming, “No, no, no, no!”
And we were saying, “Please, we’re trying to help, we’re trying to get you out of here.” I was thinking, holy fuck, please can the drugs kick in so she doesn’t have to be aware of what’s about to happen.
Her foot was jammed up against the concrete, and we were trying to cut it off at the ankle. But, because of the angle, we couldn’t actually move the saw in the space we had. So, with her still in a panic, we had to back out all over again and come up with a plan B. What we decided on was an oscillating saw, a kind of electric saw you use for cutting metal pipe. The blade of the saw moves, so we wouldn’t need as much room. So we’d already had to abandon this poor woman, and then we were coming back in with the power cord and the oscillating saw. Even saying it now, I feel so terrible. And we were both feeling pretty sick at this stage, this firefighter and I. Once we were back in, with the new saw, we had a moment where we both looked at each other, and I think it was him who said it: “You’re about one hundred kilos, I’m about one hundred kilos. What’s the worse that can happen if we just pull her?”
I thought about. What’s the worst that could happen? We’d leave half her foot behind. Best case scenario, we’d pull it out and maybe it would be broken, but it would still be attached to her leg. We really didn’t want to cut off her foot.
So we went out again, and got a webbing belt from somewhere—like a strop that you’d use for tying stuff down.
Was the woman knocked out at this point?
No, she wasn’t. She’d had some pain relief, but I was saving my knock-out stuff for the actual amputation. Because then you’d have to try and keep her breathing, you know—the whole thing is so incredibly sketchy. But I think I’d given her some morphine, because I felt so sorry for her.
So we went back in with this tie-down, effectively, and we wrapped it around her heel and ankle, which were both exposed. We both shuffled back about two feet to give ourselves some room, and basically said to her that we would pull until something happened. We absolutely heaved the tie- down. What happened was that her foot just popped out from between the concrete slabs, still attached to her leg. Admittedly it was squished, but it was still attached.
It was such a huge relief. But then of course I had the sick realisation that we almost didn’t think of it—of just pulling the foot out, which seems like the most obvious thing in the world. But at the time it all seemed so massive, these slabs of concrete pressing on slabs of concrete. It shows how totally fucked up your thought patterns are in a situation like that.
I’m worried that I’m upsetting you, making you relive it all. We can stop.
It’s all right. It’s fine. It’s just a bit emotionally battering, isn’t it. She survived, you know. And sometime later I saw her and the fireman on TV together. She really did survive.
I had a bit of a breather after that. I think more people arrived, people better than me, really well trained intensive- care paramedics. The general consensus was we should all be swapped out, which was fine by me. And I had this rising anxiety that I didn’t know where Matt was, and I still hadn’t called home.
You must have been so exhausted.
I was. I was just feeling so weird. I walked back down to Latimer Square, which was quite surreal, really. When I got there I remember there was a bit of niggle—”you shouldn’t have been up there” kind of thing. But I’d cut my face quite badly and needed stitches, so had to sort that out. I found myself in the triage tent 3.
It was about one in the morning, I think, and Latimer Square was under control. So I said to everybody that I needed to find my son. I was trying to get a ride there, to the school, but of course the whole city centre was on lockdown because everyone was worried about looting and things, so all the roads were closed. There was a much bigger police presence than there had been in the beginning. I wandered up to a policewoman and explained that I needed to find Matt, and asked her for a lift. She said yes, and I hopped into her car, and she basically went scooting off around the cordon and took me as close as we could get to the school. I said goodbye and then went off with some trepidation, really, because the area was so damaged. Eventually I turned up at the school. The person I met said that everyone had already been picked up by their parents, but the kids who were left were in Flowers House, which is a building over the road owned by the school. And so I knocked on the door, and there was Matty. And a few other boys—I wasn’t the only bad parent turning up late. It was a fantastic relief.
What do you feel now when you think about the day of the earthquake?
I suppose . . . I mean, I do feel proud. Proud to have been a part of it, and to have made a material contribution. I feel a bit defensive about it, definitely. We did a good job in difficult circumstances, and a lot of people took personal risks to provide care. So I do feel proud. It’s hard to remember . . . to reflect on how I felt in that moment. Because when you’re there, doing it, you have to put your compassion to one side and process everything later. Thinking about it now, what has me in tears is actually that other guy, in the car accident, the way he was able to offer some comfort to that girl as she died. I wish I could have done the same—I wish I could have brought that level of compassion. But in a way, the whole day was just a bigger-scale version of what we do every day, and I have to tell myself that part of my job is not getting involved, at that level. You know, we had a resuscitation yesterday with a guy we all knew, and you have to stop yourself from getting caught up in it, have to stop yourself from thinking, “But I know this guy, he can’t die right in front of me!” You have to take your emotion out of it, and that’s what’s challenging, afterwards.
Even six years later when I think about the whole day, it still feels confronting. I seem to get sadder as time goes on . . . I feel more grief. I didn’t feel sad for years, really, afterwards. But now I wish I could have met with some of the people there and said thank you, for the times over the course of the day that they helped me. Like the paramedic who said, “Let it go Chris, she’s dead,” when I was losing the plot about the woman who I thought might still be alive.
I don’t know why I never tried to track him down, to say thank you. Maybe I still should.
From We Can Make a Life: A memoir of family, earthquakes and courage by Chessie Henry (Victoria University Press, $35), available from Unity Books. Chessie and her father, Dr Chris Henry, will appear in a session at the Christchurch WORD Festival on August 31.