Workers led way in Grand escape after earthquake

By Isaac Davison

The Hotel Grand Chancellor. Photo / Sarah Ivey
The Hotel Grand Chancellor. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The men who led the escape from one of Christchurch's tallest buildings smashed through doors, tip-toed down crumbling staircases, and at one point considered abseiling from the 23rd floor.

Three maintenance workers at the Hotel Grand Chancellor found themselves precariously positioned when the February 22 tremor tore through the city.

The 25th floor of the hotel had begun slipping on the southern side. The elevator was out of order, and a power cut left most of the hotel in darkness.

Hotel maintenance manager Steve Philips said one of the two central stairways had crumbled and fallen from the 23rd storey, leaving rubble seven floors high. The remaining staircase was wobbly, missing steps, and unsafe.

Mr Philips, who was installing an air conditioning unit in the 26th floor, said: "I yelled at everyone to get out. But the stairs were just gone - I went to walk down them and there was nothing.

"We had [recently] installed lighting in the stairwell. The lighting was still there, but the stairs weren't. Which was lucky, because I could see. I almost walked straight over the ledge."

Stranded at the top of a collapsing high-rise, Mr Philips thought to get a construction crane to reach the stranded guests and workers.

He smashed a window on the 23rd floor, yelling and waving at police on Cashel St for help.

"It was dead quiet. I was yelling and yelling, but I wasn't sure they'd hear me.

"Some of the women were pretty upset, but when we looked out the window police had spray-painted on the road 'HELP IS COMING' in big red letters. That made them cheer up."

Police commandeered a construction crane, but it only reached the 14th floor of the hotel.

A plasterer who worked with Mr Philips suggested they abseil to the 14th floor roof, where guests could be lowered by rope.

Mr Philips cut a rope from a window cleaner's platform, but as he began lowering it over the southern side, another aftershock hit.

"People started to cry ... there was dust and smoke everywhere."

A builder, known only as Barry, decided to test the remaining stairway. He descended a level, but the doors between stairwells were jammed. He unpinned each door, knocking them down, to clear the path for escape.

The maintenance workers and guests descended tentatively, one at a time, picking up more guests on the way until the group numbered 28.

At the 14th floor, Mr Philips smashed another window to escape onto a rooftop. Guests, including tourists from the United States, Germany and China - some who had only been in New Zealand for two hours - were lowered in the crane's cage 10 at a time on to Cashel St.

Four hours later, at 4.30pm, all 28 people were safely at ground level.

- NZ Herald

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