Quake- a year on: Shaken city honours its heroes

By Jarrod Booker, Anna Leask, Jared Savage

Aftershocks meant those trying to rescue others in Christchurch after the earthquake were constantly in danger. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Aftershocks meant those trying to rescue others in Christchurch after the earthquake were constantly in danger. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Yesterday, the Royal Humane Society recognised 140 people with Christchurch Earthquake Awards for heroism and service. Here are the stories of some who were honoured.

Chris Nutsford

Being a risk-taker, Chris Nutsford was the ideal man to come to the rescue of a group of terrified earthquake victims stranded in the collapsed Pyne Gould Corporation building.

The five-storey central Christchurch building came down in the earthquake one year ago, killing 18 people and trapping many others. Mr Nutsford - a carpenter and experienced rock climber - happened to be working nearby and went to help.

His courage in scaling the collapsed building and cutting people free, while putting his own life at risk, has earned him one of the Christchurch Earthquake Awards presented yesterday.

"It was kind of fun in a twisted way. To me, I like risk. I'm a bit twisted," Mr Nutsford told the Herald.

"You don't think about the aftershocks that are coming up, you just think about how am I going to rearrange this puzzle so this person can get out."

When he first turned up at the building site, he told the firefighter in charge: "Look, I'm a climber, and I'm a builder, and I'm pretty able and fit, if you need me. And he said: 'Yeah, sweet, can you climb the ladder?"'

Mr Nutsford made his way around the rear of the building and heard the voices of three women who were trapped.

"I was trying to find different pockets to go into to get closer to them, and [it took] pretty much a good hour until I found a finger ... poking up through a little hole. There were tears of joy and everything."

The women were trapped in toilets where the cubicles were the only thing preventing a concrete floor above from coming down and crushing them. Electric saws were being used to cut through the rubble and a steel "spaghetti nightmare" to get to the women. As some holes were cut, aftershocks were closing them up again.

"They went through a whole range of emotions. Trying to keep their emotions on a level so I could work with them was quite difficult. But they did really well in the end."

- Jarrod Booker

Erwin Polczak

If New Zealand is looking for people with good qualities to add to its population, then Erwin Polczak should be a shoo-in.

The Polish man, who has lived and worked in New Zealand for the past three years, is applying for residency and will have done his chances no harm by winning a Christchurch Earthquake Award for his brave actions.

The 37-year-old freed four people from underneath building rubble in central Christchurch after the February quake, using a crowbar, brooms and any other tools he could find.

All the time aftershocks were striking Christchurch.

His citation reads: "It was very tight under the rubble and Erwin was getting squashed by the surrounding materials with every aftershock. He risked his life for these four others."

He followed this up in the weeks after the February quake by volunteering to deliver food alongside police into the Christchurch city red zone.

"At the time, it was very, very dangerous," he said. "But I really want to help people. I don't think at the time about the danger."

- Jarrod Booker

Joseph Pohio

Joseph Pohio was a man who lived to help others - and a year ago he died doing just that.

The Christchurch City Council design draughtsman had been in the city centre having lunch when the quake struck.

Rather than get himself to safety, he made sure others were getting the attention they needed. As he crouched to help an injured elderly woman, he was crushed by falling rubble.

His parents, Joy and Arnold, were there to accept his award and are "thrilled" he will be remembered for his courage and caring.

Colleague Fiona Lees, who nominated Mr Pohio for the awards, said everyone at the council loved him dearly.

"He was out on the street helping someone, and lost his life in doing so. That is typical Joe," she said.

"It's so sad for his parents, but they are ... absolutely thrilled that he's been marked that way, that he's been acknowledged."

After his death was confirmed the Herald was inundated with tribute messages for Mr Pohio.

One friend wrote: "Only the good die young, and you were one of the best."

- Anna Leask

Murray Straight

Hero isn't a word Murray Straight likes. But when he rescued 15 people trapped in a building after the quake, many would say that's exactly what he is.

Mr Straight was in Cashel St having coffee with a colleague when he heard the quake coming.

They raced outside and, after the shaking stopped, saw that a brick wall had crashed through the roof of a nearby building.

"I could see five or six people standing around in a huddle. I knew something had happened and later found out a man had been killed. I thought there was enough of them there, so I looked around to see if there were any other people that needed help.

"I looked above me and I could see a lady looking at me from a broken window."

Mr Straight told the woman to hang on, that he would help her. He ran from shop to shop until he found a ladder and climbed up to help her to safety.

"When I got her out she said, 'There's another 14 people in there."'

All he could see behind the woman was rubble. And then he heard banging behind a wall.

"I moved the ladder, climbed up and walked along a ledge. Then I saw all these faces looking out through a plate-glass window. My next job was to try and break that window."

Mr Straight got a loose brick and threw it at the glass. The brick bounced off, not leaving a mark, and landed 6m away.

He scrambled to find tools, and using a knife from a nearby cafe, managed to remove the rubber seal from the outside of the window. The knife broke as he tried to pry out the aluminium seal, so it was back to the brick.

Eventually, with the seal loosened, the brick broke through and his colleague passed up a chair which he used to smash through the rest of the glass.

"I helped the people down and then went with them to the Square. I've caught up with them a few times since, which has been nice."

Mr Straight said he was not a hero but someone who reacted in a practical way.

- Anna Leask

Dr Bryce Curran and Dr Lydia Putra

"For heroism: performed a life-saving emergency amputation at the PGC building" is the citation for Dr Bryce Curran and Dr Lydia Putra.

One sentence cannot do justice to the bravery of two doctors who saved Brian Coker from almost certain death in the collapsed wreckage.

Trapped in excruciating pain for hours while pinned under a concrete wall, the 53-year-old wanted a "decent aftershock to finish it". About six hours after the quake, he was still conscious when rescuers found him in a stairwell.

Dr Curran, an anaesthetist at Christchurch Hospital, later told the Herald of the difficulty of the operation and his fears inside the crumbling building.

"It was a matter of going up a stairwell that was in a rather precarious state to a small space where this man was confined. It was ... a very compromised situation, being in the dark and using what we could find.

"The decision was made to remove the man's legs because he would have almost certainly died if we had delayed. He would have bled to death. There was no way he [could be] extracted from the situation."

Morphine and ketamine were administered to Mr Coker and the two doctors began. Without surgical instruments and in the dark, they had to use tools that were available - a fold-out knife from a Leatherman multi-tool, and a hacksaw.

"We took turns at doing the surgery. It was physically demanding work," Dr Curran said.

It took about 15 minutes and he and Dr Putra, an Australian urological surgeon, kept at their task despite being shaken by another earthquake.

On the way to hospital, Mr Coker's heart stopped and he had to be resuscitated. He was transferred to Waikato Hospital for further surgery and rehabilitation, but has now moved back to Christchurch and returned to work.

- Jared Savage

Mark Skelton

Sitting at home in Auckland, Mark Skelton watched news reports of the destruction in Christchurch and wanted to help. So he did.

"We were hearing stories of people going without the basic necessities of toilets and showers. Being a showering company [Kohler], we put our heads together at work and some ideas started floating around to build a mobile shower truck."

Building a truck from scratch would take too long, so Mr Skelton tracked down the Event Showers business in Waihi which had a "massive" truck and trailer unit. He then cobbled together a convoy to feed water, electricity and gas for heating into the 27,000-litre tank and headed to Christchurch.

In liaison with Civil Defence, Mr Skelton based the shower truck in the worst-hit eastern suburbs. He then organised a second truck, with each providing up to 500 showers a day. The reaction from residents was "hard to put into words".

"It was very humbling," he said. "Some hadn't had showers for up to nine days. Hearing their stories was very sad, but the spirit of the people was amazing."

Mr Skelton said he was accepting the award on behalf of everyone who helped in the project, including Kohler, Event Showers, TransDiesel, Contact Energy and the Air New Zealand engineering crew.

- Jared Savage

- NZ Herald

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