The police officer left in charge of the Christchurch earthquake's biggest disaster zone said he became "frustrated" at being ordered off the site as he tried to rescue survivors.
Sergeant Mike Brooklands told an inquest into the deaths of eight students who could not be saved from the wreckage of the CTV Building that he "would have liked assistance" from a more senior officer, despite the citywide strain on resources.
"Even at the debrief with senior police managers, I got the impression they still could not comprehend the number of lives lost in the building," he told the hearing in Christchurch today.
Giving evidence after a more senior officer acknowledged major flaws in the police response, Mr Brooklands said he arrived at the scene seconds after the magnitude-6.3 shake struck at 12.51pm on February 22, 2011.
The tremor brought down the six-storey CTV Building resulting in the deaths of 115 people.
Mr Brooklands dragged survivors, including a mother and two young children, and charred corpses from the twisted steel and concrete debris, working with civilian construction and demolition workers who pitched in to help.
"Someone had to do it," he told the inquest in Christchurch.
Mr Brooklands coordinated a cordon and pleaded for fire engines to fight the blaze that broke out shortly after the building's pancake collapse.
At the same time he coordinated with police communications, Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) staff, firefighters, doctors and engineers.
Inhaling black smoke that made him vomit, he helped set up a temporary mortuary while commandeering a local demolition firm's heavy machinery to raise heavy steel beams and concrete slabs to find more survivors.
But he became "frustrated" when hours into the rescue, USAR chiefs ordered him off the site, thwarting rescue attempts.
"Rescue efforts did slow down," he said.
Although he acknowledged the USAR involvement represented a shift in focus in the response, he was still angry more urgent action couldn't have been taken to reach survivors.
During the night, Mr Brooklands became aware survivors trapped inside the wreckage were sending text messages to family members. He tried in vain to send texts to two trapped women.
He tried to use the diggers and excavators again to remove large steel girders and concrete slabs but USAR ruled it out.
The coroner's inquiry is looking into the deaths of Tamara Cvetanova of Serbia, Cheng Mai of China, Japan's Rika Hyuga and Jessie Redouble, Emmabelle Anoba, Ezra Medalle, Reah Sumalpong and Mary Amantillo, all from the Philippines.
All were students at King's Education School for English Language on the CTV Building's third floor.
All survived the collapse but could not be rescued from the wreckage.
Richard Raymond, counsel assisting the coroner, said the inquest before Coroner Gordon Matenga was "not about finger pointing or apportioning blame".
But a bewildered Nigel Hampton QC, on behalf of Mrs Cvetanova's widower, Alec: "Where was the brass when it was needed?"
Inspector John Price, who stepped in to take charge of the police communication centre in the chaotic aftermath of the quake admitted Mr Brooklands should have been relieved by a more senior officer.
And he said the officers who were first on the scene were not trained or equipped to deal with the situation.
Mr Price also said police communication systems were "overwhelmed" and standard post-disaster operating procedures were unable to cope.
"The demand for services clearly exceeded the normal response capability of police," he said.
A review is underway by Christchurch Police to find out where it went wrong in the quake's immediate aftermath.
An officer who helped Mr Brooklands at the scene is due to give evidence when the inquest continues tomorrow.
- APNZBy Kurt Bayer @KurtBayerAPNZ Email Kurt