Twelve months after the Kaikoura earthquake, paramedics who were jolted into action reflect on the immediate aftermath. Kurt Bayer reports.
Sean Lester had just closed his eyes when it struck. The massive magnitude-7.8 earthquake tossed him out of his bed at his North Canterbury home and sent him running to check on his sleeping children.
Within 90 minutes, he was stepping out of a helicopter in a dark, dazed and damaged Kaikoura.
"Before I left, I said to my wife, 'I'll see you at some stage'," said the St John territory manager for North Canterbury, whose large patch stretches from the Waimakariri to Clarence rivers.
A year on: Picking up the pieces
The adrenalin of the response felt eerily familiar. Just five years earlier, he'd been working in Christchurch CBD when the deadly February 22 quake struck.
Lester spent hours amid the chaos, smoke and rubble of the pancaked Canterbury Television (CTV) Building where 115 people lost their lives.
But the experience foretold what to expect on the ground in Kaikoura in those first early hours where phone lines were down and information limited: lots of aftershocks.
"I was expecting them and when they came I was ready for them," he said today, on the first anniversary of the quake that claimed two lives.
Lester also knew from experience the need to survive completely independently in those first 48 hours and to ensure the local volunteers could immediately pitch in and help their own people.
He helped establish an operating base at Kaikoura Hospital and asked for a 48-hour roster to be drawn up from local volunteers.
"We had a great response from our local volunteers who while they may have suffered damage to their homes and lives, their natural response was to help people," Lester said.
St John staff were called to the collapsed Elms homestead outside Kaikoura where 74-year-old Louis Edgar was killed. Both Louis and his wife Pam had been members of the St John organisation.
Fortunately, the number of casualties and injuries was low, Lester said, with most people suffering only bumps, cuts, scrapes and bruises.
In the peak hour between midnight and 1am, there were just 25 callouts across the entire Canterbury and Nelson regions.
It took many days for most people to come forward for medical help, which is often the case, Lester said.
"People have the mindset that there'll be people worse off than them and they worry about tying up the emergency services," he explained.
"Often our business as usual workload drops off in that type of situation and is usually followed days and weeks later with an increase."
Staff soon turned to providing welfare support to the local population, helping vulnerable people and ensuring they had a presence in the main centres where people were congregating.
On that Monday night, after more than 20 straight hours, Lester tried to snatch a nap. But the constant sounds of helicopters amid aftershocks meant he soon gave up and started a new shift.
The next day, he managed to return home before going out and checking on the rest of his North Canterbury staff.
A year on, he reflects with pride at the work his people did in such trying conditions.
"The way everyone came together, people forgetting any differences they might've had, to work together for each other was really special," Lester said.
"I'm also thankful there weren't greater losses of life or injuries. Although any loss is a loss, it certainly could've been a lot worse."