Normal people, who do an extremely different job. That's how Rotorua Fire and Emergency assistant area commander Hamish Smith describes first responders. Normal people were among the fires crews who rushed from Rotorua, Mamaku and Pūtāruru to a bus crash that killed five Chinese tourists, including a child, on Wednesday. Normal people were among the 10 St John staff who attended the scene on State Highway 5 at Ngātira, which left two others in a serious condition, another four in a moderate condition, and "walking wounded" among the remainder of the 27 onboard. And normal people were on the rescue helicopters that battled the elements to fly those with life-threatening injuries to hospitals. These are some of their stories, told for the first time this week.
Lakes territory manager Leisa Tocknell managed 10 staff at the scene, including emergency medical assistants, emergency medical technicians, and intensive care paramedics.
They arrived in five staged ambulances.
She was in a meeting at the Rotorua base when she first got the call, which initially was "very unclear" and based on information from members of the public.
Teleconferences between staff in Rotorua and Auckland declared a major incident.
They had already planned how resources would be used at the scene before the first ambulance arrived.
"It was a multi cas [casualty] situation which very loosely means there are more patients than ambulance officers."
The initial triage process required 30 seconds per patient.
"The scene was... I can't describe it any other way than chaotic. We were dealing with the cold, we were dealing with the wind, we were dealing with the rain, we were dealing with tourists who could not speak English.
"The tourists had been through a horrific incident and they were under pressure, and of course, they sort of just moved away and of course our role was to then bring them back together and triage them."
Crash survivor: Bus turned sharply, spun 360 degrees
'Absolutely tragic': Tourists die in bus crash, two badly hurt
Eleven people were still inside the bus when Tocknell arrived.
Three St John staff then went inside the wreckage, putting their hazards training to work with safety support from fire crews.
Tocknell said they did an "amazing" job of making sense of the scene.
"They would have seen the water, they would have understood the rain and the wind. They would have understood the instability of the bus... the broken glass."
Yesterday's response was one of the largest Tocknell had been part of in the last four years, and ambulances from other areas were brought into Rotorua to cope with other calls.
Another hurdle Tocknell's team faced was the minimal cellphone reception.
She was communicating with her phone, her handheld radio, and the vehicle radio at the same time.
The St John team were given the option to stand down after they left the scene but they all chose to stay on and work.
Counselling and peer support will be used to help them through the coming weeks.
Fire and Emergency
Assistant area commander Hamish Smith was in his office doing administration when he was paged about the crash.
The communications staff aim to have a call in the computer system in 90 seconds.
That generates a list of appliances available, in order of how close they are, and then activates volunteers' pagers and station alerts.
Four appliances were sent, as well as an incident support vehicle for heavy vehicle rescues, an operational support vehicle, and a command unit that relays identification information to and from the scene with organisations such as embassies.
Three commanders and 21 firefighters were there, including volunteers and full-time staff.
The Mamaku brigade arrived first, including an off-duty St John ambulance officer who started triaging patients that were still on the bus.
"A lot of the walking wounded people were out, so we put up a pop-up gazebo type shelter to get them in one place and account for every passenger," Smith said.
Crews used airbags and timber to carefully lift the bus and wooden frames to then secure it.
"It's a slow technical process," Smith said. "They did extremely well".
About 10 people "needed something to be lifted or something to be cut or some kind of technical rescue element to be able to free them safely without causing additional injuries".
A member of the public who came across the scene was able to translate Mandarin and was "very sought after to assemble people and shout instructions".
"There are a lot of people these days who might not want to do that kind of stuff or feel that they can't... It's great to see there are people prepared to step in and help, even if it's just sitting there and talking to them [victims] and supporting them until skilled emergency services arrive to actually extricate them."
Smith has been in constant contact with his crews since, as they deal with the psychological effects.
At the end of this month, he is going to Sydney for an emergency responders' psychological wellbeing workshop.
"At the end of the day as I said, we do this work too often... We do our best work to try and save as many people as possible. One thing we do do is treat all of the patients as if they were own family members, and that's whether they are alive or deceased, they all get treated with the utmost respect."
Todd Dunham, a Trustpower helicopter pilot based in Tauranga, had to make a quick call about whether a crew could reach the site in the wind, rain and cloud.
He took a route over the Mamaku ranges and then into the site from the Hamilton side, before landing on the road close to the scene, with a paramedic and crew member on board.
They picked up a patient in a moderate to serious condition and took them to Waikato Hospital.
"The hospitals have a trauma team that is on standby, where they have a lot of doctors and nurses all over the patient assessing them when we get to the hospital... They are all ready to go in the resuscitation room and they have a quick handover from the paramedics."
Nat Every, Greenlea Rescue Helicopter pilot and Taupō base manager had "a few different tracks" to choose from to get to the scene.
"You need to make that decision quite early on... because sometimes you can't change your mind halfway."
He couldn't take a direct line due to patches of weather that had to be avoided.
"We had to zig-zag our way through, from here to Rotorua city then back up through Ngongotahā and Mamaku."
There were then three helicopters at the scene wanting to land at the same time, with crews talking to each other to take turns.
Every's flight was called out during a handover, so he was able to fly two paramedics instead of the usual one.
They took one patient to Waikato Hospital in a serious condition, a flight that takes 20 to 25 minutes.
The paramedics' role in that time is "to keep the patient alive".
"Basically, to pick up all the pieces so that at some point they can be put back together again".
That also involves pain relief and "patching up".
The nature of the injuries and the availability of specialists and beds determines where each patient is taken to, depending on the conditions and flight times.
In Every's view, "It's nice to be able to go to work and help but it's a shame you have to go to work sometimes."
"Our story only comes out on the back of a lot of people who have had a pretty traumatic and tragic day really. Their lives will be changed forever, this day they will never forget, so we have to be mindful of that."