– Lyttelton, Canterbury, New Zealand

This is a transcript of an interview with Brendan Evans conducted five weeks after the 4 September 2010 earthquake.

My name is Marc Buckley and I am the Chief Fire Officer here in Lyttelton. I was at home as the quake hit, and as part of our procedures we had for years, any event, like the earthquake, our plan has always been, was get all your family together and actually bring our family to the fire station. So basically within 5 or 10 minutes after the earthquake had hit I moved my family down here and about 7 or 8 other families arrived not long afterwards. So the hall was full of people, kids in different states of shock I suppose, but it was good, they were all together, they were all able to talk with each other, and it was good from our family’s point of view, because it meant that the guys could come away and go about what we needed to do, and make sure Lyttelton was OK and the residents that needed assistance we could help, so it meant the families were here, they were safe, everything was good, they were being looked after.

But after that point our next biggest problem was actually to get our fire trucks outside, because the doors are electric and they’ve got a manual override, but as all of those things, Murphy’s law took over, and first the electric doors and then the manual override broke! So we couldn’t get the front doors open! So we had to open the rear door which is a manual door, and then we had to get both fire trucks out the back door, so that took us a period of time.

By this stage everyone had started to come here, and ask questions and ask what can be done, and really until it became light, we didn’t know what the state of play was here in Lyttelton. We were obviously getting feedback from our communications system in town, and they were telling us that some of the buildings in the central part of Christchurch had come down altogether, and we thought ‘Oh geez, we could have houses that are collapsed,” and so on because at that stage we had no power, telephones were a bit marginal, cell phones were still working, which was really good that we had the cell phone network still working.

Until it was light there really wasn’t much use doing much, cause no one was coming here and saying “Look, can you come and help us straight away.” We were getting nothing like that. We weren’t being turned out from town, so we thought, oh well, that’s all right, so we dug in a bit here, we got the generators going, we made sure the ambulance guys were happy, we had to find some fuel for the ambulances, because one of the ambulances was low on fuel… So we ended up sending them to the Port Company and they filled them up with diesel down there.

The tunnel was closed then, and we closed Evans Pass, because one of our guys couldn’t get through the tunnel, he lives in Heathcote. So he bundled his family up in the car, came over Evans Pass and he said it was so bad… you don’t want to know. He said there were rocks all over the road, rocks all coming down. So at that point in time we talked to the Sumner fire brigade, and they closed it at the top and we closed it at the bottom. So, essentially, without saying that we were cut off, other than the likes of Gebbies Pass and the Sign of the Kiwi, we were cut off to certain degree.

That was fine, because we had been planning for that, and so that was good and we had everyone here and once daylight came we started I suppose, for want of a better word, just floating around the streets, we sent the 2 trucks out and the van. One truck started at East, one started at West, and the van we sent around to Rapaki and Corsair Bay, just to do a circuit, to make sure no one was in dire straits of any degree. Everything was fine and then I suppose it took a good hour or so, even an hour and a half after daylight before people looked at their houses and realised there were a few issues, so that’s when we started our turnouts and we were doing chimneys, retaining walls, hot water cylinders, foundations of houses. So all of a sudden, the fire brigade became… not the experts, but the go-to people, to come and see if the cracks in my foundation or the cracks in my walls were all right or not. And we gave the best advice.

Luckily in the Brigade we’ve got builders, quite a few people that are involved with structural work, civil engineering, so we’ve got quite a good make up in the brigade as far as a cross section of people. That’s the beauty of being a volunteer brigade. So we started doing all those sorts of things. We had, oh we had chimneys by the dozens and dozens and dozens. We did about 185 chimneys, we either made secure or we took down, so most of them had to be taken down, well probably a 50-50 split to be perfectly honest. They posed a risk, with another little aftershock or with a bit of high wind. The chimneys we took down were the ones that would fall over and go through someone’s roof or fall onto a path way where there could be people walking, so we had all these sorts of things.

Just to give you some sort of idea, up until the day of the earthquake for the year we’ve done 57 calls. From the Saturday through to Thursday night, just in that period alone, we’d done a 130 calls. So the boys were flat out, and I mean it was great because they just kept coming in and guys did turn over. We had someone who did the Sunday, but couldn’t make it on Monday because they had to go to work, but then others came on Monday so the guys were swapping and changing the whole time. So everyone participated and helped out which was great.

So we didn’t start the turnout till 7.30, 8 in the morning and then the guys would go right through to 6 o’clock at night, we drew the line at 6 o’clock. And the we said, right, we only want to be turned out for emergencies because the guys need their rest. So we did this for about 4 days straight. But the good thing was, we had lunch and cups of tea in the hall for the guys as time went on and we had people walk in with trays of cakes and biscuits and scones and that. The guys went out and they came back three or four hours later, they were pretty buggered and said ‘Oh, I really don’t want to go out again.’ But someone would bring some food in and that would fire them up again and they’d say ‘Oh, come on, let’s get back on the road, another 10 jobs.’ So that was great to see, and it really did help, And people would come in and say ‘Oh, sorry, that’s the best we can do, only some biscuits’, but we’d say ‘No, that’s cool, no worries.’ That gave the guys such a morale boost, because it made it easier for them to get back out on the road again.

We had a call on Sunday night and it was to a water cylinder that had ruptured in the ceiling of an elderly couple’s house and we walked in and the lady was just sitting there sobbing, because there had just been the earthquake and now there was water covering the middle of her lounge – she’d had enough. So we isolated it and made it safe and then the guys rang the plumber for her, made her a cup of tea and made sure she was alright because her husband was much the same, in a bit of disrepair I suppose. We made sure they had water outside so they could go and fill the jug up, so the guys settled them down. So you come away and you know you’ve done the best you can and as much as you can but you feel a bit helpless, because obviously things like that are out of your control.

It took about a week, a week and a half for the calls to taper off, we still kept getting calls for unstable chimneys for 2 weeks after, because of the aftershocks. Even now we are getting calls, but we are tending to step back now and let the contractors that are geared up to do them, because in the first instance we are to help anyone with anything, but as time goes on you have to realistically say, well, no, there is actually someone that can come and do it for you. Unless it is an immediate emergency there is someone that can come and do it for you. And that’s good too.

Other than that I think it has been a good team building. I mean you don’t like to say… there is some good that can come out of times like that and the thing is that the guys have got a heap of experience, they did really well working together and it brought together the whole brigade in a sort of fashion.

We have been looked after by the Fire Service staff, they made sure that everything is all right and they have offered counselling for any of the families or the people that are finding things a bit stressful. So we had a really good backup from town.

In the first week I suppose I worked… ahhh. 80, 90 hours. My day job had to go on hold, at the end of the day I kept in touch on the phone, but the fire brigade took over my life for the week. I am grateful that the company I work for was fully supporting that. It was just one of those things where you do what you have to, and luckily my employer is understanding, because I wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise.

It’s funny because I have to honestly say when the earthquake was happening I was obviously very aware and concerned because you think ‘When is it going to stop?’ but once it had finished I think what took over were the years of instilled training and coming to the realisation that if something like this happened this is what we’re going to do. So, to be perfectly honest, the first 2 days I really didn’t have time to be concerned. It was more making sure our guys were OK, were on the road where they needed to be, make sure we were getting all the calls done, making sure we had food brought in for the guys for lunches, making sure their families were OK. It wasn’t really till the Tuesday, Wednesday that I had time to think about what had really happened and probably how lucky we were more than anything. So many places in the world had earthquakes of similar sizes and there’s been hundreds of people killed, so not to have one person killed is… it is just luck, that’s all it is.

As time has gone on you sort of come to terms with… what we had put in place worked, and I can’t speak highly enough of the guys in the brigade, for the time they put in and the effort, just phenomenal really. There is 23 of us and the majority live in Lyttelton, we have a couple of guys that live in Heathcote, so we are pretty much Lyttelton based, and everyone’s got a fulltime job they’ve got to go to – but a group of people would turn up every day, because their work was affected or had been shut down for the week, and then we had a few that floated in and floated out as time permitted.

The firestation stood up relatively well to it, there are a few fissures and cosmetic things like in most houses, but structurally it seems to have done very well which is quite funny they are actually going through New Zealand at the moment, doing engineering reports on all the fire stations for this particular thing, but ours hasn’t been done yet but it’s all OK, we’ve got our green sticker on, so we can feel confident it’s a safe building.

Over the years, if I can speak about the Civil Defence side of things, we never really had too much contact because I suppose its one of those things you think “Oh, yes, we must do that.’. We could have done better on the Civil Defense side of things here in Lyttelton, which I think will happen next time, because we’ve made the comments and asked the people, but I know in the future I’ll definitely keep a closer eye on how they are, on what they are doing, as far as manning wise and people and so on.

There are a few things that would be nice – we haven’t got a decent generator here on station and I think even for that one time in ten years that you need it it would be really good so we might look into putting a decent size generator here on station. But everything else we ticked off and was good. We had the back up fuel supply, we knew where to get water from. So all these things that my predecessors, chiefs and senior chiefs, have done over the years – all of us have done a little bit of planning here and there, and it all has come together. So you pass it on from one chief to the next, and teach those relevant things so that the guys coming up next know where it is, how it works, what will happen.

There were funny bits: as a rule we the fire brigade don’t do work with harnesses, so from my point of view it was funny to see how the brigade changed their operations to suit what we had to do and they did it so easily. The guys were so good, we ended up with 4 or 5 harnesses. So when you are up on a roof you tie people on a harness and as a rule fire services don’t have those because it’s not what we need or what we have as part of our training, but we had 4 or 5 guys walking around in harnesses, ready to go out, so that was completely different.

Another thing on top of the fire truck we carried sheets of ply, old mattresses and some other bits and pieces which we found were very good for using on roofs for pushing chimneys over and to protect roofs. So all of a sudden the trucks were going around carrying gear on top so you’d be going ‘Why the heck would they be carrying this sort of stuff around?’ Mattresses were ideal for chimneys – we went to one and one of the guys said “Look, what we need is some foam or mattresses and then we tie the plywood around the chimneys and then we push the whole chimney over and…’ The guys were always thinking ‘this could be easier’. They were thinking of people’s property, the guy’s were thinking outside the square, so that was great.

And I have to say without the help of Jules and the timebank… we were able to push some jobs there, and we knew they were low-risk, they were quite straight-forward, they were helping us out.

This transcript is from one of a series of interviews carried out by Bettina Evans of Project Lyttelton. We are very grateful to Bettina and the interviewees for allowing their interview transcripts to be posted on QuakeStories.

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