Tim Manning was not supposed to be in Christchurch that day. He was a last-minute addition to the delegation that flew from Washington for the US-NZ Partnership Forum. My Embassy colleagues and I, as well as many others, benefited greatly from the twist of fate that brought him to us precisely when we needed someone exactly like him.
Tim is Deputy Administrator for Protection and National Preparedness at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). He is the senior official responsible for preparing the US to prevent, respond to, and recover from natural disasters. He is also a former firefighter, emergency medical technician, rescue mountaineer, and hazardous materials specialist with two decades of frontline emergency response experience. He was uniquely positioned to assist in Christchurch.
At the airport to return home when the quake struck, he volunteered to accompany local police back into the city to search for survivors trapped in the rubble, which he did during the critical first 36 hours. Tim brings the perspective of a first responder to our remembrance of February 22nd, and I am grateful that he agreed to share some of his story and thoughts with us today. I’ll let his riveting words speak for themselves, with only a few photos of Tim taken later that week.
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TM: A year has gone by fast, and I think about the people I met in the aftermath of the Christchurch Earthquake frequently.
I remember the selflessness of the people that survived the quake, only to put their lives at risk to help others.
I think of the people I met volunteering in the shelters and the tireless dedication of all of the police and firefighters, city workers, and the US Embassy team I had the good fortune to find late that first night, and got to live and work with for a while.
And I think of those who were lost and the families whose lives were changed forever. There were many tragic events that day, and as many acts of heroism.
I wasn’t supposed to be in Christchurch actually. After a long week of meetings at NATO headquarters in Brussels, I was looking forward to going home to my family. Then I got a call from the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for International Affairs, asking if I could change my plans and meet her in Auckland for a series of meetings in New Zealand and Australia. The first stop was to be the US-NZ Partnership Forum in Christchurch.
We arrived with enough time to explore a bit prior to the official events, and we covered quite a bit of ground, visiting the Cathedral, the botanical gardens, a street festival near the college, and many of the streets throughout the area surrounding our hotel.
The morning of the 22nd of February dawned dark, cloudy, and chilly. The meetings came to a successful conclusion. I decided to just head to the airport early, get checked in, and grab a bite to eat. The conversation in the cab centered exclusively on how the city was rebuilding from the September quake, and I heard again the sense of strength and resiliency. That September quake had been a miracle: a 7.1 magnitude earthquake that didn’t claim a single life.
At the airport I went to the airline desks, only to find it was still an hour before the flight would open. The couple behind me said hello.
As we talked for a moment, a very low audible rumble began. The shaking started soon after … building and getting louder as ceiling tiles fell, pipes burst, and glass walls shattered.
The crowd reaction ranged from inaction to calm dropping and covering, to yelling and running for the doors. The majority took the best cover they could and waited until the shaking stopped. The fire alarm began immediately. The airport began rapidly emptying out onto the side walk and parking lots.
The magnitude of the damage was not obvious yet. As we filed out of the airport, I knew that if the phone system was still working, it likely wouldn’t be for long, so I quickly called my wife to let know what happened and that I was OK, when the first large aftershock struck (an event recorded on her voice mail, much to her dismay).
The crowd moved quickly away from the swaying control tower, further from the airport building. As we checked on each other to make sure everyone was OK, the first reports from downtown started coming in. Widespread devastation, and unlike the September quake, this one struck at lunch on a workday with a central business district full of people.
The two police officers that had evacuated people from the danger of falling debris were now doing the best they could to find out what was going on and what needed doing. The radio system was swamped however, and they couldn’t get through, so they did what they knew needed doing and started pulling folks together.
They stood on the hood of an airport service truck and yelled into the crowd: “There was massive damage in the city center, and reports of many injured people. Any doctors or nurses in the crowd that are willing to go downtown and help please come forward.”
In addition to a group of construction workers that had just come down from the scaffold, a doctor, two nurses, and a rookie New Zealand police officer in civilian clothes, just out of training and on her way to her first posting on the North Island, came forward.
One of the officers, who I to this day only know as Pedro, commandeered a parking shuttle bus and its driver and loaded us all in while his partner stayed behind to care for the people at the airport.
Immediately we hit gridlocked traffic. Roads were buckled all over town, bridges were down or suspect in places, and there was widespread liquefaction causing flooding and cutting off access. And in all of this there was midday traffic and people trying to get home, find loved ones, or provide help.
On an airport shuttle bus and lacking lights and sirens, we did the best we could, with Pedro running down the middle of the street banging on the trunks of cars yelling for them to move aside. Move they did, and before long we had reached the CBD, Pedro running almost the whole way.
The scene was devastating, rescue efforts were underway at the worst of the collapses, and we dropped our doctor and a nurse at the first stop. Someone was trapped and they were likely going to need to amputate a limb to rescue him.
The rest of us moved on. We were, at this point, about an hour after the main quake struck, and most people had evacuated downtown on foot, gathering in Latimer Square and Hagley Park.
We were to go block by block, a hasty foot search looking for anyone left behind or trapped in buildings or cars.
We came to the Hotel Grand Chancellor that was leaning what looked like 20 degrees over. There were people trapped in the building, and there were some responders on the street trying to communicate up to there just as another large aftershock hit. The façades that hadn’t yet crumbled now came down around us, and the hotel shook visibly. The smell of gas permeated the air, and we moved rubble from the center of the streets as we searched to allow easier access for emergency vehicles that would eventually follow.
We continued that way for some time until we found ourselves at a command post across from the burning CTV building. Helicopters dropped water to suppress the fire, and firefighters worked tirelessly from the ground to suppress the fire and search for survivors. As we worked through the streets, our friend the bus driver committed to stay with us as long as he could.
The rescue efforts at the Pyne Gould building were an example of just how effective a community working together can be. When we got there, there were a number of police, at least one ladder truck from the fire department, an ambulance, and countless volunteers. As the government emergency services were stretched thin working across the affected area, here was a combination of construction workers, firefighters, and police working together to search the collapsed building and rescue as many as they could as quickly as they could. We moved rubble and set up ladders to access the building.
I knew as we picked our way across the debris that this scene would be playing itself out thousands of times all across the area.
Coordinating a large disaster like this is a difficult and complicated thing, especially in the first few hours, and there are never enough people to help do it. I didn’t know what exactly they needed, but I figured that if I could make it to the city’s emergency operation center, I might be able to pitch in some help there as well.
I ran into another New Zealand Police Officer, Blue Young, whom I had met earlier in the week at the Forum. Blue had been assigned to US officials at the Forum and was just wrapping up that assignment when the earthquake struck.
Blue was able to tell me that my colleagues from the US Embassy had been thankfully able to account for the entire American delegation, despite the delegates being scattered widely across the city for lunch. He told me that my colleagues, through impressive bravery and creativity, had been able to evacuate most of the Americans and many of the Kiwi delegates to a triage and command center that the Embassy had immediately established at the US Antarctic Program Offices near the airport.
We also discussed how the overall response was going, and he offered to help me make my way to the Christchurch Art Gallery where the civil defence authorities had set up their emergency operations center.
It was getting late by the time we made our way to that command center. I have been in many emergency operations centers (EOCs) in many disasters. They range from frantic and rushed to calm and competent, and what I found at the Art Gallery was as impressive as any I have worked in.
Despite the pressures the city faced, and the uncertain safety of the families of many of the people there, the command center was full of quiet and steady calm. It was obvious they knew their responsibilities and what was expected of them. I found the Mayor and offered my condolences and whatever assistance I could provide.
I was fortunate and honored to be able to help in many ways over the coming days.
As a US Government official, my roll in any other country is to support our Ambassador there, and thus I was glad to be able to connect with our Embassy team in the pre-dawn hours of the next day.
Like the ordinary people who stepped forward to help and the emergency responders with whom I worked on the streets, my USG colleagues showed a calm dedication to their responsibilities. I was honored to join them, and my job then became to provide whatever help the Ambassador needed, to either the people of Christchurch or any US citizens who might be trapped, stranded, or hurt.
I found myself back at the Antarctic Center again that night, in the company of a team who had been there with us the night before under very different circumstances (for a gala dinner for the Forum delegates). What a difference 36 hours can make.
The majority of the US delegation had been evacuated by LC-130 as quickly as possible, and Ambassador Huebner had deployed a crisis team to stay and support the response effort. This group was to coordinate and facilitate assistance to the people of New Zealand on behalf of the people of the United States, as well as to try to account for and assist all American citizens affected by the earthquake.
We lived for the following days in the offices of the US Antarctic Program, sleeping a few hours each night under desks to take shelter from the very frequent aftershocks, and spending the remainder of the night and day working in shifts at the emergency operations center and visiting shelters and hospitals.
It was an ad hoc team made up of economic, agricultural, security, management, consular, and public affairs personnel that happened to be in Christchurch for the Forum, but it was as cohesive and effective as any team I’ve had the chance to work with. None of them would look for it or admit it, but each deserves special recognition … Dana Deree, Michele Peterson, Janine Burns, Mary-Lou Forrest, Josh Greene, Laura Scandurra, Mike Layne, and of course, Blue Young.
We coordinated with the Canterbury Red Cross, to which the Ambassador had immediately dispensed the Embassy’s entire US$ 100,000 emergency response fund. Also in rapid order we were able to get one of our US National Response System Urban Search and Rescue teams (from Los Angeles) in the air to Christchurch, along with a USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team (from Virgina).
Upon the arrival of those teams, our Embassy team would hand over the search, rescue, and emergency services liaison duties to them. I think it was almost 3:00 a.m. when Dana Deree and I walked to the airport to meet them. Ambassador Huebner was already at the airport, having returned from Wellington by LC-130.
Obviously at such a late hour the airport is not staffed fully, and it took a while to work our way to where the team would come in. As we did, we approached two police officers for help. And here were Pedro and his partner, still on duty.
They had been able to get home briefly, but had been largely working non stop. Pedro was able to fill in what happened after I moved on to the command center and the Pyne Gould building. They had worked in the rain and cold through the night and rescued some 30 people. A team of volunteers, by-standers, and emergency officials working together changed the almost-certain tragic outcome for many people that night.
In the moments after the quake and over the following days, I saw countless examples of the spirit of community resilience that exemplifies what we in emergency management strive for.
In the efforts of the student army, volunteers that traveled to Christchurch to help clean up and get people and the community back on their feet, to the random people that came by command posts with food to cook and hand out, to the ever present long line of volunteers looking for a way to help, the people of Christchurch and the visitors who happened to be there responded in a way that should serve as an example to all.
I count myself lucky to have seen it.
– Tim Manning
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Tim, thank you for your extraordinary service in Christchurch that week. You played a crucial role in the USG’s rapid response, provided a seasoned focus for our Embassy team on the ground, and made a real difference in many people’s lives. I continue to hear praise from Cantabrian friends about your work on the streets during the critical first three days.
Tomorrow, we will hear from Craig Weaver, Pacific Northwest Coordinator for the US Geological Survey’s Earthquake Hazards Program.