First responders to Christchurch earthquake still haunted 10 years on

In the months after he stood on the rubble, listening to the voices of the trapped, paramedic James Watkins would wake up at night in a sweat.

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The February 22, 2011 quake killed 185 people. Source: 1 NEWS

The experienced emergency worker was later honoured for his bravery, given a medal for saving lives as he climbed into a tunnel in the wreckage of the CTV building. But late at night, when it was all over, his mind wouldn’t leave him alone.

“All of a sudden these images pop back into your brain, you're reliving what you saw, and seeing what was on the day, the smells, everything seems to come back,” he said this month.

“I thought, ‘I can deal with this, I can deal with this’, and it got to the point where, ‘I can't’.”

The humble hero is one of many rescuers to be followed by the memory for years after the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

It was a disaster that permanently changed the emergency services that responded to it and, as the 10th anniversary rolls around, many are still grappling with the enormity of the experience.

When the 6.3 magnitude shake ripped through the city, Watkins was sent straight to the CTV site wearing just his black and white uniform, and immediately found himself in a scene of chaos.

“It was noisy, loud, extremely hot in there, and you could hear the voices,” he said.

“You're standing on a whole lot of rubble, you're sitting there, and you're getting aftershocks and things are shaking, and you're thinking I hope this stuff doesn't move while we're standing on top of it.”

He was quickly assigned to work with firefighters and doctors searching for survivors, unaware the death toll would later tally as high as 115 people at this one site.

The office block had pancaked, with each floor collapsing on top of each other.

“We were just digging away, and then the rubble was removed, and I remember a void of concrete down into this so-called tunnel, the way it had fallen it had sort of produced a tunnel, and it was decided that we better go in and have a look.

“The Fire Service went in first, and had a look, and they basically came back and said ‘yes, we can hear voices’.”

It was decided that medical staff should enter, and so Watkins joined an emergency doctor.

“It was basically, ‘right I'll go with you’, and we went in, and found some patients in there, and I can't remember how long it took to get them out, but we got them out, and just the feeling of relief and probably elation that we've actually got live people out of this mess.”

Across town, at the site of the collapsed PGC building, it was everyday civilians who were first to the scene. The office had also collapsed, trapping dozens of people between the floors.

Lawyers David Lang, Andrew Riches and Toby Giles were among several people working next door who rushed in to help and immediately found people needing help.

They were among a group who immediately improvised and, with the ground still shaking, constructed a ladder of sorts from a fabric construction fence.

The trio sat together for an interview this month, recalling how people started running in from everywhere to help.

“An arm came out, and it was someone in between the crushed floors, and we were able to jimmy her out, and she was absolutely fine,” Riches said.

“While this was going on, probably the biggest aftershock of the day rippled through the building, and it was certainly the closest I've ever come to thinking I was going to die. Because you're on the side of this building, and I looked up and there was all this metal, and loose debris, that looked like it was going to be coming down.

“You couldn't jump into the building, and there wasn't enough time to get down to safety and I recall just holding on and thinking ‘this is it, this is all over’, but when the aftershock stopped we were fine.”

The trio, who say they were “bonded” by the experience, still work together to this day at Saunders and Co and were later honoured for heroism.

Giles added that it was all part of the “Kiwi nature”, where you “see something and react to it”.

“I don't know if it's a sort of built-in expectation, but you think any person down the street would do the same sort of thing,” he said.

Watkins echoed those sentiments in his interview, saying he was just one part of a much bigger operation.

“The idea of being called a hero, I struggle with that, I'm just one of many, many people doing a job,” he said.

“When something happens and people run away from whatever's happening, we're trained to do the opposite and run towards it, and I suppose at the time, that's what we all did, everybody.”

In the years since the tragedy, he has checked into counselling to help work through the struggle he felt in the aftermath.

It all started to sink in when he began driving home on the day, with the music off, and the car quiet.

“I got home, saw my wife and then basically had a long hot shower, looked at my uniform and thought, ‘well, I won't be using that again’, because it was just filthy,” he said.

“I thought to myself later, ‘it's getting on top of me’, just having the flashbacks, and the sleeping at night was the biggest thing. You shut your eyes at night, and you're exhausted, you want to go to bed, you shut your eyes, and you'd wake up an hour later or something like that in a sweat.”

For a long time afterwards, he wasn’t even able to look at the CTV site when he drove by, and anniversaries brought up many painful memories.

But a decade on, he’s been able make his peace with it, and this month returned to the place where it all happened for the very first time.

It wasn’t long until as he was standing there, a shiver ran down his spine, and his palms went sweaty.

“Ten years, I'm thinking to myself, where's it gone?” he remarked, turning to look at the flower wall.

The memories were jumping back, but this time, many of them were positive.

“I felt proud to do my part on the day here,” he said.

“These people won’t be forgotten.”