Ten years on from the CTV collapse - 'I still find it hard to comprehend'

Senior TVNZ news traffic operator Tom Hawker worked at Canterbury Television (CTV) when the Christchurch earthquake struck. He shares his story of February 22, 2011.

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Senior TVNZ news traffic operator Tom Hawker worked at Canterbury Television (CTV) when the Christchurch earthquake struck. He shares his story of February 22, 2011. Source: 1 NEWS

February 22, 2011 started out like a normal day with our regular 9am to 10am live show. It was a relatively normal day, nothing that you would have indicated something life-changing was going to happen.

I had a late lunch break that day, which I don't normally do, but I was covering for the receptionist who was out. My girlfriend, who also worked with me, decided that she was going to go out for lunch and asked whether I wanted to join her.

There was lots of activity around the city and we were walking back towards the CTV building when we decided to stop at the dairy across the road and grab a drink.

That's when the shaking started.

Initially in my mind, I thought it's just one of the aftershocks that we're used to. But the power started getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and I thought, "Oh no."

I looked above us and the windows were flexing in the high rises. I thought they were going to pop out and kill us. As that was going on, the church across the road collapsed.

I looked towards the CTV building. I knew that they probably weren't going to stand a chance.

As all the shaking was going on, I looked up to the second top story and noticed cracks going down the external pillars. Within probably a matter of 10 seconds, the pillars shattered outwards. The top level was intact as it fell down and crushed the rest of the floors below.

My girlfriend at the time was screaming. She let out an absolute piercing scream. I'd never heard anybody scream like that before.

She ran to the CTV site and started pulling rubble off.

Tom Hawker and his CTV colleagues at the building collapse, shortly after the Christchurch earthquake on February 22, 2011. Source: Supplied

I grabbed her and pulled her back because the lift shaft was still standing at that point. In my mind, I was thinking, if these other aftershocks are going to happen, that is going to come down and kill us.

We grouped whoever was on the site who survived and were embracing in a hug. You just knew that the likelihood of anybody surviving that was pretty slim, especially because our colleagues were on the first few floors.

Maryanne, the receptionist, was the only survivor on our floor. She had run out of the building when the quake hit. We used to always joke during aftershocks, “Gosh Maryanne, you're supposed to get under the desk, what are you doing?” It saved her life that day.

About five to 10 minutes after the building came down, we could start to smell smoke and then noticed that a fire had started from underneath the rubble.

There wasn't many of us left... I still find it hard to comprehend. - Tom Hawker

There were all sorts of sounds, screams, people yelling, "Help me!" 

Part of me feels guilty because I didn't jump in there and try my best to save people.

I remember standing there on the site and watching the first couple of bodies come out. There was one man I'll never forget. He must have been on one of the top levels, but I remember seeing him vividly and his gumboots as he was brought out.

All the other bodies started getting piled into the park. Whoever they could find, they'd just pile there. There were some pretty horrendous sights.

Police asked us to draw diagrams of where the bodies would have been, or where people probably would have been in the building. We were with the police for quite a long time, drawing diagrams and explaining where people potentially would have been in the building. Because it was near lunchtime, we were thinking, would they be in the cafeteria or downstairs or upstairs, trying to think where the last time I saw them was.

Source: 1 NEWS

And while that was all going on, my phone was getting a lot of calls from the families of victims asking where they were, whether they were in the building, whether I'd seen them or heard from them. It was quite hard to let some of them know that as far as I was concerned, they were in the building.

To be honest, a lot of it is still a blur. I still don't understand, I can't really comprehend a lot of it. It's people that you’d literally just seen and you walked out of the building, and then all of a sudden, they're not there anymore.

I lost 16 of my good colleagues. They weren't just colleagues, we were like a family and were all friends. 

We'd just had my 21st birthday a couple of days beforehand and everyone got together. It wasn't just work. 

I had survivors' guilt for a long time, thinking, 'Why did I survive when they didn't?' - Tom Hawker

We lost a guy who had only been there a week. He'd only just started and a week later, he was dead. We had people in their early 20s who had a whole life in front of them. We lost them as well.

There wasn't many of us left. We lost 16 and only around 11 or 12 of us survived. I still find it hard to comprehend.

It'll come up in different ways. I had trouble walking down Queen Street or places where buildings were quite high, because I was always afraid that the building would collapse on me. Even being in a multi-level building, I always felt like something was going to happen.

It's hard, especially getting closer to the 10-year anniversary, your emotions are on high alert. There's been a lot of anxiety and a lot of sleepless nights, those are the sorts of things you can't control.

It's always going to be part of you and what you've gone through.

After the CTV building collapse in Christchurch on February 22, 2011. Source: Supplied

For me personally, I think this year for me is a chance to reflect and look back on all the things that I've done in the last 10 years.

In a way, if I hadn't been through the experience that I've gone through, I probably wouldn't be the person that I am today.

For the earthquake commemorations, I'll be flying to Christchurch to be with the remaining survivors and families of the CTV building collapse and give them support. We're a unit that, in a way, has gone through something so horrific but we still have that support, being there for each other and understanding what each other's gone through. That's something that a lot of people can't match. 

I had survivors' guilt for a long time, thinking “why did I survive when they didn't?” But you use that as your power because they never got a chance to live so it's now my time to make the most of it for them.

The other day, with my 31st birthday coming up, I was probably going to get a proper group together for the first time in quite a while. But then the anxiety came up again because I lost my colleagues and friends a couple of days after my 21st. It's that kind of thing that can be hard. 

But you've just got to keep on going.

This is part of a 1 NEWS series marking a decade since the deadly Christchurch earthquake.