THE window for miracles is closing in Christchurch. Residents began the day with their doughty mayor, Bob Parker, insisting that it was too soon for the rescue mission to become “recovery” — a search for bodies rather than people.
Today marks a week since the quake that devastated the heart of this pretty city, but yesterday morning Mr Parker declined to nominate the point at which all hope would be gone: “I will take appropriate advice from the people in the field. It’s not something I would even begin to guess around here today.”
But yesterday evening Jim Stuart-Black, national manager of special operations for the New Zealand Fire Service, said: “It’s been a considerable time since we have had a sign of life on any of the sites we have been checking . . . There hasn’t been since Wednesday of last week. It’s probably highly unlikely that we will encounter live victims within the structures. It’s not beyond the stage of a miracle, but realistically it would be a miracle.”
He said the city now had 600 international search-and-rescue workers from countries including Australia, China, Japan and Britain, as well as 140 civil defence volunteers and a similar number of Red Cross volunteers combing the sites.
Rescue work has been slowed by the threatened collapse of some buildings and aftershocks that continue to rock the city, causing plate glass windows to fall out of buildings in the area inside the police cordon.
Rescue has also been slowed to ensure the safety of rescuers. The front wall of the historic cathedral, its rose window cracked and its spire fallen, is to be reinforced. A huge steel construction that looks rather like an old Roman siege engine has been built to shore up the facade to make it safer for workers to continue inside.
Enormous steel pipes provide emergency shelters for anyone who needs to flee debris, and the top of the church’s tower is being picked off to lighten its weight and ease the risk for those struggling to get into the bottom of the structure.
The 27-storey Hotel Grand Chancellor, which is tilting into the street, was yesterday declared so unstable that it is now entirely off limits.
At the Pyne Gould building, where seven storeys pancaked to the ground, British team co-leader Terry Jewell and his men — veterans of earthquakes in Haiti, Indonesia and Tunisia — are working two hours on, two hours off, in the summer heat. The vast pile of rubble in front of the site is not from the fallen building; it was moved from other sites and put there to give crews a high, relatively stable platform from which to work.
This work is called “heavy rescue”. “Light rescue” is when people can be easily pulled from rubble. Heavy rescue — only 5 per cent of all rescue work — uses heavy construction equipment to move, cut and drill through substances such as concrete. This site had two cranes, an earthmover and a digger.
Mr Jewell said cameras were being used to explore voids, and powerful microphones were checking for sounds of life. A digging machine was “nipping away” at rubble and depositing it near a cage , which allows six people to work in relative safety, sifting for clues.
Has he felt the aftershocks? Is he worried about further collapse? Mr Jewell laughs wryly. “We certainly do feel them here. The New Zealand authorities set up a boarded area with a theodolyte on a tripod. We’ve got a laser beam up on that building that will [set off an alarm] if there is more than 10 or 15 millimetres of movement. We haven’t yet got people on the building because of the aftershocks and because it’s a very unstable building.”
He said workers were monitoring each other’s movements so that everyone could be accounted for if an aftershock caused further collapse.
At the Forsythe Barr building, stairwells were so damaged that workers were dropped on to the roof by helicopter, planning to work their way down, but they have struck problems due to the rubble inside.
The crews on the CTV building, where many Asian students are believed to have died, will move to daylight work only, said fire service chief Russell Wood. “It is still 24/7 at all the other sites.” Rescue staff were holding up well and morale was still high, he said.
Liz Smith is a technical rescue tutor with the Emergency Management Academy of New Zealand and a volunteer with Civil Defence, the NZ equivalent of Victoria’s State Emergency Service. Speaking from Palmerston North, she said there were international standards in rescue that allowed teams from different countries to work in the same way when marking buildings or victims.
She said workers were taught to recognise patterns of building collapse and to monitor for further movement, as well as how to move safely on rubble.
Asked how teams would be feeling as the days dragged on with no further live rescues, Ms Smith said that while the work could be hard and sad, “The key thing is that they are really passionate about what they do.”