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Christchurch earthquake

USAP personnel recall triumphs and tragedies of first days of crisis


Most people have seen the pictures of the crumpled Christchurch Cathedral or watched the video of a woman plucked from the roof of a collapsed building to safety by a fire crew.

But was the destruction wrought by the 6.3-magnitude earthquake on Feb. 22 as bad as it looked in media reports?

It was worse, said Mel Moore.

Moore and his wife Sally Moore were among the hundreds of U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) participants who were just leaving the Ice as the summer field season was winding down when the quake hit the city center.

The Moores were in a small, cramped antique store in Christchurch’s central business district (CBD) when the ground started shaking and the lights went out. Mel Moore swatted a plate away that he saw falling toward his wife, as glass and ceramics crashed to the floor.

After the earth stopped moving, the Moores and the shop owner, bleeding from a head wound, attempted to leave the store.

“The way out was blocked by all the bookcases that had fallen over and the broken debris. The owner said not to worry about breaking anything, just get us out of the shop. As Sally says, I went into ‘Mel-dozer’ mode and quickly cleared a trail,” said Mel Moore, a man who would size up well on an NFL offensive line.

Once outside, the scene was chaotic. Sirens and alarms echoed around the city; the air was filled with dust. Amid the confusion, the Moores eventually headed to the safety of the open space at Victoria Square.

USAP offices go into action

Less than two hours after the quake struck, the first situation report — a sitrep, in military slang, which still dominates the U.S. Antarctic Program from its days when the U.S. Navy ran logistics on the Ice — came out of the program’s offices in Christchurch. All of the local New Zealand staff who works for the USAP at a facility near the city’s international airport had already been accounted for and were safe.

Kerry Chuck, manager of the New Zealand Operations, reported that nearly 600 people in the USAP, including military personnel associated mainly with flight operations, were believed to be in the area.

The e-mail went out to officials at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and in the Denver area to company leaders at Raytheon Polar Services (RPSC), the prime contractor to the NSF.

RPSC immediately established a “command center” in its Denver office, and the search began for about 600 people who could be anywhere in the city or South Island. Several Raytheon employees would spend the night at the office to begin organizing a plan to evacuate everyone from the area in coordination with the staff in Christchurch.

“As I was about to hit the send button, we have had another severe shock,” Chuck’s message concluded.

Caught in an avalanche

The aftershocks motivated Chad Naughton to get as far away as possible from the city streets and the surrounding buildings, as he stood stunned, bruised and bleeding after being pulled to safety from under a pile of bricks.

Only moments before, he had been in a map shop on the corner of Gloucester and Manchester streets, talking to an employee about possible hiking spots.

Then the sound started, as Naughton remembers it. “It was incredible, a low grumbling sound that immediately turned into a very loud, very real, frightening banging and crashing that kept getting louder and louder. The ground was moving in all directions.”

He made the decision to sprint out the front entrance as ceiling tiles and lights crashed around him, running toward a white car parked outside, as the bricks on the building’s façade came down in an avalanche.

“That classy lil’ number may have just saved my life,” said Naughton, who works as a science planner for RPSC. “It created a triangle of space that saved me from the full impact of the falling debris. If I was three feet to the right, or that car was not parked there, I fear I may not have been so lucky. I ended up buried under some bricks with my head in the street.”

The next thing he heard was a voice in a German-sounding accent asking him if he was OK. The man helped Naughton to the middle of the street. Naughton was bleeding from the back of his head, and his knee was throbbing. But he was alive.

And then the first aftershock came.

“Imagine standing on something like the ground, which we normally trust, and now it is doing everything it can to knock you down,” Naughton said. “This one was over as soon as it started — thankfully. I looked around, and noticed a tall building on every corner and decided it was time to walk to a safer place.”

He started following a herd of people toward Latimer Square.

Storms pummel McMurdo Station

Meanwhile, back at McMurdo Station, a severe storm was moving into the region. Only about two weeks remained of the summer field season, and operations were shifting into winter mode. More than 200 people were scheduled to fly north to Christchurch, leaving about 150 to run the station over the winter months.

The sea ice in McMurdo Sound was finally breaking up to an extent not seen in more than a decade. All it needed was a good push with a little bit of wind.

It got it.

The major storm howled through the region for about three days, clearing the Sound of ice and even chipping away at the permanent McMurdo Ice Shelf where a snow road and fuel line run out to Pegasus airfield about 14 miles away from Ross Island. Additional flights north were delayed.

Station personnel would be busy for several days digging out of the storm and securing the fuel tanks where the cracking of the ice shelf was getting uncomfortably close.

And, of course, they were worried about friends in Christchurch, some of whom had flown out just a couple of days before the earthquake.

Joining the rescue effort

David Berry was one of those people recently arrived in Christchurch. He had walked downtown on the morning of Feb. 22 from the Windsor Hotel to purchase a few last-minute items for a camping trip he had planned around the South Island.

He was about 200 feet from the cathedral, waiting for his curry lunch to arrive at an Indian restaurant on the town square, when “the place started pitching, and the staff yelled earthquake! We all bolted out the door and just then the [cathedral] spire began to collapse.”

Berry’s instincts took over, as someone who has served on Search and Rescue teams in New Mexico, not to mention 15 years of experience as a wilderness EMT.

“When things get strange, I just go into SAR/EMS cruise control. Nothing fancy about all this ... just trained and done it in the past,” said Berry, who works as an aircraft ground equipment mechanic at the McMurdo Station airfield.

He and others in the vicinity who had quickly shaken off the initial shock set up a triage area on the cathedral lawn and started looking for injured. Berry said the makeshift rescue team was able to pull six injured people out of the church before the next aftershock, which made it too dangerous to re-enter.

The volunteer team also included a couple of Israeli military medics and a group of Australian doctors who were in town for a urology conference. They were eventually recruited to the New Zealand Press building behind the cathedral where the top floor had collapsed. After about four or five hours, they were able to rescue eight people with the help of a crane and hydraulic jacks.

“All in all, I probably worked on 50 people,” Berry said. “We ran out of bandages and splinting material, so a local cop and an intern raided one of the tourist shops and returned with boxes of tea towels and ‘I love NZ’ pillows. We used the pillows for soft splints on arms and legs, and made splints out of cardboard and cafe signs — all tied up with tea towels.”

USAP 'refugees' take shelter near airport 

In Victoria Square, the Moores reunited with other Ice people. They learned that their hotel, the Crowne Plaza, had been damaged, and no one was allowed inside the building. All they had with them were the clothes on their backs.

The group made its way to Hagley Park, which had been designated as a refugee center. They found more people from the Ice there, and the group, which had grown to 18, started walking toward the airport and the USAP offices and facility, which includes a warehouse called the clothing distribution center (CDC).

They had walked about half of the six miles from the city center to the airport when a shuttle from the CDC picked them up and drove them the rest of the way.

That part of the city was in good shape. It had electricity and water, unlike about 80 percent of the town that first day. Telephones and the Internet worked.

By the end of Tuesday, the Moores and the others they had met in Victoria Square would be joined by about 100 USAP people at the CDC, which would become a temporary shelter through the end of the week. That night everyone was fed and given sleeping bags.

Christchurch staff work selflessly to help others

At the same time, the RPSC Christchurch office personnel were also assisting New Zealand police and the U.S. embassy, which was trying to evacuate a delegation of U.S. and New Zealand government officials who had been attending a forum in Christchurch.

Keep in mind that some of the 24 people of the RPSC New Zealand staff had suffered damage from the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that shook Christchurch on Sept. 4, 2010, either to their houses or possessions. Two people had lost their homes and three had sustained serious damage. On Feb. 22, more staff was affected, with two more houses seriously damaged.

“When the earthquake occurred, the first concern of the Christchurch staff was the welfare of the USAP participants,” said Lindsay Powers, who was driving near the airport when the quake hit. Originally, she though the car had lost a tire before learning about the trembler.  

“Immediately after the staff confirmed the safety of their families, they were tirelessly committed to the support of the USAP program,” said Powers, RPSC Science Planning manager, who worked and slept at the Christchurch offices until she caught a flight home to Denver a few days later. “I know we are all proud to call these people our friends and colleagues.”

Despite the personal and professional challenges, the staff would track down nearly 200 USAP people the end of the day and confirm they were safe.

Quake experience teaches lesson on preparedness

Naughton was among that number when he called into the CDC that same night.

It had taken him about an hour to walk to a medical center off Bealey Avenue, where one of the out-of-town urologists sewed up his arm while a nurse cleaned all his other scrapes and cuts.

“She glued that laceration on my head together, and I couldn’t help [but] laugh, thinking how lucky I was,” Naughton said. Some Kiwi friends found him, and together, they made their way far from the city, where he would stay until his flight out of Christchurch about a week later.

The experience taught Naughton that he has little desire to live in an earthquake-prone city, to say the least.

“But if you do, make sure you know where you would go if the ground we know and trust begins to grumble and shake,” he advised, reflecting on the experience to friends. “I would also recommend carrying your passport with you, because I had to get an emergency one. You forget to do this in Christchurch because it is a very safe, quiet, quaint country, so I just left mine in the hotel per the usual.”

Waiting for a ride to Auckland

The Moores had also left their passports behind, along with most of their possessions, at the Crowne Plaza. By Wednesday, a curfew had been imposed in the CBD, and only rescue workers were allowed into the city center.

But the Christchurch airport had suffered only superficial damage and reopened on Feb. 23. The Moores had secured a hotel room nearby and had a scheduled flight out on Friday. They shared their room with a couple of other Ice people for the next couple of days while waiting for their flight north.

“During Wednesday and Thursday, our big adventure was going to CDC to get any news,” said Mel Moore, McMurdo Supply Operations supervisor. “Sally would use our five minutes of allocated computer time to update her mom, who would in turn update my mom. Then we would go to the airport … and get some supplies. We were just so excited when we were able to purchase a change of clothes so we could do laundry.”

The U.S. embassy was securing temporary passports for the stranded Americans. The New Zealand staff at the CDC had arranged for the Royal New Zealand Air Force to start flying USAP participants in the region north to Auckland, the largest city in the North Island.

Flight schedules and social media

Lynn Dormand and her team back at RPSC reviewed nearly a thousand different travel itineraries as they scrambled to reroute people in New Zealand, as well as those who would be coming off the Ice in the next week or so. They had re-ticketed more than 500 people at the time of this report.

“The airlines were significantly important. They provided us blocks of seats, with differing routings, based on a humanitarian request I placed, which was answered by the VP of Qantas,” said Dormand, manager of RPSC’s Deployment Specialist Group.

By the end of the day, about 60 percent of USAP personnel had been found thanks to the long hours pulled by many in Denver and Christchurch.

A spontaneous online community had also popped up on the social networking site Facebook, growing to about 500 members, as people provided tips and details on those still missing.

Meghan Brown created the page “Ice People Earthquake Check-In” only a few hours after the earthquake hit from McMurdo. She said Facebook would be a natural place to check on peoples’ status.

“I figured there is a much larger network of USAP participants that I am not connected to on Facebook, but through social networking we could quickly and easily connect to one another,” said Brown, an administrative coordinator for science cargo for her third summer season in the program. “My first concern was to take account of people and ensure their safety, and I felt that social networking-media was the best resource for this.”

Volunteer 'pretty happy with all that we did'

Berry had gotten an early start on Wednesday.

He spent Tuesday night at Hagley Park. He caught a few hours sleep – sharing a blanket with a physician from McMurdo – and then went back into the city to help with the rescue efforts.

He discovered that the Windsor was badly damaged and too dangerous to enter, leaving him only the clothes he was wearing and his passport. Amazingly, his rental car survived without a scratch.

After assessing his own situation, he joined an Urban Search and Rescue team that went into a nearby B&B to recover the owner’s clothes and some family pictures. During the day, he ran into a friend from the Ice who was staying at a hotel near the airport. Berry took the opportunity to take a shower and clean up, thankfully getting some clean clothes from his buddy.

He spent Wednesday night on the floor of the CDC, learning that flights would be available to Auckland by tomorrow. He was home in Silver City, N.M., by the end of the month.

Berry emphasized that others from McMurdo also helped with rescue efforts those first critical hours.

“I’m pretty happy with all that we did, and I know that we would do it again anytime. We love the Kiwis and Christchurch,” Berry said. “I love the fact that so many folks on the Ice have a huge knowledge and experience base, step right up, and take care of business when things get strange.”

Everyone found safe

The chaos of the first 48 hours ebbed. About 90 percent of the USAP people believed to be in the area had been found within those first 72 hours. Everyone would eventually be found alive by the end of the week, the last two actually out of the country in Tonga.

The furious storm in McMurdo dissipated, though apparently not before claiming the lives of three adventurers aboard a yacht who were part of an expedition to reach the South Pole. Two men had gone ashore before the vessel disappeared in an attempt to ride quad bikes to the Pole as part of the 100-year anniversary of the first adventurers to reach the bottom of the world.

The two Norwegians eventually abandoned the expedition. They joined about 200 people from McMurdo on a pair of flights aboard a C-17 on Feb. 27 and 28 (local time) to Christchurch. The final flight of the summer season left Pegasus airfield on March 5 aboard an Australian Airbus 319.

Christchurch forever changed

The crew wintering over in McMurdo will have a busy season ahead, working to secure the road on the ice shelf and repair the ice pier damaged during the storm.

Of course, the work pales in comparison to the rebuilding job ahead in Christchurch. Some online news reports said as much as a third of the central city will need to be torn down and rebuilt, costing billions of dollars on top of the September 2010 earthquake that also caused widespread damage — but without loss of life.

The RPSC New Zealand staff will attempt to retrieve the luggage and personal possessions many in the program were forced to leave behind over the coming weeks. About 150 people have contacted the Christchurch office with lists of what they had in their hotel rooms when the quake struck.

The Christchurch offices will be unusually full over the off-season, as the NSF has agreed to allow some New Zealand government departments to relocate temporarily to the facility after their own premises were destroyed. About 30 staff from the Department of Conservation will move into the administration office, St. John’s Ambulance will occupy the Antarctic Passenger Terminal, and the NZ Police Family Violence Unit will occupy the travel office.

“I cannot say enough about the Raytheon staff [in Christchurch],” said Mel Moore, as he summed up his story. “The best way I can put it is that the Christchurch we knew is gone, and we have no desire to repeat the experience.”

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Division of Polar Programs