Buried alive – but left to die

Rod Vaughan outside the CTV building
Rod interviews Alec Cvetanov
A distressed Alec Cvetanov
The battered CTV building

Of all the gut-wrenching stories about the Canterbury earthquakes none was more poignant than that of Serbian immigrant Alec Cvetanov.

Who can forget the harrowing television images of him speaking by cellphone to his wife Tamara, trapped alive beneath the rubble of the CTV building in Christchurch?

The medical doctor had been brushing up on her English at King’s Education School on the third floor when the February 22 earthquake struck.  

Over several hours Alec spoke to her on and off, trying to glean her exact location under the debris and offering her words of comfort.

She could even hear her distraught husband’s shouts above her as he implored police and firemen to rescue her from the carnage.

Apart from the loss of some fingertips she was in otherwise good shape and spoke of other survivors around her, cocooned in a tiny cavity between the compressed third and fourth floors.

But such was the confused chain of command Alec could not identify who was in charge of the rescue operation to let them know precisely where his wife was entombed.

Not long before midnight, in a call which lasted just 21 seconds, he spoke to her for the last time, the battery on her phone on the verge of expiring.

Something I will never forget
It was something I will never forget.

Standing a few metres away, I watched him fall to his knees in prayer, beseeching the Almighty to save the love of his life and the mother of his two children.

As he lay prostrate on the ground with flames starting to engulf what was left of the building I felt a lump in my throat and had to turn away.

Moments later he got to his feet and shuffled in my direction, an old grey blanket draped over his shoulders to ward off the cool night air.

The grief in his face was overwhelming but I sensed he wanted to share something with me.

As gently as I could I asked him whether he still held any hope of rescuing Tamara.

“Yes, yes,” he said in his thick Serbian accent. “I think she is still alive – we will get her out.”

It would be several weeks before I met Alec again.

Anxious to find out what fate had befallen Tamara, I went to see him at his modest house in suburban Christchurch.

I found him sitting on the front steps, his head buried in his hands and weeping uncontrollably.

Unbeknown to me, he had just returned from the mortuary to identify her remains.

Right to the bitter end he had clung to the slender hope that somehow she would be found alive, but now that hope had been extinguished and he was inconsolable.

There was nothing to be said other than a few platitudes and I left as quickly and decently as I could.

Long and painful journey
And so began Alec’s long and painful journey to find out why Tamara and seven others who survived the collapse of the CTV building were left to die under the debris of concrete and steel.

He never wavered from his self-appointed task of getting to the bottom of the matter, all the while struggling to raise two young boys by himself.

Now, almost two years later, the answers are emerging and they confirm what he thought all along.

Incredibly, there was no one in overall control of rescuing Tamara and the others on that dreadful day, the police and the fire service doing “their own thing” and leaving Alec flailing around for help.

It’s little consolation that officials have since admitted the error of their ways and even apologised for “dropping the baton”.

Nothing will bring Tamara or the others back, but at least it is closure of a sorts for Alec, who says he’s “touched” by the apology.

All he wants now is for “all the rescue services in New Zealand to learn from Tamara’s death so that somebody else does not die in similar circumstances, here or abroad”.

Not too much to ask, you might think.

rvaughan@nbr.co.nz

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7 Comments & Questions

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Mr Vaughan, I can only thank you for reporting this harrowing circumstance in such a measured fashion when I suspect that anger like those of us reading, is but a hairs breadth away.
I despair that too many times of late we repeatedly see examples of those who are trained and paid to come running for us only to find they suffer from the kiwi disease that is a delusion of competence.
In sports the country acclaims those who excel yet in the professions we forgive and accept mediocrity and dithering.
Should we wonder then that I now hear in the UK where paramedics are alleged to be forbidden to go beyond 'ankle deep'...I guess the concept of bravery medals will no longer be needed for anyone with initiative and common sense as we must ensure such old fashioned values cannot be allowed because it's not in the manual.

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Perhaps Rod Vaughan became a little too close to one individual to retain his jounalistic independence on this matter. Perhaps he should review the evidence of Los Angeles firefighter Ernesto Orjeda at the close of the inquest where he commends the firefighters and police for their heroism, the rescues which they did complete beneath the threat of the precarious liftshaft and the incredibly difficult task with which they were faced.
Yes - some senior officers who were not at the site have been censured for a lack of management but let us not forget that there is one strong body of (after the event) opinion that Nobody should have worked on the heap of rubble to which the whole building had been reduced because of the risk of themselves becoming further casualties.
Despite this risk firefighters took off their helmets to enter voids. Some men were suspended by their ankles while attempting to reach victims. There were acts of heroism all over that site and some lives were saved. It is an extremely moot point whether better management systems and external organization structure would actually have had any better outcome.
It would have been totally justifiable to make a "Health & Safety" decision such as at Pike River, to stand back from the site and do nothing. But - no, a lot of people worked their hearts out and thanks to articles such as this may be made to feel that even then, they still failed.
The whole story of the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake is a patchwork of things that went well, and some that did not. Be careful in passing judgement on people who did their best even if their efforts were not successful.

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Yes there were many brave acts by the firemen and police at the time.

But that is their job - that is what they get paid for. In the case of firemen, they work one shift for 4 days and 4 days off - when rostered on night shifts they basically sleep at work.

So when an emergency like the quakes occur they are paid to go beyond the norm. If they can't do that the Fire Service may as well make 90% of them redundant and just buy big fire engines with multiple computerised hoses operated by one operator and cutting machines etc.

All the emergency services failed at the CTV building - accept it and put your energy into making sure it doesn't happen again

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Poor man. And thank you Rod Vaughan.

It is utterly appalling and outrageous that the level of stupidity and bureaucratic rigidity has now reached such a level in this country that too many NZers will not act as commonsense dictates, being too worried about the consequences.

Individual initiative? Where did it reach out to help Alec Svetanov? And the whole concept of "Leadership"- of looking for someone else to do the thinking for us- has become a poisoned chalice.

NZers were once far more rugged in their enterprise and initiative and self-reliance. This man was let down when he called for help. It shouldn't have needed a team leader of any kind for others to help him...

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There was a complete failure of governance in regard to the co-ordination of rescue attempts for this building.
Why did they not bring the army in.
That at least would have seen a chain of command.
What can be said when rescuers are sent by air but rescue equipment is sent from afar by road,to arrive far too late.
Too much political correctness and no common sense.

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To the above commenters,
If you were there and working on the CTV building rescue like I was and have some concept of how frightening it was all through that long afternoon and into the night, and how desperate we became as it intermittently soaked us from rain and cold and choked us from a fire burning unaccessibly under six flattened floors, with every floor containing bodies, etc.

I spoke to Mr Cvetanov that night and have full sympathy for him.
I was a volunteer, not a trained rescuer, but it is oh so delightful to review from the air-conditioned comfort of your office chair.

The army was there and they, like the police, have enough training and common sense to let the experts in, who were the USAR teams and the Fire Service.

Yes, we couldn't save her, and yes, it was harrowing for them both. But we were still dealing with others who we trapped and we successfully did save.

As well, there was sites throughout the city that also had dead and dying.

Yes, a management decision could have set up a management centre but they have said nothing would have fundamentally changed.

Where is the respect for those who risked their lives to save others?

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Rod, thank you for this. I have not read the reports, nor seen all the coverage, but there is one memory of that night that I thought might be refreshed.
I had a friend who worked at CTV. Unanswerred texts meant I was glued to anything from the CTV sight.
Has the little Jobsworth who was strutting around ordering all work to cease, and keeping people off for an hour or so, been featured? Has there been censure of that elevation of safety over heroism?

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