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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.