Bus Destroyed by Earthquake, Christchurch

Severe injuries were suffered when this bus was hit by falling masonry during the earthquake

Millions of words have been written since the terrible earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand, this week and while I have been there on the spot to cover the story, there is little point in trying to sum up the extent of it – the consequences, with the death toll rising steadily past the 100 mark, have been too wide-reaching, affecting too many families for me to be able to begin to express the true horror of this natural disaster.

There have been victims and heroes, there have been those who have had narrow escapes and there are those who wait anxiously for news of missing loved ones. What story do I pick to sum it up – the teenagers who sat on a pavement hoping their mother was alive in one of the buildings, only to learn that no-one in there could have survived…the same teenagers who learned that while they were away from home, someone broke in and stole many of their belongings?

There is the British man I spoke to who would have been crushed to death by the tumbling steeple of Christchurch Cathedral if his girlfriend had not called him in to a Tourist Information Bureau seconds before the masonry crashed down. And then there is the stomach-churning story of the doctor….

Working by torchlight, he crept into a tiny space in the crumbled ruins of a building in Christchurch and began an operation he would never forget – amputating a trapped man’s legs with a Swiss Army-style knife and a hacksaw.
‘Those were the only implements I had,’ said 38-year-old Dr Stuart Philip. ‘It was either work with them there and then or leave him to die.’
It took Mr Philip and other doctors five hours to crawl through the pancaked Pyne Gould Corporation building to reach the 52-year-old trapped man, who has only been identified as Brian.
Mr Philip, a urologist, had been attending a conference in  Christchurch when the earthquake struck on Tuesday and he was one of many doctors who rushed into the city centre to render assistance.
‘My first job was actually climbing up into the top of the building where there was an Australian guy trapped. He subsequently died because we couldn’t get him out.’
Then he came across the man whose legs were trapped by a huge beam, which was impossible to move.
‘Several other doctors, along with an anaesthetist, were able to join me and we agreed on what had to be done to save him – and that was to amputate his legs,’ said Mr Philip.
He was handed a multi-blade Leatherman knife – similar to a Swiss Army knife – to begin the cutting and then a builder handed him a hacksaw to continue the operation of sawing through the man’s bones
above his knees.
‘I know that sounds terrible, but that’s all we had,’ said Mr Philip. ‘The anaesthetist was able to administer pain relief, but it still wasn’t enough to dull the agony.’  Much of the operation was carried out by a female urologist, because she was able to squeeze in through a tiny space next to the trapped
man. The female doctor was severely traumatised by the event and has since
returned to Australia.
‘It’s not something that’s easy even for us as surgeons,’ said Mr Philip. ‘Nothing prepares you for that. ‘While we were working there were a number of aftershocks. I’ve never been so frightened in my life, but we just kept going.’
He has since learned that the man is recovering in Waikato Hospital, his family around him. ‘He’s already out of intensive care. It’s things like that which do make it worthwhile.’
The doctor said he was so concerned that the building would collapse on him that at one point he sent a text to his wife Emma, also a doctor, to say goodbye to her and their children, son Sam, five and daughter Hannah, three.
‘At one stage, when we were having aftershocks and the rubble was falling, we weren’t sure if we were going to make it out alive. ‘My wife sent me a terse text message telling me to get out of the building,’ he told the Christchurch Press newspaper. Mr Philip dismissed suggestions that he and the rest of the medical
team were heroes.
‘I don’t think so. We’re surgeons. We’re not trauma surgeons, but you can’t leave people there.’
Heading north out of Townsville

Heading north from Townsville after Cyclone Yasi struck

A friend was remarking at the weekend that it was nice to have a good wind blowing through Sydney after a week of breezeless, high temperatures.

‘That’s not a wind,’ I said, ‘THAT’s a wind’ – and I told him about my terrifying drive into the eye of Cyclone Yasi. Well, it wasn’t the eye, which is always a bit calmer, but into the swirling skirt of the powerful wind that causes so much damage.
I wanted to reach Townsville which was due to be hit by Yasi – as well as hundreds of kilometers of coastline towns to the north – ahead of what had been described as the most dangerous cyclone in living memory. Easy really – just book a flight to Townsville, find a nice hotel, sit it out and send my report to London’s Daily Mail.
That didn’t work. Townsville airport was closed and the nearest was Mackay, nearly 400kms to the south. All right, I decided, I’ll fly to Mackay, rent a car, and drive north. But by the time I set out, the storm was already giving the region a taste of what was to come, with trees buckling and branches being thrown across the road.
But, like that motto for the US postal service (no matter what the weather, the mail has to get through, or something like that), so the Daily Mail had to get through. It turned out to be the most terrifying drive of my life. Trees crashed down behind me, a caravan in a tourist park was bowled over – and so, incredibly was a cow in a field. Torrential rain layered the road with two inches of water which resulted in the car aquaplaning and being blown perilously close to roadside ditches. There wasn’t another vehicle on the road – and even the police had locked themselves in their cells, the most secure part of their stations.
I was desperately trying to calculate – if Cyclone Yasi is 150kms from the coast and travelling at 35kph and I’m, say, 200kms from Townsville travelling at (well, I’d better not confess to that), who or what is going to reach Townsville first?
Suffice it to say, I made it by the skin of my teeth and joined a 100 or so frightened people on the floor of the Holiday Inn (I couldn’t have a room for fear of the windows being blown in) as the cyclone screamed around us.
I thought what had hit Townsville was bad enough. But folks in small towns to the north really copped it. I wish them all the best as they start to pull their lives together.
And would I do anything like that again? Er…no.
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