Hero dreads return to quake city

Sunday March 11, 2012 Written by Peter Campbell Published in National

Warren Wisneski isn’t looking forward to his return to Christchurch. The earthquake hero has spent the last week enjoying the Cook Islands’ lifestyle and has promised to return.

“They’ve looked after us tremendously well,” he said.

Wisneski is one of 50 ‘heroes’ and their partners given an all expenses paid holiday to the Cook Islands as per a government initiative supported by local businesses. A total of 82 people will visit the Cook Islands as part of the initiative. The heroes arrive in the Cook Islands in groups of up to eight and spend eight days enjoying life on stable ground.

It all began on September 4, 2010. Wisneski knew something was wrong even before the first earthquake struck.

“I live in St Albans (northern Christchurch) and woke up in the middle of the night. I heard a rumbling. Then it hit. The chimney came through the roof.”

Wisneski was an operational events manager at Queen Elizabeth II Park (a pool and athletics complex) at the time and he spent the aftermath of the earthquake preparing for the International Paraplegic Games. Tough as that was, the games went ahead. The real trial started with the February 22 earthquake.

“We had just sat down for lunch when it hit. It was huge. We all just hit the ground.”

The one thought that was on Wizneski’s mind was evacuating the building.

“We had to get people out. The electricity was done. Our cell phones weren’t operating, the internal phones didn’t work. I had to do the evacuation manually, running through the building myself.”

Ceiling panels had come down. The ceiling in the gym had collapsed on the patrons.

“The only thing which saved them was the gym equipment, which they hid under. We had some serious injuries but no deaths.”

In the main room of the swimming pool the wall had a fracture going up six storeys and in some places about a foot wide, said Wisneski.

A day after the earthquake Wisneski was working alongside Civil Defence, providing transportation for welfare support. As the scale of the disaster in the eastern suburbs became clearer, Wisneski’s role morphed into project management for welfare support.

“About 10 days after the earthquake I was called to a meeting with a colleague and we were told that we were to set up six shower and toilet sites in the city.”

This was a critical assignment as many suburbs in eastern Christchurch had no water, and no sewage.

“Within a day we had one site already going,” said Wisneski.

“We knocked each site off sequentially – it was the only way to do it. We firstly identified sites with water, electricity, sewage and other facilities. If any of these were absent we could work round that, either bringing in water, hiring generators or using shipping containers. Our contacts from events management were pretty handy.”

Wisneski was amazed at how people helped out during the crisis.

“Given the stress we were all under, it was amazing how well people got on. One company, SRS packaging, wanted to do something to help but didn’t want to give money as they thought it would get lost in the system. They produced a shower unit brand new from scratch and gave it to the city. It cost $50,000.

“The shower and toilet sites became little communities. People would bring baking and cooking and give it to volunteers or people in need of them. It was great the way the community came out to help each other.”

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