Ten years ago New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) personnel were in the South Island gearing up for the NZDF’s bi-annual exercise, Southern Katipo. Troops were ready, air assets were on the tarmac and HMNZS Canterbury was berthed at Lyttelton Port making final preparations before the exercise got underway.

Then, at 12:51pm on Tuesday 22 February 2011 a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck the city of Christchurch. The earthquake killed 185 people and injured thousands and caused severe damage in Christchurch and Lyttelton. The NZDF responded by undertaking its largest-ever humanitarian assistance mission.

The New Zealand Army mobilised immediately by deploying soldiers into the city to help.

On that day, the Commanding Officer and Regimental Sergeant Major of 2nd/1st Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment (RNZIR) were away. They were waiting for the body of fallen 2/1 RNZIR solider Private Kirifi Mila to return from Afghanistan.

Lieutenant Colonel (LTCOL) Tim Tuatini, then Executive Officer at 2/1 RNZIR, had to make some quick decisions.

LTCOL Tuatini said the earthquake struck and after they had conducted a quick welfare check on their people, they held deployment orders at Headquarters 2/1 RNZIR.

“It was clear to all of us working together at that time that urgent action was required. We acted without formal orders from Headquarters Joint Forces New Zealand (HQJFNZ) or from Headquarters 3rd Land Force Group (3FLG). Formal tasks were issued after a few days.”

With the focus on providing the immediate support needed for relief operations within the first few days, the NZDF was reacting to the myriad of requests coming in within its resources. During this time agencies were working out exactly what they needed from the NZDF.

Once this was established HQJFNZ had a better understanding of the breadth of support requirements and what Command and Control relationships were required so they issued more detailed orders on what was needed from the NZDF, working alongside other agencies, in the response.

“The right thing to do in that situation was to deploy and let everything else catch up,” he said.

LTCOL Tuatini deployed with two 2/1 RNZIR companies into the city, where they received confirmatory orders from Police to establish the Red Zone cordon.

“Our move into the city was memorable, we had a large contingent of Pinzgauer and Unimogs which was joined by fire appliances, emergency vehicles and Police as we got closer to the central city location.

“As the unit had already been deployed on cordon duty previously, for the September 2010 earthquake, our order process was abbreviated and we manned the same or close to positions around the four avenues,” he said.

Those who deployed from Burnham met up with soldiers already in town from their homes, as well as a number of 2nd Canterbury Regiment reserve soldiers out of HMNZS Pegasus. Soldiers who weren’t given orders also turned up, ready to help. Further support was provided by North Island units who were in Lyttelton with HMNZS Canterbury for Exercise Southern Katipo.

LTCOL Tuatini remembers says it was both frantic and eerie in the city. The devastation was something else.

“Almost all of the roads were covered in water, mud and liquefaction, large holes opened up with trapped cars swallowed inside. People were evacuating the city, leaving so quickly that there were café tables sitting there still set with food, coats on chairs and empty streets.

“To see the damage to the city and realise the tragic loss of life that we knew would follow was sobering,” he said.

“To be able to respond quickly and decisively I believe added reassurance to the many people in and around the cordon.

“I know everyone on the cordon in those initial hours felt their contribution wasn’t about controlling movement, but offering a solid point to rally around, share experiences and gather collective reassurance.” 

Back at Burnham, 3LFG were providing the tactical coordination of the NZDF relief efforts.

Then 3LFG Chief of Staff Major (MAJ) Mike Duncan oversaw the approach. Having just returned from Afghanistan, he said it felt like he was on operations again.

“I oversaw the tactical coordination and dealt with the myriad of support requests that came to the agencies involved in the relief effort.

“I remember thinking we were so lucky we had a firm base in Burnham. We suffered very little damage and were operational throughout.”

Burnham Military Camp was a secure base that allowed police and coroners to do their work securing evidence to support their investigations.

Support requests and coordination through 3LFG included staffing for the Red Zone cordon, establishment of fresh water facilities, providing meals to all the agencies operating in the Red Zone, Engineer support to Civil Defence, planning staff to support Police in Red Zone operations, and the establishment of a temporary mortuary and the staff to assist with victim identification. This was only a small slice of what NZDF teams provided during this time.

“We were very fortunate to have a big slice of the NZDF in Canterbury at the time who were ready to start Exercise Southern Katipo,” MAJ Duncan said.

“It meant that we were able to react with a lot more support than we would normally have had in one place.

“We are good at responding quickly in planning and are also highly disciplined and will stand on a cordon for eight hours in all weather, or go house to house checking on how residents are faring,” he said.

At the height of the response, NZDF provided more than 300 service personnel to staff three eight hour shifts per day until the cordon could be reduced. NZDF personnel remained on the cordon for close to two and a half years.  

The Army’s capability was visually evident around the central city, 77 Unimogs transported equipment and stores, and 47 Pinzgauer Light Operational vehicles were constantly on the move in the broken city. 28 Light Armoured Vehicles were also working in the area.

MAJ Duncan said one of the biggest lessons learned from the earthquake was the need to have a deployable headquarters that can rapidly get to the disaster zone and coordinate the operation.

“3LFG was only around 30 staff and we really struggled to initially coordinate the breadth of support requests we received.

“Out of the Christchurch earthquake NZDF stood up the Deployable Joint Inter-Agency Task Force (DJIATF) headquarters owned by Headquarters Joint Forces New Zealand. They are manned and equipped to rapidly go anywhere at short notice,” he said.

This was evident when NZDF responded to the Kaikoura earthquake in 2016 where DJIATF was on the ground within a day.

Colonel (COL) Stefan Michie was Commanding Officer of 2/1 RNZIR ten years ago. On the day of the earthquake he was in Auckland waiting for the body of Private Kirifi Mila who was tragically killed on Operation Crib in Afghanistan.

“After we helped lay Private Mila to rest, we headed straight to Christchurch and immediately into the CBD where 2/1 RNZIR had already deployed itself to assist,” said COL Michie. 

For many months following the earthquake, he worked as the cordon reduction manager, working closely with the Civil Defence Emergency Management headquarters and the national controller to bring down the size of the cordon surrounding the central city as quickly and safely as possible.

“There was a lot of pressure to let people get back to their homes and businesses.” But given the damage in the central city and the loss of life in the earthquake, it needed to be carefully done.

What he remembers most is the “can-do” atmosphere among the response teams, and that everyone was keen to help others and forget the little things that didn’t matter in the big picture.

“From a work point of view, we were working hard as part of a big team, some very long days where we rarely saw our families - but I always felt better walking the cordon and seeing the professionalism of our troops and their determination to do a good job,” he said.

“I remain very proud to have been a part of 2/1 and the Army over that time – the troops were quietly magnificent. The Battalion has a small memorial to the earthquake and those who served, it was designed and coordinated by a soldier who sadly lost his partner in the quake.

“I think of that every time I see that memorial,” COL Michie said.

1,796 Defence Force personnel made up of 239 Navy, 1,379 Army and 150 Air Force regular and reserve personnel were directly involved on the ground in Christchurch in 2011. Behind these people were many more working in support from camps and bases around the country. The support ranged from medical, logistical, and planning, to engineering tasks, cordon maintenance, and forensic dentistry.

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