It started like any other day in the office. A mountain of paperwork was in front of me, and I needed to sort some shifts out.
I called our rostering team and was met with a rather quick response, “Sorry we can’t deal with this, we are trying to find the staff to go to Christchurch. Can you go?”
It was then that I got onto the news and read of the horror which was unfolding down in the Garden City.
A terrorist had attacked two Mosques, and dozens were feared dead.
On this day, New Zealand lost its innocence and entered a new era.
I arrived in Christchurch two days later, transported down by the Airforce in one of their Hercules. For those that know what it is like to fly in one of them, I’ll spare you the details.
For those that don’t, let’s just say Easy Jet is luxurious by comparison.
We landed on a Sunday afternoon with all of our kit, including our weapons.
This set up is our standard 5.56 Bushmaster (Basically a Semi-Auto AR15) and a Glock 17.
We were then transported to our digs at Burnham Military camp.
Everything at this point was ‘fluid’. A term we would come to know very well. In other words, all a bit chaotic.
Our contingent was split into three. One group was assigned to work nights that day. They had around an hours rest before a fifteen hour night shift.
Some of them didn’t end up sleeping for over 28 hours.
The following day (Our days started at between 05:00 and 06:00) we were assigned to the funeral home and then subsequently the Muslim Cemetery.
We saw film crews come and go, journalists trying their luck. We met the public of Christchurch who were so friendly towards us.
We had to walk a fine line of being ultra-vigilant and approachable and caring all at the same time. We didn’t know if there were other gunmen out there.
Being at that heightened alertness for 15 hours a day was truly exhausting.
We returned to base on that first day after a 15-hour shift. No beers. This was a dry deployment.
The following day we were assigned to guard the Muslim Cemetery.
On our arrival there, the actual reality of what had happened was laid bare before our eyes. Fifty graves, in neat, uniformed rows were there. Open and ready to receive the bodies of the victims.
It was a sobering sight to see.
Sobering, yet incomprehensible.
This was New Zealand. How can this have happened?
Our job was to patrol and guard discreetly, both the immediate area around the graves and the wider cemetery perimeter.
They were long, tiring days. The kit was heavy. Our feet were sore. Even in the first few days, fatigue was setting in due to the long hours and demand to be vigilant.
We met many members of the Muslim community there.
What stood out for me was the fact that many of them, while deeply shocked, were still able to crack a smile.
Many were concerned for us that we were ok. The gratitude we were shown was nothing short of remarkable — a humbling experience.
Part way through the week, the first funerals took place.
I recall being stood next to the first two hearses as they unloaded the first two victims.
One of them was a 14-year-old boy.
I don’t think there are words, or if there are, I cannot find them, to even begin to describe what I felt as the open casket was unloaded, the body covered in a white shroud.
The families lifted them out under the distant gaze of the world’s press.
And so it continued for the next few days. Then the Friday came when the last mass burial would take place.
I was stood at my point next to the tent, under which the caskets were laid awaiting burial.
Seeing 27 caskets, weeping family members around them is a sight I will never forget.
The sun was shining, it was warm, yet the cold torment of grief hung heavy in the air that morning.
In amongst those five days at the cemetery, our small team got to know each other. Laughs were shared, jokes told, and we all moaned at yet another subway sandwich.
There was a march and rally planned for the Saturday in central christchurch
Our presence was far more public now. It wasn’t only locals who were there. Tourists from every corner of the globe were there too. Again, hypervigilance and approachability was the call of the day.
While kids were coming up to you and having pictures taken, you had to keep a sharp eye for absolutely anything out of place. Thankfully, nothing happened.
That night we were allowed a well-earned beer in the Sgts Club on the Base.
The Sunday was more of the same, with a massive rally in Hagley Park. Once again, under the gaze of the worlds media.
It was a relief to finish that duty. We found out later that day we were to return home. It was a solid nine days of assignment.
Personally, I am glad I went. I witnessed sights I will never forget. I have memories which will never fade. Some are, admittedly, no pleasant. However, some are.
While on duty at the cemetery, an elderly man in his full ethnic dress approached me. He was every bit your stereotypical Arab man straight out of Lawrence of Arabia.
He didn’t speak English apart from saying thank you. He outstretches his hand to shake mine. As I shook it, he embraced me. There are simply no words to convey how that felt.
And after all that, it was back to Frontline Work, dealing with Domestics and petty crime. I will be the first to admit that my tolerance for idiots was certainly lower for a while after getting back. It changes your perspective on many levels.
I take my hat off to my Christchurch colleagues who were first on the scene.
To the St John responders, the nurses and Doctors in ED, the public who helped. You all exemplified what it was to be human.
I’ll finish with the words of one of the Muslim Leaders;
“This isn’t about race or religion. This is about fifty people who have died, of the fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who are no longer with us. This is about those who are now left behind.”