A heroes’ welcome for Deeside firefighters

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Two Deeside firefighters have told of how they helped recover 13 bodies from the rubble of the earthquake in New Zealand.

Keith McKenzie and Gary Carroll were part of the UK-ISAR (International Search And Rescue) team which arrived in Christchurch three days after the quake hit - measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale.

Retained firefighter at Banchory Fire Station, Keith, 30, was on his first overseas deployment after joining the UK-ISAR team only five months ago.

“On our arrival, it was a recovery operation rather than rescue,” he said. “Training can give you an idea of what you’ll be up against, but not the extent.

“We are a rescue team, but because of the state of the place, we went into body recovery. Layer by layer we were sifting through collapsed buildings and we located 13 bodies.”

The team were activated after the UK Department of International Affairs and Development received an official request for assistance from the New Zealand Government. The UK-ISAR team spent over 150 hours of round-the-clock operations delayering and deconstructing the PGC Insurance building. The team worked from a cradle attached to a crane and were not physically on the ground, due to the danger of aftershocks.

“It was a real eye-opener for me and something I’ll never forget,” said Keith, a member of Grampian Fire and Rescue Service for 10 years. “From the moment we arrived there, we felt like royalty. We were applauded just walking through the airport and applauded before the plane took off. When we walked through the shopping malls people came to shake our hands – people were so grateful for what we were doing.

“New Zealand was hard for us but just going by the pictures I’ve seen, Japan is a total disaster zone and I feel for the guys away out there.”

Crew manager Gary Carroll, 40, of Ballater, said this was the second international rescue deployment – the first being Sumatra, Indonesia, in 2009.

“I had an idea of what we would face, but the extent of the damage was a lot worse than I expected, even having had prior experience,” he said. “The city centre was devastated and every building was involved.

“Although we didn’t recover any live casualties, it was closure for the families of those bodies we did recover, especially as a couple of families were present when we were working on the building - they knew we had done our best for them.

“Initially we did 12-hour shifts but then reduced that to eight-hour shifts to give us some time away from it.”

Area manager Andy Coueslant said: “They worked exceptionally hard in extraordinary circumstances and they left a very positive impression in New Zealand. Everyone at GFRS (Grampian Fire and Rescue Service) is extremely proud of the team; they are outstanding ambassadors for the North-east of Scotland and for GFRS.”