WITHIN three hours of landing in Christchurch, New Zealand, a Wickham GP was helping to pull bodies from the ruins caused by the devastating earthquake.
BASICS doctor Deirdre Dunbar joined nine Hampshire firefighters as part of the United Kingdom International Search & Rescue team who flew out to help search for survivors after last week’s 6.3 magnitude quake.
But from the moment Dr Dunbar arrived at the scene, it became clear that the task would be more about retrieval of dead bodies than rescue.
She was part of a team assigned to the Pyne Gould building – one of the worst hit buildings. Rescuers had initially managed to help 20 people out of the rubble of the office building.
The 45-year-old said: ‘I was in the middle of a GP surgery when I got a phone call to say there had been an earthquake in New Zealand and asking if I would be available to lend support.’
With the help of her colleagues at Wickham Surgery, Dr Dunbar was able to arrange cover and was soon on a flight.
‘Within three hours of arriving they had assigned us to the Pyne Gould building,’ she said. ‘By the time we got there it was day three post-quake and they were aware that there were still potentially large numbers of people trapped.
‘But our first job was retrieving the body of a chap who had died.’
Working 12 hours on and 12 hours off, teams were at the building around the clock.
Dr Dunbar had worked with some of the firefighters before as part of the rescue mission to Sumatra, Indonesia, after its 2009 earthquake. She was also there to work on any injuries they received during the work.
She added: ‘There was still a lot of optimism when we arrived, the local people were fantastic. There was great support from them, providing food and water, and the morale of the UKISAR team was lifted greatly by the tremendous response from the locals on the ground.
‘There was a guy, Scotty, who was a local construction worker who was working one of the cranes. We learned his sister-in-law had been in the building at the time, but hadn’t been found.
‘His bravery in helping whilst at the same time having to deal with his loss was really heroic.’
So far 161 have been confirmed dead, with dozens more still missing and officials now warning that some bodies may never be found.
It is estimated that up to a third of the city’s buildings have been, or will have to be, demolished.
Dr Dunbar said: ‘We had initially anticipated that there would be survivors we could help, but sadly there weren’t.
‘We retrieved five bodies from the building.
‘Finding the bodies allows the relatives to go through the proper grieving process, but if there’s no remains found, it’s very difficult.’
Dr Dunbar is now back in the UK at her day-job. She said: ‘The decision for me to leave was made fairly quickly, and it was a bit of a surprise, but we weren’t dealing with survivors.’