Queenstown rescuer heads back to the quake void


It’s 9am on Monday and courageous Queenstowner John Trowsdale is getting ready to head back to “the void”.
From the comfort of his downtown Queenstown office, the structural engineer reflects on five long days spent toiling at Christchurch’s biggest death-trap – the destroyed CTV building. 

He arrived in the earthquake-ravaged city last Tuesday just hours after the mega-shake and worked virtually round the clock at the rescue and recovery coalface. 

Trowsdale, 44, was so shattered on his return to Queenstown that he slept for 25 of his 40 hours’ break last weekend. 

“When I got back to Queenstown I broke down but I’m sort of getting my game face on, knowing that I’m heading back in,” he tells Mountain Scene. 

Trowsdale’s an expert on finding the void – the dark spaces within collapsed buildings where survivors could be.
Now, more than a week after the devastating 6.3 magnitude quake struck and with minimal chance of finding anyone else alive, Trowsdale continues to look for those voids – and safe entry points – to help rescuers recover bodies. 

“As structural engineers, we can look at a building – even a collapsed building – and work out its structural form and know where the beams may or may not have been,” he explains. 

“We know where the beams are likely to have fallen, and then we can identify potential void spaces.” 

In charge of the west side of CTV’s smouldering wreckage, Trowsdale last week worked alongside Urban Search and Rescue taskforce leaders. 

“It’s just a pile, it’s devastating,” he recalls. 

Throughout his five-day stint – during which he only got 12.5 hours’ sleep – the dad-of-two says he had to remain focused on the job to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the number of dead bodies within the rubble. 

More than 100 people are believed to have lost their lives in the CTV building collapse. 

“It’s part of what’s happening – in the process of getting down to other zones you come across people. 

“The focus is still on that there could still be potential void spaces underneath, you just don’t know. You’ve just 
got to do what you can to get down to them as fast as you can.” 

Trowsdale’s also been tasked with helping contractors create shoring-up equipment, plus assessing damaged buildings for others to enter. 

“The last thing we want to do is put highly-trained technicians in harm’s way. It’s a real balancing act – whether you think there are survivors and it’s safe enough to put guys in there.” 

Trowsdale, a USAR-trained member of four years, has been joined by his Queenstown Holmes Consulting Group colleagues John Booth, Ben Dare and Stephen Spence. He hasn’t seen them much – they’ve been scattered over other parts of the ruined CBD. 

He’s been working on the city’s structural engineering recovery since the 7.1 magnitude earthquake last September. Last Tuesday’s shake caused much worse damage – he expects most of downtown Christchurch will need to be rebuilt. 

“I imagine it’ll take another two weeks before we’re at the point of 24 hours after the September earthquake.”
Trowsdale plays down his vital role: “I’m just a very, very small part of a much bigger machine. 

“It’s not just us doing this job – it’s the contractors who came in with diggers and cranes, the guys who came in and set up catering within the cordons to keep us going – the response was incredible,” he says. 

“I’m sure there’re a lot of other people in Queenstown doing their bit. From the people baking cookies, making donations, sending stuff up – it’s a great big machine and none of it works without everybody’s support.”