Sunday, September 19, 2010

Complete and Utter Blackness

I was in the Beehive bunker the day Peter Button was killed. For a few seconds complete and utter blackness. I felt completely disoriented.

For overseas readers: Our Parliament consists of three buildings. A circular one, commonly called The Beehive has the Prime Minister's and major ministerial offices. In the basement is a civil emergency bunker. It was recently fully activated during the recent Canterbury earthquake.

I was there because I have been contracted as an education consultant to give advice to Civil Defence on a kit they were preparing for the upper primary school. We had met before in the bunker to work at it, two officers from Internal Affairs, two teachers trialling the material and myself and someone obviously on duty all the time in the facility. I didn’t like it as a working space. It felt claustrophobic with its artificial light. .

Peter Button was an admired, well-known Wellington helicopter pilot, renowned for his search and rescue flights. That day he was on a photographic mission when the police diverted him to help them look for a fugitive somewhere in the scrub between Johnsonville and Tawa. He got too close to or didn’t see the the high frequency power lines in the gully. The helicopter hit them and crashed killing all occupants. An unnecessary tragedy!

In the bunker the lights suddenly went off and the computers shut down. As I say it was pitch black. I was amazed at the speed of my panic attack for almost instantaneously a pale light came on. A phone rang. The duty officer picked it up. ‘Helicopter down’ he said to his colleagues. He turned to us, ‘I’m sorry but you’ll have to leave.’ We quickly picked up our papers and left. As we went through the door I heard him briefing people down the phone. I overheard the name Peter Button. I was impressed at the smooth reaction to an unknown crisis.

Out in the corridors of power there was chaos. Power was out over the entire city. And in Parliament. The lifts had all defaulted to the lowest floor. Scary for those in them. People were evacuating upper offices. “Bloody hell’ one staffer said as he rushed disconsolately past, ‘I’ve lost three hour’s work.’ ‘That’ll teach you to back-up'  a smug colleague told him. At this stage I had little idea of what was happening or its scale. But I recall thinking about the human mind's capacity to trivialise matters. At this stage, my own 18 months stint in the:Prime Minister’s office was a year ahead.

Out in Bowen St there was further chaos. Traffic lights were out so cars were manoeuvring cautiously. A fire engine, siren blasting eased its way through to turn into The Terrace. There were fire and lift alarms ringing everywhere. Trolley buses were out. Northland buses weren’t electric so I waited for one but none appeared. A taxi pulled up and disgorged its passengers so I hailed it to go home. The driver told me what had happened. Back home I turned on the transistor radio and boiled a kettle on the gas stove for a cup of tea.

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