Christchurch attack, one year on: March 15 through the eyes of first responders

New Zealand's darkest day - the Christchurch shooting - saw 51 people killed in an alleged act of terror.

But the courageous actions of first responders on March 15 prevented further casualties on a day that tore families and a community apart.

As part of Newshub's first-anniversary coverage, police, St John, and Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) personnel spoke about how March 15, 2019, unfolded for them.

Dean Brown - St John intensive care paramedic

Brown had four large armed police officers with him when he entered Al Noor Mosque on March 15. Before he was called to the scene, he explains it had been a relatively normal day.

"There was nothing too much happening at the time," he told Newshub.

"I was sitting in Ilam station - just having a cup of tea when I heard the radio traffic start to build up that something had occurred.

"Then there were reports of victims starting to arrive at Christchurch Hospital and there was more and more radio traffic, so at that point, I responded."

The scene was surreal when he arrived, he said, but he and his fellow paramedics' regular training in mass casualty events kicked in.

"I was told when we arrived on scene that we were looking at a probable terrorist attack," he explained.

"We just got into what we needed to do." 

Brown said, however, they did make one very clear decision contrary to ordinary training.

"My colleagues and I literally just carried everyone out on a stretcher - to the front door, put them on an ambulance stretcher and they were sent off to [the] hospital."

He believes the closeness of Christchurch Hospital to Al Noor Mosque - 1.7km - saved lives.

"If they'd been a lot further out or a long way away - I don't know all the finer details but I believe based on what I saw and the injuries the victims sustained - being so close and receiving definitive care in Christchurch Hospital is by far the best thing that could have happened for them." 

Brown said he didn't think about his safety until after the emergency.

"Afterwards I thought [about] what might have happened but you can't live your life by that.

"We worked closely with our police colleagues and they worked closely with us and they did a fabulous job.

"I relied on them and I had no concern for mine or my colleague's safety while we were in there."

One year on, Brown said ambulance officers still meet with members of the Muslim community from time to time.

Brown said the Muslim community is the most forgiving and humble people he's come across and always grateful.

He believes the community and country's support of freedom and togetherness remains the same as a year ago.

"The hardest thing for me was probably to visit the memorial on Rolleston Ave," he said. "It took me a couple of weeks but just to be able to see the outpouring of support and love for a community - but they've also given that back.

"Everybody who was involved - who helped on that day - they made the difference. This is just a widespread, community-based response to something that was a tragic event."

Intensive care paramedic Dean Brown.
Intensive care paramedic Dean Brown. Photo credit: Newshub.

Supt John Price - Canterbury Police District Commander

The man in command on the ground on March 15 says his enduring memory of that day is fear.

There were 14 dramatic turns - including fear the hospital may also be under attack and that first responders could be targeted too.

Supt Price says he's extremely proud of his officers' response and composure.

Originally, the number of scenes and offenders was unclear and thousands of school children were about to hit the streets.

"When the soul and heart of your community is ripped out through the actions of one person, it hits us all," Supt Price told Newshub.

He recalled his disbelief, saying he knew those at the mosque well.

"We had Al Noor Mosque - shortly after that there were reports of gunshots at the hospital," said Supt Price. "We thought we had another scene. A third scene then rolled in - the Linwood Mosque."

He told Newshub stopping further harm in the community is everyone's responsibility. Since the March 15 attacks, more people have been reporting concerning ideologies and behaviours, he said.

"Good people who stand up and say 'it's not okay' is where we will make a difference.

"The complete picture sits with us all."

Supt Price said the anniversary of the mosque tragedy is an opportunity to celebrate the goodness in the community.

Every New Zealander should be inspired by those who helped others and forgave, despite facing the worst day in their lives, he said.

"There are those in our community who want to create fear - and we need to counter that."

Despite the despair of March 15, it's led to a number of Christchurch's Muslim community considering becoming police officers. Supt Price said that's a win-win for the country.

"That is simply a really clear symbol that there is trust and confidence," he said. 

Supt John Price.
Supt John Price. Photo credit: Newshub.

Dr Adib Khanafer - CDHB surgeon

As one of the surgeons that operated on a little girl who was shot, Dr Khanafer says he was overwhelmed with emotion despite not knowing her. 

Reflecting on March 15, he says it's extraordinary all but one of those hospitalised were saved. One man died of his injuries nearly seven weeks after the shooting.

Dr Khanafer, who operated during the 2011 Christchurch earthquake and the mosque attacks, said there was a striking difference between the two.

Dr Adib Khanafer.
Dr Adib Khanafer. Photo credit: Newshub.

"The injuries with the bullets are way more extensive," he said. "Bullets are made to destroy and damage."

Driving to the hospital the day after the tragedy, he witnessed March 15 affecting people differently.

"There was no-one at all walking or running around Hagley [Park]," Dr Khanafer told Newshub. "It was absolutely deserted."

Dr Khanafer remembers the heartbreak and sadness associated with March 15 not being an act of nature - like the quakes.