Christchurch terror attack
A makeshift memorial at the Christchurch Botanical Gardens (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Ben is 20 years old and last Friday he had his first full-time day working in his first ever full-time job.

Ben is a pharmacy assistant at Christchurch Hospital. His job is to take medication to wards all over the hospital. His friends joke that his job title is actually “drug runner”.

Ben accepted the permanent job last Thursday night after doing a few casual days. He was extremely pleased to be in regular employment, following some rough years after the Christchurch earthquakes. He’d been working a few days here and there at a supermarket, and night shifts at a factory.

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The 2011 earthquake — which killed 185 people and left the city in ruins — interrupted his schooling and his entire life. For a while he had nowhere to live, which meant he didn’t go to school. Now he’s doing better. But he was four hours into his first shift on Friday when something unusual started happening.

Inside the hospital

“I noticed [staff] were running a lot of beds around and I thought it was strange how they were taking patients everywhere,” he says. “About five minutes later we got an alert over a speaker saying there had been a shooting and we should expect 40 to 50 casualties.”

Living in an earthquake zone teaches you to check on your loved ones immediately. My Uber driver tells me her husband is a cop; he called her, told her to stay home and then hung up last Friday. I have rung my own mother and a separate newsroom simultaneously during an earthquake.

Ben says it was the same at the hospital last Friday.

“As soon as we heard that, most of us contacted our families to let them know we were safe at the hospital. I texted my mum to say I was safe and she said, ‘what do you mean?’ because she hadn’t heard. Then 10 minutes later she texted me to say she was safe, because she works beside the Linwood mosque. She could see everything happening there but couldn’t understand why the media reports were about the other mosque. We didn’t know it was both mosques.”

I ask Ben if he was aware of being in a state of shock on Friday.

“It was actually calm for a bit because it took about 10 to 20 minutes before the first patients arrived, so you had a moment to prepare yourself mentally, just to prepare yourself for seeing some gruesome thing.”

I ask Ben if he registered what he was seeing, or if it felt unreal.

“I think ambulance staff did a good job hiding what had happened to everyone. People were covered in blankets by the time I saw them with the oxygen masks so they just looked like normal patients, there were some blood trails in places but that’s kind of what can happen in a hospital.”

Ben is telling me all this after his second full day at work. He’s had a shower, he’s sitting at the kitchen table of the house where he boards with family friends. He’s wearing tracksuit pants, no shirt and his hair is wet. He looks so young that I feel like a shit for asking him anything.

Disaster zone

I mention that when I picked him up at the hospital, the whole place was bustling with armed police.

“Yeah, actually today was harder than Friday. There were families and officials and cops everywhere. You expect to see crazy stuff in a hospital, but the shock didn’t come from seeing the patients, it came from hearing what had happened in our city. That was the scary thing.”

I’m about to tell Ben to go and have his dinner and thank him, when he says something I hadn’t expected. “When I first heard it, I knew it couldn’t have been a local person because everyone knows what we’ve been through. It’s not an easy process to rebuild our city after such a devastating thing, and then to have to go through something this stressful as well… No local would have done that.”

Transcribing this interview at 11pm last night I hear my own five-second pause.

Then I say “So, you felt like you knew they…” You can hear me trail off, but not Ben. He is 20, he has just finished his second ever full-time day of work in the most traumatised city in New Zealand, and he is unequivocal. 

“I knew straight away. There’s no way some person from Christchurch would have done this.”

Crikey has two reporters on the ground in Christchurch this week. Read more of their coverage here

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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