March 15: Poignant moments from people at the heart of the tragedy

Louis Day was part of The Star (Christchurch) reporting team that covered the Christchurch mosque attacks. One year on, he catches up with some of the people at the heart of tragedy, including Huata Arahanga, a police veteran of 20 years. In one of many poignant moments following the tragedy, this photo shows Huata hugging five-year-old Ayaan Naeem who lost his father and brother in the massacre. Much has changed over the past 12 months for Huata and others involved in the terror attacks.

Huata Arahanga hugs five-year-old Ayaan Naeem, who lost his father and brother in the massacre on...
Huata Arahanga hugs five-year-old Ayaan Naeem, who lost his father and brother in the massacre on March 15, 2019. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Veteran cop’s career and name change

Following the March 15 terror attacks, Huata Arahanga decided it was time to move on from the police after 20 years – and also change his name.

“There were a number of reasons I left the police, but one of them was the incident and my kids seeing me in full regalia with assault weapons in the weeks following, I think it really brought it home for them about how vulnerable I was in the role,” he said.

Huata, previously known as Stuart Martindale, also decided to officially adopt the unofficial Te Reo name he was given from a young age and take his wife’s last name.

“I have lived in what we call the ‘Maori world’ and have been known as Huata for a very long time so decided to make it official.

“My wife lost her dad at the age of 11 and when we first got married, that was one of the only things she said her father had left her. So I am honoured that she asked me to take it.”

Huata said the feedback he has received on his new identity has been “extremely positive and supportive”.

On the day of the attacks, Huata was enjoying a rare day off when he received a text from a colleague saying “something big had gone down.”

He switched on his television to see the news spread across the screen.

“All the years I spent with the police I never one day believed something that extreme could happen.”

Huata Arahanga. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Huata Arahanga. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Shortly afterwards, he was online and saw the appalling video of the gunman carrying out the attacks. He described this as a “real kick in the guts”.

“A previous role of mine was managing the police Maori and ethnic services. One of our professional relationships was with our friends at the mosque so I had spoken to and met with many of the people in the video.”

After retiring from the police, he now works for Te Pūtahitanga o Te Waipounamu, a commissioning agency which works on behalf of the nine iwi in the South Island to assist whanau in realising their potential.

A moment that will always stick with him from his time in the police was when he attended one of the burials for victims of the shooting.

At the funeral, he came across his nephew Tyla Harrison-Hunt and his wife Saba Khan-Hunt who lost both her uncle Mian Naeem Rashid and cousin Talha Naeem in the shootings.

“After they were walking back after burying their family I saw them and they saw me, it sounds a bit corny like a romantic movie, but I ran over, I just wanted to give her [Saba] a cuddle. It broke my heart because she broke down in my arms.

“I was Huata the uncle, not Huata the cop in that moment.”

Beside Mrs Khan-Hunt was her five-year-old cousin Ayaan, son to Mr Rashid and brother to Tahla.

“He was standing there and he was a bit shy but I bent over and my nephew Tyla said: ‘This is my uncle Hoots and because he is my uncle he is yours, too.’ And as soon as he said that his arms just shot up, it just melted me. I got down on my knees and gave him a big cuddle and he whispered in my ear: ‘I like police.’

“It was one of those moments that will stick with me forever. A really heartwarming but heartbreaking and contradictory moment.”

He said he had not seen Ayaan since then, but a day did not go by that he didn’t think of him.

Tragedy strikes again for ‘Aunty Jill’

When Jill Keats sees train tracks she is reminded of the death of her husband. When she drives past Al Noor mosque she is reminded of how she had to listen to a man die.

Jill lost her husband Ted when he was hit by a train 30 years ago while walking across the Kilmarnock St railway crossing in Riccarton.

On March 15, she was driving past Al Noor mosque – just several hundred metres from the Kilmarnock crossing.

“I have had two traumas in that area,” she said.

It was about 1.40pm and Jill was driving along Deans Ave near the mosque. A gunman was already wreaking havoc at the mosque.

Jill Keats. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Jill Keats. Photo: Geoff Sloan
She heard gunfire and a vehicle in front of her had stopped, blocking her way. She pulled her car over and ducked. She then saw a man lying near her car – he had been shot in the back. He was Abas Tahir who she would later come to call “family”.

She and the driver of a car that was behind her administered first aid. She then saw another man nearby, mortally wounded by the gunman.

“I couldn’t help because I was already helping Abas, but I had to listen to this other man on the other side of my car crying for help as he slowly died. The other driver tried to help this man but the bullet had gone right through him and there wasn’t much we could do.

“I think about him every day, I don’t even know his name but I think about him every day.”

Jill now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

On some days when the weather even resembles what it was on the day of the shooting, she struggles to leave the house.

“You are just sort of waiting for the next thing to happen once something like that has gone down, you wonder if another nutter is going to come out of the woodwork.”

A source of solace for Jill is her friendship with Abas and his family.

“I have sort of bonded with him and I visit him and his family once a fortnight, they have become family and they even call me Aunty Jill,” she said.

Dr Adib Khanafer

The vascular surgeon has been given many reasons to smile since last year’s attacks.

He had never performed surgery on a child before the March 15 shootings but all that changed when he was called into help save the life of a four-year-old girl.

Doctor Adib Khanafer. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Doctor Adib Khanafer. Photo: Geoff Sloan
She received multiple gunshot wounds at Al Noor mosque, Deans Ave. When he got to Christchurch Hospital, three surgeons were applying pressure to her wounds, an image that brought him to tears and will remain with him for the rest of his life.

Incredibly, the girl survived, in spite of her heart not beating for 40min.

Dr Khanafer said he has seen the girl a couple of times since. On one occasion he and his family had dinner with her family.

It was one of the many reasons to smile he had been given since the shootings.

Others include the mountain of support from friends and former colleagues around the world, his daughter Kinda making strides towards her dream of one day playing football for England and his favourite team Liverpool being well on track to win the English Premier League after winning the UEFA Champions League last season.


New Zealand’s response to the terror attacks was another reason.

“In other parts of the world, they dodge the issue but in New Zealand, they just got down to the point and everybody said this was not acceptable,” he said.

Dean Brown – St John intensive care paramedic

“There were deceased bodies outside and also a couple at the main entrance and a number of armed police trying to manage the scene," said Dean Brown, one of the first responders on March 15.

“I thought, how does this happen, it was surreal. This just does not happen in Christchurch.”

He said what he saw inside was “worse by a significant magnitude”.

As one of the first paramedics to go into Al Noor mosque after the shootings, March 15 will be a day Dean never forgets.

Dean Brown. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Dean Brown. Photo: Geoff Sloan
The St John intensive care paramedic has been working on the frontline for more than 23 years, but can recall sending off a few emails at the Ilam station before he heard police needed ambulances at Deans Ave.

“When I first heard some of the news coming in through the radio, I thought it was something gang-related, involving two or three people, but then you get there with deceased civilians outside the mosque, it brings it to a whole new level of concern.”

After arriving at the mosque, Dean and a fellow paramedic were escorted into the building with two police officers in front and two behind, clearing all the rooms before allowing them to conduct an initial triage.

Dean said the mosque was filled with an unexpected calmness.

“There was a calmness you would not expect in that situation. They [victims] would ask for help but there was, no screaming, they were all just amazingly calm for what they had been through.”

After completing the triage, the decision was made to transport all survivors straight to hospital due to the critical condition they were in.

About 10 survivors were then transported to hospital and Dean was left with the task of conducting the final death count inside the mosque.

Unfortunately, Dean is no stranger to tragedy. He was one of the first responders to the collapse of the CTV building in 2011.

Even though a change of career had “crossed his mind”, he said helping others was something he was not ready to give up on just yet.

“I feel like I can still make a difference.”

He said meeting with some of the survivors from the shooting also served as inspiration to persevere.

“In a job like ours you don’t get to see what happens to the patient afterwards, but after getting to meet a couple of the survivors and their response to us, it just allows you to see that you have made such a difference to someone’s life which is very rewarding in itself.”

Dean married his long-term partner of six years Nicci in December. She is currently in her final year of training to be a midwife.

A book and messages of love

A year on from losing his wife, Farid Ahmed remains dedicated to spreading his message of love.

“I want to connect myself with Kiwis, I want to go around meeting people, going to clubs and organisations just to remind people that we are human, and we are not supposed to hate one another,” he said.

Farid Ahmed. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Farid Ahmed. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Farid’s wife Husna was killed after she ran back into Al Noor mosque to find Faird who uses a wheelchair.

Farid made headlines after he forgave the alleged gunman behind the attacks, declaring that he loved him.

“A rose has a beautiful aroma, if you break it, it still has a beautiful aroma, if you cut it into small pieces it still has a beautiful aroma. Similarly, if you break my heart and inflict something harsh on me, it still loves, anger and frustration, there is no room for that.”

Since the attacks, Farid has written a book on the life of his wife: Husna’s Story. All proceeds are being donated to St John.

He was also invited to the White House where he shook hands with President Donald Trump and thanked him for his support following the attacks.

Abdul Aziz

“Every minute I think, what could I have done to save more lives, those things never go from your mind, probably not until you go to the grave.”

Abdul Aziz was heralded a hero after he confronted the alleged gunman by throwing an Eftpos machine at him and chasing him away from the Linwood Islamic Centre.

He remembers March 15 “like it was yesterday”, the smallest of things acting as a reminder of the atrocities that unfolded.

“A car will backfire and it will immediately take me back to the shootings.”

Abdul Aziz. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Abdul Aziz. Photo: Geoff Sloan
He is likely to have to close his antique and second-hand furniture store in Redcliffs at the end of this month. He shut it down for four months following the shootings and is struggling to regain business after reopening.

He is unsure what his next step would be but said he would continue to be a voice for his community.

This was important, especially after threats were made against Al Noor mosque two weeks before the March 15 anniversary on an encrypted messaging app, he said.

Abdul said he would not hesitate to risk his life again to save innocent lives, regardless of their religion or race.

“If people try to harm innocent people, if something happened like this, if that happened anywhere in the world, I would do the same as I did last year. That is what our religion teaches us, if you save one innocent life you save all of humanity, but if you take one innocent soul you kill all humanity.”

Okirano Tilaia

The former Cashmere High School head boy brought thousands of students together in Hagley Park to mourn those lost in last year’s attacks - and he is preparing to do it all again.

Okirano received massive praise for showing wisdom beyond his years after calling on New Zealanders to redefine who they are as a nation at last year’s vigil.

Seven people, including three students associated with Cashmere High, were killed or injured in the attacks.

Okirano Tilaia. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Okirano Tilaia. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Tomorrow, he will host a similar event at Hagley Park, called Colour Your Day.

He said it as an opportunity for young people to share a space where they can pay their respects and share their love.

In the past year, the 18-year-old has received a number of accolades including a leadership and inspiration commendation from the Prime Minister’s Pacific Youth Awards and a Blake medal.

He is studying political science at Canterbury University, acting as part of the Ministerial Youth Advisory Group, is a a trustee on charity Pacific Youth Leadership and Transformation, volunteering as a mentor at Hillmorton High School and with the Student Volunteer Army.

“Sometimes it gets really hectic, sometimes I just feel like giving up but I just have those students in the back of my mind, as much as I am doing this for myself and my family, I am also doing it for them because they can’t chase their dreams and really go out there and make a difference like they should have been able to,” said Okirano.

Louis Day – The Star reporter

I was four months into my journalism career, still very junior.

My editor in chief Barry Clarke told me I was going to Al Noor mosque, which is about 1.5km from our office. All we really knew was shots had been fired outside of the mosque.

I grabbed a pen, a pad, my phone and ran downstairs and along Lincoln Rd.

I had almost made it to Hagley Park when I came across a policeman with an assault rifle who stopped me and asked: “What do you know?”

More than slightly intimidated, I responded: “Not a lot to be honest, how about you?” He shook his head and I carried on my way.

Running across Hagley Park, I kept thinking why he needed that firearm. I was distracted and stepped into a stream, soaking the lower half of my trousers.

Louis Day.  Photo: Geoff Sloan
Louis Day. Photo: Geoff Sloan
When I got closer to the mosque I was immediately drawn to a woman wailing: “I never thought this would happen in my country.” She was repeatedly apologising to a group of Muslim people as if what had happened was somehow her fault.

I approached the woman. Her name was Jill Keats who features in our coverage today.

She had been driving along Deans Ave when she heard gunshots. She pulled over and ducked for cover. Two men were shot down close to her car, she was only able to save one of them.

While I was interviewing her, I noticed a body sprawled across the pavement, motionless, with clothes covering its face.

Journalism school did not teach me anything about covering a terrorist attack. Then I heard a booming voice behind me.

“He’s media, get him out of here.”

I was then very politely escorted away from the area by two police officers. They were very calm.

I stuck around close to where I was escorted to. Then a less calm policeman said I would be locked up if I didn’t leave.

I ran back to the office. The newsroom was very busy.

Information was being screamed across the office, the noise making it hard to process the sights I had just seen.

I was then tasked with writing an article about the video of the massacre that had appeared on Facebook. Reality had returned.

Then we heard the gunman may have been captured in Brougham St and I was dispatched there.

By 7pm, I had finished. I went home. I lived about 2km from Al Noor mosque.

I lay completely awake for most of the night, wrestling to comprehend what had just happened.

A year on, I am still in The Star newsroom where my main round is the city council.

Lianne Dalziel: Service should send out a powerful message of unity

March 15, 2019, has become one of those days when we can instantly recall where we were and what we were doing when we first heard the news of the terrorist attack on Al Noor mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre.

It’s hard to believe that it has been a year and that we are gathering again this weekend to remember and honour the 51 lives that were taken and to stand in solidarity with our local Muslim communities, the bereaved families and all those who were injured and traumatised by this attack.

Lianne Dalziel. Photo: Supplied
Lianne Dalziel. Photo: Supplied
In coming together, we can also express our deep gratitude and appreciation for the role played by all the responders, our emergency response teams, paramedics and hospital teams, along with the bystanders, passers-by and neighbours who stepped in to help save lives. It has been good to hear stories of lasting friendships forged in the hours and days after the attacks.

We should also reflect on the incredible leadership of our Muslim communities, who asked us to unite in peace, love and forgiveness, so that we could overcome the division and further acts of violence this attack was designed to cause.  We can all be proud of how we supported our Muslim communities with kindness and compassion. 

These same communities are now asking us to build on this response to help show the way for the rest of the world. 

We sent a powerful message of unity to the world with our response.  Let’s do that again this Sunday.

  • The National Remembrance Service will be held at 3pm on Sunday, March 15, at Horncastle Arena (note the change of venue due to the weather forecast).





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