Mosque survivor thanks ‘invisible angel’

Mosque survivor thanks ‘invisible angel’

Locked in the washroom of the Al Noor Mosque, with gunfire raging in the corridor outside, Mohammed Faysal desperately wanted someone to talk to.

Mohammed – known to all as MD – rang 111 but in his state of panic and trauma he was unable to speak.

He rang again and was answered by Nikki, a calltaker in the Southern Communications Centre. Over the next nine or so minutes Nikki kept MD on the line – and at one point stopped him stepping out of the washroom into the corridor.

“She was like an invisible angel for me at that time when I didn’t know what to do, and didn’t know whether or not I’d still be alive in a minute,” he says.

“Having someone beside me – even over the phone – really helped me to keep calm. It was really helpful to me.”

MD this week visited South Comms to meet Nikki and thank her in person.

“Everyone has been praising the first responders from Police to Ambulance but call centre staff are hiding in the background,” he says.

“I feel like Nikki’s call was more helpful even than the police who came in and rescued me - on the end of the phone, when it was all unfolding, she was my one and only help.”

MD’s call was the fourth that Nikki – a calltaker for just six months, in her first job after university – had taken about the shooting at the mosque in Deans Avenue.

At 1.41 she took the first report received, from a neighbour who could hear gunfire and see people fleeing the building. The call lasted several minutes as she asked for information, gave him safety advice and reassured him police were on their way.

The next call ended as soon as it began, the caller hanging up almost instantly. Then a call from another neighbour, saying she was sheltering three women from the mosque in her house.

Then came MD’s call. “He said ‘Help’ twice and I realised he was inside the mosque,” she says. “He was in a washroom and locked inside it.

“He was speaking very quietly, trying to be quiet in case the shooter was still there.

“It was very hard because inside the comms room we had supervisors everywhere, people writing on whiteboards, everyone was getting calls, so there was lots of noise.”

Nikki pressed MD for information – had he seen the gunman? Did he know how many people had weapons? Were ambulances needed?

mosque

Tributes and an armed police guard outside the mosque on Deans Avenue.

 

When MD said he wanted to go into the corridor, Nikki told him to stay put. “That’s something we get taught in training – if there’s ever a situation like that, they need to stay away from the danger rather than put themselves in a compromising position.”

By this time there were no gunshots, but growing noise and shouting in the background that turned out to be police entering the building.

Nikki kept the line open as a police officer reached the washroom, as MD fled the building, and until he reported that he was safely outside. There the background hubbub was of sobbing, prayers and cries of anguish.

“Thank you so much for being with me,” MD said to Nikki before she ended the call. “Thanks for supporting us.”

Nikki’s next call was from a woman who had seen a gunman on the street, but was too panicked to give her location. Nikki used Probable Caller Location and identified the area as Linwood. Again, police could be heard in the background.

“It was hectic for the entire shift,” says Nikki. “My first ‘normal’ call came about 20 minutes later, when we were still getting constant calls about the shooting.

“It was a lady in Dunedin reporting a female in the road kicking cars and yelling out. To go from what was happening in Christchurch to that seemed really odd. It really took a while to click back into normal work.”

For days after the shooting, Nikki says, the conversation with MD preyed on her mind.

“At the end of the call he said ‘thank you’ in such a sweet way,” she says.

“When you’re on calls nobody ever says thank you or really appreciates what you are doing - so for someone to be in that horrible position and to say ‘thank you’ was really quite special.

“I could hear him on the call as well, praying for someone else. That doesn’t normally happen.”

MD says as he told his story to his boss at phone company 2 Degrees, where he works as an account manager, he realised how much strength he had taken from the conversation with Nikki.

“I thought I need to meet her and say my thank-you to her in person.

“I’ll always remember her in my heart and I thought it would be good for her to see the face of the person she saved on that day.”

MD is still attending the mosque. “Whenever I go into that washroom now I think to myself that on 15 March I was there, and how lucky I am that I came out unharmed.

“Nikki should be proud of herself, that she was there for someone who came out alive and uninjured.”

Inspector Kieren Kortegast, South Comms manager, describes Nikki’s approach as “very professional, calm and quite intuitive” on a day when the response from the comms team as a whole was nothing short of magnificent.

“She’s gold,” he says. “She was excellent – she’s relatively new but she was very professional and proactive in her approach, with on-the-mark questioning tempered with empathy.

“She really couldn’t have done it any better.”