Fri. Nov 18th, 2022

Ten years ago, Josh Hilbers watched in horror as the CTV building collapsed with his mother inside.
A magnitude 6.2 earthquake rocked Christchurch at 12.51pm on February 22, 2011, pancaking the six-storey central city office block in seconds.
Marion Hilbers, a medical receptionist working on level five, was among the 115 victims.
For most people, it would be the worst moment of their lives. Josh Hilbers was 21 at the time. Looking back, he says the tragedy changed his life for the better.
Josh Hilbers with his mum, Marion Hilbers, at his 21st birthday party.
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But it took a long time to realise that.
Nearly three years ago, he hit rock bottom after years of drink, drugs and reckless living, born out of grief and trauma he failed to recognise and resolve at the time.
Now sober, the 31-year-old is the fittest hes ever been, has more than 3600 skydive instructor jumps under his belt, and is working as a mindset coach. Hes helping others avoid falling into the same trap.
Josh Hilbers, who lost his mum in the CTV building collapse, is now the fittest he’s been since dealing with the trauma and getting sober after hitting rock bottom.
Lunch date that never happened
In early 2011, Josh Hilbers was still trying to find his way.
He started a new temp job on February 22, working for a drilling company. It was a good opportunity, and he was eager to impress.
His first assignment was at St Pauls church, directly across from the CTV site on the corner of Madras and Cashel streets. The heritage building had been damaged in the September 2010 quake and repair work was under way.
Josh was there to attach reinforcing steel using a drill, before scaffolding could be put up.
He planned to catch up with his mum at lunchtime, between 12.30pm and 1pm.
But the drill was malfunctioning and after two hours of fiddling he still could not get it to go. Feeling the pressure to catch up after returning from the companys base, Josh decided to plough on.
[I thought] because I’m so far behind, I’ll just work a little bit later and I’ll go see mum at like 1.30pm or 2pm.
He never got the chance.
At 12.51pm, St Pauls began shaking violently. Josh describes the sound as the belly of the beast starting to roar.
He dropped the drill and sprinted for the entrance. The huge doors swung shut.
I put my right arm up, like bracing in front of my face, and I put my other arm above my head, knowing that something could fall, and then I just ran full force for the doors.
Whether I barged them open or the door swung open, I got through.
Once outside, he heard loud noises, like cracking concrete. But it wasnt coming from the old church.
It was CTV. Lurching left to right, about two metres each way.
All of a sudden I saw it dislodge, like something boosted it up. It stopped swaying, and it just started to come completely down, like a pancake, stack after stack, Josh recalls.
St Paul’s, on the corner of Madras and Cashel streets, where Josh Hilbers was working on February 22, 2011.
Dust engulfed the street like a wave. It was all sounds car and building alarms, and people screaming and crying.
When the dust cleared, he was stunned.
I was completely shocked at what I’d seen and what I was looking at … I could see the big pile of rubble.
Josh vividly recalls the wider scene. Cars covered in bricks and steel, lamp posts tipped over, Madras St like an ocean of like ripples and cracks and water from liquefaction seeping through those cracks.
A man with his face half covered in blood was standing on the CTV rubble pile, unable to speak.
He didn’t say anything. He just stood there with his hand up. Just like, I’m here, help me.
Josh knew his mum had gone to work that day and, naturally, he feared the worst.
The CTV building pancaked in the quake, killing 115 people. An inquiry later determined it had been poorly designed.
He started climbing the rubble. About two or three metres in, a voice in his head told him to go back.
He walked around the base of the site looking for survivors. Worsening smoke created further concern. A fire was already burning deep in the pile.
Up to 20 rescuers mostly civilians sprung into action. Soon the first bodies came down in makeshift stretchers. Some alive, some dead.
While helping in a chain passing wet towels to the top of the pile, Josh heard the dead and injured were being taken to nearby Latimer Square.
He went there with the hope of seeing his mum. There was no sign of her. His attempts to get back to CTV were blocked by police at a cordon now around the site.
Josh says he was a lost 21-year-old wandering around not knowing what to do. Multiple calls to his mums phone went unanswered.
The Clinic was on the fifth floor of the CTV building above King’s Education. It had moved in weeks earlier.
When he finally made contact with his dad, he broke down and delivered the grim news.
It was based on my feeling at the time. I couldn’t tell you how I knew what I knew I was amazed to see other people survive.
Josh ran into a friend, who gave him a ride out of the central city. Younger brother Sam was at home when he got there.
I walked out to him and gave him a big hug and told him that [mum] was gone.
Solo mum with a huge heart
Marion Hilbers did not have an easy life.
She grew up in a state house, in a single-parent family, and was the only girl among the six children.
Josh and Sam were born about two years apart. His parents split when he was 10.
Marion was a loving mum, Josh says. She always put others first and had a huge heart.
As a solo parent, she often worked two jobs. The family moved around, so the boys were in the best school zones.
She devoted her life to making our lives better and giving us a life that she didn’t have.
A desire to help people led her to the job at The Clinic. Marion always wanted to be a nurse, Josh says, but never felt she was quite good enough.
The medical practice moved into level five of the CTV building about 10 weeks before the February quake. It had been around the corner in Gloucester St, but relocated after the September 2010 quake when its office was red-stickered.
It was one of a series of fateful decisions that contributed to Marions life being cut short. She and 17 other colleagues and patients perished in the collapse.
Sheer dumb luck
It is likely Marion Hilbers was in the lunchroom when the quake struck.
Colleague Pip Lee, also a receptionist, was at her desk across from Marions. She survived. Patient Topi Emery, who was in the waiting area, was rescued after being trapped for five hours.
Josh Hilbers does not dwell on what ifs.
Yes, his mother could have been at her desk or at lunch with him at the time.
The dangerous building next to The Clinics old Gloucester St office, which prompted the move to CTV, did not fall down.
The Clinic’s old office on Gloucester St, left of shot, as it looked after the February 2011 earthquake.
CTV itself could have been red-stickered after the September quake. Council inspectors checked it and deemed it safe to occupy. A structural engineer hired by the building manager also did a thorough inspection, which raised no serious concerns.
Marion didnt like working there. The building shook when a bus or a truck drove past. Others raised similar concerns.
She had applied for another job, working at a different medical centre out in the suburbs.
They rang Marions home, the day after the quake, not knowing she had died. Her brother, David, took the call she had got the job.
Josh calls his mothers death sheer dumb luck.
Anyone that came out of that building … it wasn’t their time. There was something more for them to do in this world, in this life.
He has stayed away from the blame game that has dominated the CTV saga for the past 10 years. There were bigger issues in his own life to worry about.
Buried in the bottle
Josh says he went to a dark place after his mothers death. He felt like a coward and was consumed by guilt.
I was beating myself up because I couldn’t do more, or I didn’t do more. I felt very low.
What do you do in that situation? If I knew what I knew now then, maybe it could be a different story.
Joshs story is now one of personal redemption. It was a hard road, though.
I proceeded to just sort of bury myself in the bottle. I skipped the anger and the resentment, and I just went straight to apathy.
I felt very powerless, and so I just numbed myself for a very long time after that. A lot longer than I would recommend anyone to do.
Josh Hilbers now believes the tragedy changed his life for the better.
Soon after Marions death, he signed up for an apprenticeship, hoping to get a trade and good job to impress his mum. But it wasnt for him, and he was burying his emotions.
Hed worked in hospitality in the past so headed back to the bar scene. That just exacerbated his already excessive partying.
I started to really question what we were living life for, you know? What was the point of going to get a good job, good career or good family when it can just be gone just like that.
Joshs next move was into skydiving, which led to him becoming an instructor. He was travelling the world and feeling hed made something of his life.
It was a fast and lavish lifestyle, but he couldnt escape his demons.
When he wasnt jumping, the scene was drink, drugs and parties. Then, a moment of reckoning.
Josh woke up one morning covered in his own blood. He couldnt remember the night and was on bail for a silly drunk and disorderly incident he had been arrested for a month earlier.
I realised that life had to change. I was going to lose everything that I’d worked for, and I was going to end up back where I was going to go before my mum passed.
Hilbers says using his mother’s death as an excuse for his behaviour disrespected her legacy.
He decided to get sober, and take control of his body and mind. Skydiving now takes a back seat to his own business as a mindset coach, helping others with addiction, grief and trauma.
I had the fear of what my mum would see me as the man that I’d become. I realised that was my opinion, my idea and my belief, and she actually still loved me regardless.
To realise that using her name and her legacy as an excuse and reason to live this life… it’s a disrespect, to everything she had done.
While acknowledging the loss felt by the families of the other 184 CTV victims, Josh feels, for him, the past decade of hurt is a gift.
I wouldn’t have this life if my mum wasn’t in that building.
We don’t get to choose what happens to us in this life. But we get to choose how we respond.
Collapse is a six-part Stuff podcast about the CTV building collapse in the February 2011 earthquake in Christchurch. You can listen on Stuff, or via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or any other app using the RSS feed.