When facilitators Catherine Miller (right) and Jade Coales set up for their Babies and Beyond session at Massey Playcentre it seemed like a typical day. It turned out anything but.
It wouldn’t be until more than six hours later they were able to leave the Centre after a lockdown with 15 babies and toddlers, aged from three weeks to two years old, 17 parents, including two pregnant mothers, all in the knowledge a gunman was on the loose.
Last week’s tragic shooting of a young police officer in West Auckland is still weighing on the minds of Jade and Catherine, who met through Playcentre almost 18 years ago and who have worked together for the past three years.
Jade says she was outside with some of the children when she heard what sounded like fireworks or a car backfiring. At the same time others were saying it sounded like gun shots, she noticed what turned out to be the gunman jumping a fence and running down a bank further along the street.
Catherine had also come outside by then and they started gathering up the children and headed indoors, with Jade going on to call the police and Catherine making the call to go into lockdown.
Jade says she was told by police that everyone needed to stay there until police told them they could leave.
“It was so unreal. I just thought, ‘Holy crap’. It was like being in a movie scene.”
“I’m quite tall,” she says, so pulling herself up to her full 5’10”, she stationed herself by the door to ensure no one was leaving. No one did. Catherine says the next few hours were spent trying to keep everyone calm. “Luckily we had a great group of parents. There were no ‘Hollywooders’! They were nervous and some were a bit upset but I think they trusted us. I think Jade and I made a good team.“
As the day wore on, they could follow the progress of the hunt for the gunman. As well as the physical presence of police swarming over the park where the Centre is located, they could see what was happening via the media on their phones. Jade says it was just awful hearing that the young policeman had been killed. Catherine felt the same. “It was a sickening feeling knowing that a young guy had died.”
With armed police coming very close to the Centre in the afternoon, Catherine and Jade moved everyone to safer parts of the building.
They were also thinking about what they would need to do if the lockdown continued into the evening and the night – even planning chilli beans on toast for a meal, after checking out what they had in the cupboards.
“We were wondering why Massey Playcentre had so many beans!” says Catherine. A lot of time was spent trying to keep people’s minds off the situation. “I sang a lot of songs and read a lot of books!” says Catherine. “By about 1.30 pm everyone had eaten everything in their lunchboxes and some were getting a bit grumpy. So I made a big platter of toast and served up cups of tea, which kept everyone going for a while.”
Jade says at one stage one of their mothers, in her 37th week of pregnancy and whose first baby had been born early, was concerned she might go into labour. “I reassured her that if that did happen she could just have the baby here. We’d know what to do.”
“Yes, we had a Zip, so there was plenty of hot water!” Catherine adds.
Looking back, they say what proved useful was a well-stocked Centre and an up-to-date Civil Defence kit.
At 3pm, the Ministry of Education called to say they could leave the building.
Catherine says she and Jade stayed on to clean up. When we were leaving, I said to Jade we’d made a lovely team. “I just said – we did what we needed to do. We did good.”
Jade says Catherine also gave her a big hug. “I think it really hit me then and I was just crying all the way home. My son, Cassidy, who’s 18, was waiting for me and he just put his arms around me and said, ‘you’re safe now Mum. I love you’. It was so good to be home.”
“It’s amazing what you can do. I’m quite a calm person, but when you’re in a situation with a police helicopter hovering really low and armed police everywhere, it’s frightening. I talked to some police at about 2.30 in the afternoon and I noticed my hands were shaking and my heart was beating really hard. ‘Looking back it’s good to know that we could do our jobs. I’m thankful I was with Catherine. Since then we’ve had a lot of messages from the Mums who were there thanking us for remaining so calm.”
Northern North Island Regional Manager, Nancy Green, has also commended Catherine and Jade for their exemplary performance under pressure.
“They made a very effective team and managed to stay calm and keep everyone else calm. We thank them for their peace of mind and leadership in keeping our Playcentre whānau safe. Well done!”
Playcentre General Manager Sean McKinley also expressed admiration and praise for Catherine and Jade. “It was a scary day – they did a great job and I can’t thank them enough for the way they kept it all together and ensured everyone was safe.”
Catherine says after a day of such high drama, she just felt grateful she was able to come home. “And I was grateful that we had been able to keep everyone safe. We got it right.”