Failings at every stage

An aerial view of emergency services working at the ruined CTV building in central Christchurch. Photo by the New Zealand Herald.
An aerial view of emergency services working at the ruined CTV building in central Christchurch. Photo by the New Zealand Herald.
The release this week of the third and final part of the report from the Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission of Inquiry has provided answers about building failure and a raft of recommendations for the future, but little in the way of comfort or closure for bereaved families. The royal commission of inquiry began in April 2011 and ended last month.

The report's final part contains the findings on the catastrophic collapse of the six-storey Canterbury Television building, which claimed 115 lives, the largest loss of life in the February 22, 2011, quake in which a total of 185 people died and many were injured. It follows an eight-week hearing in which more than 80 witnesses - including survivors, witnesses, building designers, architects, engineers, builders and inspectors - testified.

The commission found 20 years' worth of engineering, construction and council errors led to the building's collapse in the magnitude-6.3 earthquake. It concluded it should never have received a permit from the Christchurch City Council in 1986 as it was not built to the standards of the time. It said the engineering design was deficient, defects occurred during its construction, that construction was poorly supervised, and after the September 2010 quake it was ''green-stickered'' by council officials, with no advice from an engineer. Failures at various stages were made by structural engineer David Harding, construction manager Gerald Shirtcliff, who failed to supervise construction at the site, council buildings engineer Graeme Tapper, who signed off the building despite concerns about the structural design, and property manager John Drew, who commissioned an engineer's report after the September 2010 quake but did not follow up on the recommendation to order more detailed assessments.

But the report was most critical of principal engineer Alan Reay, whose firm, Alan Reay Consultants Ltd, designed the building. Dr Reay was criticised for tasking Mr Harding with the design of the building despite his inexperience, failing to adequately supervise him, not reviewing the design plans, and convincing Mr Tapper to sign off the building.

The report is certainly a damning indictment on various individuals and organisations.

Given the failings, it appears the building was an accident waiting to happen. That confirmation has provided no comfort for the families and friends of those killed in the collapse. While the role of the commission was not to apportion liability, unsurprisingly there are now calls for justice for the victims by holding to account those involved in the building's failings. Some are calling for those involved to face manslaughter charges. As long as the possibility of action by the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and the police remains, there will be no closure for many of the families, who find themselves facing a similar situation to the families of the 29 miners killed in the Pike River mine explosion in November 2010.

The royal commission investigating that tragedy also found the disaster was preventable, with failures at every level.

Like the Pike River royal commission, the Canterbury earthquakes commission has made a raft of recommendations. These include changes to legislation, policies and practices for preventing or minimising building failure in earthquakes, the legal and best-practice requirements for managing buildings after earthquakes, and the design of new buildings. The IPENZ says it has already made changes in the light of the CTV building's collapse, and will use the commission's recommendations to further improve engineering practice. While official Government comment on the report will not come until next year, it is to be hoped steps to implement the recommendations are made as soon as possible to ensure lessons have been learned. That may be small comfort for those still dealing with heartbreak, but is at least a way for the country to move forward.

Finally, recognition should be made of the commissioners, chairman Justice Mark Cooper, Sir Ronald Carter and Prof Richard Fenwick, who have listened to months of harrowing evidence and compiled a comprehensive, detailed report on one of the darkest chapters in New Zealand history.