Inquiry hears of backpacker's death

The mother of an American backpacker killed by falling debris in the February 22 Canterbury earthquake has welcomed the royal commission of inquiry, saying it has helped "bring closure" to her family.

Fun-loving tourist Rachel Conley (27) was crushed to death when a Christchurch city building collapsed in the magnitude-6.3 quake, just hours before she was due to leave the city.

Her friend Jessica Kinder, who watched in horror as building facades collapsed on to the Colombo St pavement, told of Miss Conley's final moments at the royal commission of inquiry hearing into the Canterbury earthquakes yesterday.

Miss Kinder (25), a fellow American who became friends with Miss Conley in Wellington, told how they had just left Southern Ink tattoo parlour in the city when the quake struck.

"I have a memory of trying to reach out to her but she was well away from me," she said in a written statement read out at the hearing, which yesterday focused on the collapse of two unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings at 595 and 595a Colombo St.

"I took a couple of steps, running towards the road and ... looked at Rachel, sort of over my shoulder. She was standing still.

"Just at that very moment I saw a large slab of concrete fall right on top of her.

"This was followed immediately by a large amount of rubble which also fell on the spot where Rachel had been standing."

The pair were due to fly to Australia and then on to Asia on February 23.

They went to Southern Ink tattoo parlour on their last full day in New Zealand and booked a double appointment for 3pm.

They left the parlour at 12.51pm, just as the quake struck.

Speaking from her home in Dayton, Ohio, yesterday, Miss Conley's mother, Deb, told APNZ she welcomed the inquiry process, and had no interest in laying blame on anyone for her daughter's tragic death.

The royal commission of inquiry yesterday heard the two Colombo St buildings had been highlighted as "earthquake prone", but engineers ruled them safe to occupy after the magnitude-7.1 September 4, 2010 earthquake.

Structural engineer Noel Hanham conducted an assessment for the building owners after the September shake but admitted he was unclear about the building's history.

His appraisal was based on a basic inspection of the building carried out on the instructions of Hiren Patel, owner's representative for 595 Colombo St.

"They did not want a detailed inspection," Mr Hanham said.

While he determined that its condition had not deteriorated after the September shake, he admitted the February quake, which claimed 185 lives, was "a complete wake-up call to what was out there".

Structural engineer Kevin Simcock, who inspected 595a Colombo St in 1999, said even if the building had undergone a full strengthening upgrade, it could still have failed in the disaster.

Peter Smith, a structural engineer who reviewed the performance of the buildings for the royal commission, concluded lessons about URM buildings should be learned from the disaster.

"If we learn anything from the Christchurch event, hopefully it's that ... any area of URM buildings where facades are not secured, pose a significant risk to the public during a significant earthquake."

Mr Smith also said the system of assessing how buildings are inspected after a major earthquake needed overhauling.


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