CTV collapse 'like a falling lift'

MICHAEL WRIGHT
Last updated 15:30 25/06/2012
CTV building
CARYS MONTEATH/Fairfax NZ
'SUDDEN AND SHOCKING': The CTV building collapsed extremely rapidly, and almost completely.

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A survivor of the CTV building collpase has described the experience as like being in a falling elevator.

Nilgun Kulpe, a counsellor with Relationship Services on the sixth floor of the CTV building, told the Canterbury earthquakes royal commission today she felt a "vertical jolt" when the February 2011 quake struck.

She ran for a doorway where she was able to stand for the duration of the shaking despite the ceiling collapsing and suffering a badly cut knee.

One colleague joined her in the doorway, the rest stayed seated in the centre of the meeting room.

"There was a jolt and it stopped," she said.

"It felt like an elevator that had reached the ground floor."

Despite the sensation, Kulpe did not think she had fallen very far.

"I was surprised to see we were just a metre off the ground. I thought when we stopped we were just one level down. It didn't feel like all the way.

"When I finally looked out I was completely gobsmacked that we had travelled all the way down."

Earlier, Kulpe told the commission she felt "really scared" in the building after the September 4 quake.

"I felt like the building was sick and that it wasn't safe. In the aftershocks I would always go to the nearest door frame.

"I would do that even if I was seeing clients which was a bit embarrassing if they were trauma clients who I supposed to be helping to calm.

"We were told the movement we were experiencing was what you would expect because the building was built on rollers like [Wellington museum] Te Papa and was meant to move in earthquakes."

Many staff members reported movement after September 4, she said, and some asked management if they could temporarily relocate.

Management agreed to move at the end of the company's lease at the CTV site, which was a year away at the time of the February 2011 quake, Kulpe said.

"I understand that they were responding not only to the discomfort felt in the building, but because we were growing and needed a bigger place.

"We were told not to worry, but I was worried."

UNSEEN DAMAGE CAUSED BUILDING 'BOUNCINESS'

"Bounciness" and "movement" experienced by occupants of the CTV building after the September 2010 earthquake may have been due to unidentified damage, a commission has heard.

A key aspect of the eight-week Canterbury earthquakes royal commission hearing into the building's collapse during the February 2011 quake, which started today, was the amount of damage the building suffered and how it was assessed between the September and February quakes.

Counsel assisting the commission Stephen Mills QC said expert opinion on the extent of damage caused by the initial quake was changing.

"There is a view emerging that in fact the building suffered significant damage in the September earthquake," said Mills.

"Certainly there is a view in several quarters that in September the building sustained what was essentially a design-level earthquake and ... there will be evidence from some witnesses that the floor diaphragm and the north core may have disconnected in September."

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The north shear core, which included the elevator shaft, was the only part of the building to remain standing in the February quake.

The commission would hear from witnesses about movement in the building leading up to the disaster, Mills said.

"You will hear from witnesses about increased 'liveliness' or 'bounciness'... in the building that a number of people say they experienced post-September."

One survivor, CTV receptionist Marianne Jackson, was particularly anxious about the building's safety, Mills said.

"[She] appears to have been so convinced that the building was at risk... that she was known by her colleagues at CTV to run from the building each time there was an aftershock; a practice that served her very well."

Jackson followed this routine on February 22, and was the only CTV employee in the building to survive the collapse.

A statement from Jackson will be read to the commission this afternoon.

Six other survivors are also scheduled to give evidence.

POSSIBLE NO-SHOW

The potential no-show of a key witness on possible sub-standard construction of the CTV building has been described as "disappointing" at the royal commission investigating the building's collapse.

The Canterbury earthquakes royal commission today started its eight-week hearing into the collapse during the February 2011 earthquake, in which 115 of the quake's 185 victims perished.

Counsel assisting the commission, Stephen Mills QC, told the hearing Gerald Shirtcliff, a construction manager for Williams Construction, which built the CTV building in 1986-87, had so far declined a request to give evidence.

Shirtcliff was living in Australia, Mills said, but was reluctant to divulge his exact location and had only been in email contact with investigators.

"We offered him the opportunity to have a video link. He hasn't taken that up but in the last few days has requested a copy of the [Department of Building & Housing] report."

The DBH report, released in February, identified design and construction flaws in the CTV building, concluding they fell short of building standards of the time.

Mills apologised for Shirtcliff's likely non-appearance but Commission chairman Justice Mark Cooper told him not to be sorry.

"It's disappointing, really. If he does end up being criticised he is only one to blame."

Mills said it was likely Shirtcliff would come in for criticism from other witnesses during the hearing.

Shirtcliff, Williams Construction managing director Michael Brooks and one other man created some uncertainty, Mills said, when in mid-March 1987 they formed a new company, Union Construction, to take the CTV contract off Williams Construction.

Injunction proceedings were filed against them by Smart Group, the company which owned Williams Construction.

"From this point until about September 1987 it is unclear what, if anything, Williams was doing at the CTV site," Mills said.

"We have a period in here where there is the potential for a reasonable amount of disruption on site. It also coincides with what seems to be quite a gap in the [building] inspection record that emerges during part of this period.

"Exactly what stage the building was at when this occurred and whether it might provide some explanation of the construction defects identified by the consultants' report will be explored in the course of the evidence."

'SUDDEN AND SHOCKING' COLLAPSE

The "sudden and shocking" collapse of the CTV building would be investigated in greater depth than ever before, the commission heard today.

Mills outlined the scope of the hearing this morning but prefaced his explanation with an account of the building failure.

"The effect [of the quake] on the CTV building was sudden and shocking. Most of the eyewitnesses spoken to ... have referred to the building collapsing in a matter of seconds," he said.

"Not only did the building collapse extremely rapidly, it collapsed almost completely. Unlike [the Pyne Gould Corporation building], where significant cavities were left following the collapse which enabled a number of people to survive, the CTV building appears to have essentially pancaked."

Commission chairman Justice Mark Cooper extended "deepest sympathies" to the families of those who died and those who survived the tragedy, "all of whom endured a most traumatic event".

"Many of you ... are still living with the awful memories of that day," he said.

The inquiry's terms of reference would be wider than previous investigations, Mills said, including a Department of Building and Housing report released in February, and would encompass "a close examination of the permit process, construction issues that might explain construction defects that the [DBH investigation] identified and the close examination of issues of code compliance".

"It [will] also look closely at how the design of the CTV building was developed and the circumstances in which remedial measures were taken in 1990 and 1991 to address potentially serious inadequacies in the connections between the floor diaphragms and the north shear core ... that remained standing after the collapse," he said.

The ductility of the CTV building - how key structural supports designed to stretch and return to their original position - performed during the quake would be examined, Mills said.

Differing expert opinions on whether it met building standards of the day in this area made it "a very live issue", he said.

"The [building's] columns were designed solely to carry gravity and the only elements of the building that were specifically designed for ductility were the north shear core and the south shear wall."

A shear wall provides a building's major support against lateral forces, such as an earthquake.

The commission would hear divergent views on responsibility for this design at the structural engineering firm then known as Alan Reay Consulting Engineer (now operating as Alan Reay Consultants Ltd), Mills said.

"The structural engineering design for the building was carried out ... principally by David Harding, but with some involvement by Dr [Alan] Reay and the extent of that involvement seems likely to be a matter of dispute between Dr Reay and David Harding," he said.

Building assessments since the September 4, 2010, earthquake would also be examined.

The commission would not address liability for the collapse, Mills said.

"That doesn't in my view foreclose an inquiry into, or a determination of, errors or failings in design, inspection, permitting or construction that might have caused or contributed to the collapse of the building," he said.

The hearing would continue this afternoon with testimony from seven people who were in the building when the quake hit, including Relationship Services counsellors Nilgun Kulpe and Liz Cammock, who were in a meeting on the fifth floor at the time of the quake.

Kendyll Mitchell, who was at a counselling session with her children when the quake struck, will also speak at the hearing.

She would be followed by Pip Lee, a receptionist at general practice The Clinic who was the only staff member pulled alive from the rubble.

Kings Education staff members Ron Godkin and Margaret Aydon and CTV receptionist Mary-Ann Jackson would also give statements.

More than 80 witnesses would be called during the hearing, which would cover the initial building consent issued by the Christchurch City Council, the construction and design, identification of a structural weakness in 1990, and the assessment after the September 4 and Boxing Day quakes in 2010.

The commission has until November 12 to complete its work.

- The Press

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