'Extraordinary' Christchurch quake victim inquest

'EXTRAORDINARY INQUIRY': Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean opens the inquest into the nine people who died in the CTV building on February 22 who remain unidentified.
'EXTRAORDINARY INQUIRY': Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean opens the inquest into the nine people who died in the CTV building on February 22 who remain unidentified.

Heartbreaking stories of final phonecalls and personal possessions in rubble were heard today at an inquest to determine how nine Christchurch earthquake victims died.

Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean concluded the first day of the inquest just before 3pm after he formally found that three Chinese women, Xiaoli Zhou, 26, Didi Zhang, 23, and Xiujuan Xu, 47, died in the CTV building during the earthquake.

The "extraordinary" inquest at Riccarton Racecourse, which sought to formally identify the victims, began this morning.

Remains of the nine were too incomplete for them to be identified forensically.

CTV BUILDING: Suffered almost complete collapse and a fire ensued.
CTV BUILDING: Suffered almost complete collapse and a fire ensued.

Inspector Paul Kench concluded his evidence, which revealed the three women were all students at King's Education on the third floor.
Witnesses saw them in the building on the morning of the quake and there had been no activity on their cellphones since.
They had not used their passports to leave the country or accessed their bank accounts.
Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean found they died from multiple trauma injuries caused by the collapsing building.
He adjourned the inquest until 10am tomorrow, when it is expected he will begin to examine the deaths of five other victims who were visually identified.
Their inquests are taking place because relations, the police and the Coroner's Office have all the information they need to proceed.
A date for an inquest for the rest of the victims has yet to be set.

Canterbury district crime manager Inspector Paul Kench began today's hearing by giving background information about the February and September earthquakes.

Police were the lead agency in the aftermath of the earthquake, he said.

Part of their operation was identifying the victims of collapsed buildings and dislodged rocks in the Port Hills.

"The CTV building suffered almost complete collapse and a fire ensued," he said.

CTV, Kings Education, The Clinic and Relationship Services were based in the building.

Police believed this cost 115 lives with 106 victims formally identified.

The collapse and fire were thought to have killed the remaining nine.

"No identifiable remains of these people were recovered," Kench said.

Fingerprints, DNA testing, dental records and forensic pathology examinations had identified other victims of the quake.

None of these methods had identified the nine who were the subject of today's inquest.

So far, MacLean has found that Matthew Beaumont, 31, Shawn Lucas, 40, Valeri Volnov, 41, Jinyan Leng, 30, Rhea Mae Sumalpong, 25, and Elsa Torres De Frood, 53, died when the CTV building collapsed on February 22. He said evidence suggested Sumalpong survived for some time in the rubble before she died.


Elsa Torres De Frood, 53, who worked at King's Education as the director of studies, was seen in the CTV building three minutes before the earthquake.

De Frood, who was from Peru but a resident of New Zealand, had not been seen or heard from since the earthquake.

Her wedding ring was found in the remains of the building, as well as her car keys.

At 7.59pm a text message was sent to her phone, which read: "Hi Elsa, Simon here, please tell me you are OK. Thanks."


A man who died in the CTV building made a phonecall from the rubble before he perished along with another victim.

Kench said Rhea Mae Sumalpong, 25, of the Philippines, a student at King's Education, was seen in the CTV building on the morning of the earthquake.

A close family friend, Joseph Wong, told police that after the earthquake hit he received a call from Jessie Lloyd Albaracin Redoble, who said he was trapped in the kitchen area of the collapsed building with Sumalpong.

He said she had her hands trapped and so could not call herself.

Redouble was later confirmed as a victim of the quake.

At 3.30pm another friend told police he received a call from a male who said he was trapped in the kitchen area of the CTV building with Sumalpong.

"He advised they were fine except their limbs were beginning to grow numb," said Kench.

The friend tried to ring back at 5pm, but the phone went straight to answerphone.


Kench said Matthew Beaumont, who lived in Avonhead, worked from the CTV building as a programme scheduler.

On February 22, his fiancee Kelly Thornicroft reported him as missing.

She last saw him alive at about 7.20am when he dropped her off at work.

Witnesses from CTV had given evidence that Beaumont was employed there and came to work that morning.

Cellphone records showed that at 12.18pm Beaumont sent a final text message to Thornicroft, the last he would ever send.

Four minutes after earthquake, records showed that Thornicroft tried to send a message to Beaumont, but this was impossible as his phone was no longer connected to the network.

Kench concluded Beaumont had been confirmed as an employee of CTV who was in the building and last seen there at 12.40pm, 11 minutes before the quake.

He had not used his passport or cellphone, or accessed his bank account, since the earthquake.

"I therefore believe Matthew Lyle Beaumont was in the CTV building on February 22 and died as result of the complete collapse and subsequent fire in that building," said Kench.

When the nine have been dealt with, the chief coroner will move onto five other victims, who were visually identified and not named through the disaster victim identification process.


Kench read similar evidence relating to CTV employee Shawn Lucas, who worked in the building as a production manager.

Witnesses last saw him in his office on the first floor of the building about 12.30pm.

The chief coroner made a ruling that Lucas and Beaumont died in the CTV building.

"I am satisfied there is an abundance of evidence to reach a conclusion as to death," he said.

"It's difficult to reach any conclusion about any details of the cause of death ... it must have been caused by multiple traumatic injuries when the earthquake struck."


Kench said that Valeri Volnov, an IT systems operator of CTV, was seen talking to Beaumont and Lucas at 12.20pm.
His wife Anna last saw him that morning as he left for work.
A car key, believed to belong to Volnov, was found in the rubble of the building.
Following the earthquake some 30 phonecalls were made and texts sent to his cellphone.
However, there was no activity from the phone after the earthquake hit.

 The chief coroner concluded that Volnov, 41, also died from multiple trauma injuries in the earthquake.


Kench also gave evidence about the deaths of international students who attended Kings Education on level three of the CTV building.

Jinyan Leng, was a student there at the time of the quake.

Her fellow students told police after the earthquake that they had seen her in the building on the morning of February 22.

A friend tried to send her the message: "Everyone is OK?" a few minutes after the quake, and another asked: "Are you all right?"

Those two messages were sent 10 times throughout the day, Kench said.


"To say that this is an extraordinary type of inquiry is an understatement," Judge MacLean said, opening proceedings earlier this morning.

"The feature that has complicated matters somewhat is the fact that there was a large number of people from other parts of the world who were in our city and who perished."

He acknowledged the relatives of the nine people who were present, as well as consular and diplomatic staff.

"The emotions of course are still raw," the chief coroner said.

"The next of kin of these people have been unable to gain any closure whatsoever."

He said 172 people had now been identified.

"Their bodies and in some cases only body parts were able to be released as next of kin required."

There were "four or possibly five" deaths that may be linked to injuries people suffered during the quake that killed them some time later, he said.

"It is possible we may be able to move on and deal with four or five deaths where bodies were identified, but that's after clarification with the respective families that that's appropriate."

The Press