Decision not to close Colombo St 'cost 16 lives'

MARC GREENHILL
Last updated 05:00 19/12/2012
The wreckage of a two-storey Colombo St building and remains of a smashed bus after the February 22, 2011, earthquake.
STACY SQUIRES/Fairfax NZ

DEADLY: The wreckage of a two-storey Colombo St building and remains of a smashed bus after the February 22, 2011, earthquake.

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A decision not to shut down Colombo St before the February 2011 earthquake cost 16 lives, the sole survivor of a bus crushed by a collapsed building says.

Ann Brower was pulled alive from the wreckage of Red Bus 702 after the facade of a heritage-listed block, known as the Austral buildings, collapsed into Colombo and Mollett streets during the quake.

Eight bus passengers and four pedestrians died.

The earthquakes royal commission found a barricade should have been erected after the Boxing Day 2010 quake, but there could be "no certainty" it would have prevented the loss of life.

Brower said the finding that a barrier may not have saved lives was "flat wrong".

Blocking the street could have saved those 12 lives, plus four others killed by fallen facades in Colombo St.

"If they had shut down Colombo St, 16 people would still be alive," she said.

The buildings' owners had decided in January 2011 to demolish rather than repair the damage.

Make-safe work had been ordered by the council but it was deemed uneconomical, given that demolition was expected.

Barrier fencing was installed around 603 Colombo St after the September 2010 quake and later extended, and Mollett St was closed.

There was no fencing in front of 605-613 Colombo St at the time of the February 2011 quake.

A rapid assessment on December 26 found the front facade was leaning out and that the parapets above the roofline appeared to have separated from the crosswalls.

A barricade was not recommended because there was no immediate collapse danger, the commission heard.

The commissioners found it would have been "prudent" for the engineers who assessed the building to adopt a "more conservative approach" and recommend a barricade.

The issuing of a make-safe notice was "insufficient" to deal with the recommendation of a further evaluation, the commissioners said.

A resource consent to demolish the heritage building was expected to take three to six months.

The commissioners found the council could have exercised its powers under special quake legislation to demolish without consent.

Given that the owners wanted to demolish, they had no incentive to do expensive interim securing work.

"The absence of such work made the council's decision about whether to place a barricade in front of the building even more important. If an appropriately located barricade had been in position, public safety would have been ensured pending resolution of a resource consent application," the commissioners said.

Council resource consents and building policy manager Steve McCarthy said the commission's recommendation was "really valid".

"At the time, the decision was cordons weren't required but we were limited in our knowledge of that building," he said.

"If [engineers had recommended a cordon] we would have put one in front of it."

Brower said the findings "pointed the finger far too much at the inspectors and engineers" and let the council "off the hook".

The council knew the building was quake-prone and damaged and had the authority to demolish it.

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"They had the information and the power, and they failed to use it," she said.

- The Press

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