Reay and the CTV building collapse

MARTIN VAN BEYNEN
Last updated 08:36 02/03/2014
Alan Reay
DAVID HALLETT/Fairfax NZ
UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT: Alan Reay giving evidence at the Canterbury Earthquake Royal Commission.

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Alan Michael Reay sat in the witness box in a black suit, white shirt and a blue patterned tie.

His dark, generous head of hair, well clipped, belied his 70-odd years. Behind his spectacles, his heavily lidded eyes looked tired.

It was about 3pm on August 7, 2012. He took hold of a sheaf of paper, and, in a nasal voice, began to read, occasionally looking up to his audience.

"This is a terrible tragedy and I really feel for those who have lost their loved ones. To the extent that I can I have tried to provide the commission with assistance to understand the cause of this tragedy. I have spent my life working in engineering and have always tried to maintain the highest standards of the profession. I apologise to all the families affected as this building did not meet my standards."

At one stage it looked like his voice might break but otherwise the delivery was wooden.

Reay, was, of course, referring to the CTV building in Madras St, which collapsed on February 22, 2011, taking 115 lives and injuring many others. He was giving evidence to the Canterbury earthquakes royal commission.

Some thought the apology was fairly meagre and a long time coming. For instance, it failed to satisfy people like Murray Grant who lost his wife Elizabeth in the building collapse.

"It's been tough getting him to say it . . . He read it off a piece of paper. It's almost like someone told him to do it," Grant said at the time.

Others like Brian Kennedy, whose wife Beverly was killed in the tragedy, thought it a good start and hoped others would follow.

Reay declined to be interviewed for this article but must wonder why he appears to have been singled out for vilification.

For instance, the PGC building also partially collapsed killing 18 people, but hardly anybody knows the name of its engineer.

To an extent, Reay has become the lightning rod for the frustration many feel at the fact no-one has been held accountable for the CTV collapse.

Gallingly for some, Reay's life appears to have just carried on.

The firm he founded is thriving in the Canterbury rebuild, although under a new name, Engenium, and with directors that include Reay's second wife Barbara, but not Reay.

The majority shareholding formerly held by him and his business partner, property developer Bert Govan, has been transferred to a new trust company.

Reay mixes work in his Madras St office - albeit in a reduced capacity - with semi-retirement, travel and sailing interests. Public records reveal he has an extensive property portfolio; salt into the wounds of grieving families who claim he is yet to be held to account for the part his firm played in the CTV building collapse.

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It's wrong to say Reay has accepted no responsibility for the CTV collapse. At the commission hearing in 2012 he conceded his firm was ultimately responsible for the design "should David Harding [the engineer employed by Reay who was in charge of the CTV structural design job] have had shortcomings in his work".

But, as counsel assisting the commission said, this was no more than an acceptance of the liability an employer has for an employee's mistakes.

The commission's findings, delivered in December 2012, were not kind to Reay and showed the commission had not accepted some aspects of his version of events.

It found Reay was aware of David Harding's lack of experience in designing multi-storey buildings and should not have left him unsupervised and without a system of review.

It also said Reay had interfered in the issue of a building permit for the deficient design by persuading the council's building engineer concerns about the building were unfounded. When a problem with connections between the building's floor slabs and north wall were highlighted in a pre-sale report in January, 1990, by Holmes Consulting Group, Reay had been slow to act and the firm should have obtained a building permit before steel brackets - found to be inadequate - to remedy the problem were fitted.

Reay's conduct at the hearings lived up to the aloof figure his colleagues say he has always been.

He conceded little and although he initially struggled to focus and respond, he often looked difficult, huffy and pedantic.

He didn't agree the design flaws, if they existed, led to the collapse and put forward at least five other scenarios which diverted blame from his firm.

At one point he told the commission he thought every day about what could have made the building stronger and how he could have put more effort into ensuring the building code was better equipped to deal with earthquakes of the type experienced. But he was not the diminished man other witnesses seemed to be.

David Harding, who designed the building, denied his mistakes led to the collapse but cut a humble figure and David Coatsworth, the engineer who inspected the building after the September 4, 2010 earthquake, told the commission he was still haunted by memories of the assessment. He had relived the inspection "over and over".

In evidence to the commission, some former Reay employees painted a picture of a hard-driving, autocratic boss who bullied the council to get plans approved and whose designs saved clients money but pushed engineering solutions to the edge.

Engineer John Henry, who worked for Reay for a short period and left in late 1985 before the office took on the CTV building, recalled an incident when Reay had dismissed the reservations of a highly respected academic about a particular design, saying "what does he know?". Reay denied doing this.

Henry criticised Reay's firm for building designs which pushed the limits and left no margin for error.

In 1992, Henry took a job as an engineer in the Christchurch City Council building control unit, reviewing structural engineering designs.

Reay and his firm's applications, Henry told the commission, were causing the building control staff concern because of particular structural details used in the designs. It wasn't uncommon for Reay to go over their heads to pressure their boss Bryan Bluck to release the permit, he said.

Another engineer in the unit, Graeme Tapper, would get so upset after arguing with Bluck about Reay's designs, he would have to go to the sick-bay afterwards, Henry told the commission.

The "fights" with Reay didn't happen with other consulting engineers, Henry said.

Terry Horn, a structural draughtsman in Reay's office from 1985 to 1995, told the commission about Reay calling Tapper "Colonel Tapper" and of coming across as very well-educated and superior, "if you know what I mean".

Horn said some clients and colleagues called him "The Doctor", "in my view a reference to the importance he sometimes attached to his doctorate."

Reay for his part denied having fights with Tapper or having airs about his doctorate. He said his firm's philosophy was about quality and "buildability" and not guessing about how to comply with the code.

Other witnesses said Reay's office was quiet and professional and relaxed.

Shane Fairmaid, a draughtsman at Reay's firm between 1981 and 1986, described him as a good employer who was respected and approachable and who enjoyed debating design solutions. In his experience Reay was called "The Doctor" as a sign of respect.

Although Reay has his supporters, few in the engineering profession in Christchurch have spoken in his defence.

The Press approached several Christchurch engineers, who knew him as a student at Canterbury University and Christ's College (1955-59) and saw him rise to a position of prominence within the profession.

"He was arrogant, a loner. He played things close to his chest and didn't share. He didn't participate," a senior engineer, who asked not to be named for fear of being dragged into litigation, says.

Another, wanting anonymity for the same reason, says Reay always has a sour expression on his face and appeared to have "a chip on each shoulder".

Although Reay is often described as "unlikeable", engineers give him credit for building up his own firm, now employing about 40 people, and surrounding himself with people who have stayed with him despite the troubles. His clients have also stuck by him.

Colleagues say they were surprised Reay, with a reputation for being very bright and with a list of good projects behind him, should be be connected to the CTV debacle.

His specialty was the tilt-slab warehouses, mega shops, and industrial units which cover swathes of industrial estates around the country.

"You had to admire his designs. They were very economical and very clever; down to the bone and really on the edge. But to my way of thinking they were all too mean. There was no fat in the system," one engineer says.

They were also surprised about his claim at the commission hearings that he had little involvement in the CTV job and essentially left his employee David Harding alone to do the design work.

"He is a control freak. It doesn't tally with me," says one engineer.

Reay has something of a history of difficult relations with people. Henry and Harding told the commission they left Reay's employ because they didn't like the subordinate role they had been consigned to and Reay's partner Geoff Banks, who worked with Reay for 13 years, ended up in a bitter legal dispute with him after a row about Reay's future in the business.

The case, heard in 2008 and resolved in favour of Reay, centred on how the firm was managed financially after Banks left but remained a shareholder. Evidence in the case showed that in the year Banks left, the firm had already lost three other engineers.

Dr Maan Alkaisi, the husband of CTV victim Dr Maysoon Abbas and a professor of electronics at Canterbury University, says Reay has been targeted because he was "the boss".

"He should have known better than anybody else that others had not done a good job or had limitations."

Alkaisi says Reay looked defensive and unhelpful by bringing three lawyers and seven engineers to the commission. It gave the impression Reay was more interested in defending himself than helping the commission find out what went wrong.

He says Reay showed insufficient concern when the design flaws with the building were highlighted in the pre-sale report in 1990 and believes Reay should have taken much more interest in the building after September 4.

Alkaisi's final black mark against Reay is the fact he threw away a CD containing the firm's CTV file, after the February 22 earthquake. Reay admitted he disposed of the CD but told the commission he transferred the whole file onto a hard drive.

With politicians like Shane Jones and Maurice Williamson baying for blood, Reay faces a challenging few years ahead.

His professional body, the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand, is considering three complaints against him although Reay has lodged proceedings challenging the IPENZ's jurisdiction to investigate.

This week the police announced they had asked international engineering firm Beca to help identify "any act or omission that may have led to the building collapse, whether it can be attributed to any individual and whether it can be considered grossly negligent".

More vilification will no doubt be directed at Reay in coming years. Perhaps people would feel more forgiving if he looked as if the building collapse kept him awake at night.

But that would mean he would have to admit a terrible mistake had been made, that his unshakeable belief in himself was misguided.

And that, it seems, is not what Alan Reay is about.

- The Press

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