Death Zone

The CTV building on Madras St
The CTV building on Madras St

A building as an earthquake symbol? The lasting symbol of February 22 is not a building you would have predicted. In a city of such architectural treasures as Christchurch was before February 22, it seems ironic and tragic that the dominant symbol of the disaster should be a building no- one ever looked at twice.

This was the CTV building. How well did you know it? It was at 249 Madras St, on the corner of Cashel St, not far from Latimer Square. It was an unprepossessing six-storey concrete block designed in the 1970s and built in the 1980s.

If it was considered impressive back then, it looked like commercial architecture at its most ordinary three decades later. There was a car dealership nearby. Traffic roared past on the one-way system, heading north. The sharper, cleaner lines of the new IRD building on Cashel St rose above it.

The CTV building
The CTV building

Across Madras St, there were two beautiful old churches, the kind of buildings that Christchurch valued and hoped that visitors noticed and remembered. Sadly, the past tense applies to those buildings, too.

Six weeks on from the earthquake, we have a clear idea of the death toll and the CTV building's place in it. With the release this week of the names of Japanese students Rika Hyuga, 30, and Hiroko Tamano, 43, some 171 names of the dead have been released into the public domain. Another 10 people are still reported missing, making a likely total of 181. All of the unnamed 10 are believed to have died in the CTV building.

The tragedy at the CTV building - collapse first, then fire - took more than 100 lives. Had the building not failed so disastrously on February 22, the death toll from the Christchurch earthquake would have been less than half.

CTV building
CTV building

There are many stories about death but there are also stories about survival. Those were the stories we hoped for and held onto in the days after February 22.

There was the story of CTV receptionist Mary-Ann Jackson, who told a reporter that she felt the building coming apart as she ran out of the ground floor during the shaking. The building cracked and broke; glass flew. She said she didn't look back until she had crossed the road and she saw that the building was down, all six floors of it. In what seemed like seconds, it had hit the ground.

Another survivor stepped out of her third-floor office window and walked across the rubble. A Japanese student had his leg amputated but lived.

There were false reports that 15 people had somehow stayed alive in an air bubble, surviving both the collapse of the building and the fire that broke out almost immediately. Actually, earth, fire and then water: it has been said that some might have drowned in the rubble of the CTV building, by the sustained efforts to put the fire out.

Another of the survivors was Anne Malcolm, mother of Outrageous Fortune actress Robyn Malcolm and an employee of Relationship Services, one of several occupants of the six-storey building.

You might even see the building as a microcosm of the wider city: commercial businesses, community services, a proportion of international visitors.

CTV occupied the first and second floor. King's Education language school was on the third floor. Relationship Services was on the fifth floor and a medical clinic was on the fourth.

Another Relationship Services employee, David Millar, described the "free fall" that followed the quake, when everything gave way. He had been in a meeting on the fifth floor; suddenly, he found himself alive at ground level. He said that "brave regular people on the street" pulled him and others out of the rubble.

But stories of death outweighed stories of survival. Every reported death condensed entire biographies.

There was Tamara Cvetanova, 42, a Serbian immigrant and mother of two who was studying English in order to practise medicine in New Zealand. There was Christchurch nurse Elizabeth Grant, 51, who worked in the medical clinic. There was 40-year- old Teresa McLean, mother of two, also a nurse, born in Britain but a New Zealand citizen.

There was King's Education accounts manager Deborah Roberts, recently engaged and about to turn 40. There was 50-year-old Linda Parker, a carer for the disabled and a mother of two. There was 55-year-old receptionist Dian Falconer, a mother of two and a grandmother of three.

On a tribute page, a friend of Falconer wrote, "I remember the last time I was in the CTV building, I bumped the reception desk a little and Dian jumped and said how she hates being in the building; every time someone bumped her desk she thought it was an earthquake."

There was 25-year-old Rhys Brookbanks, a promising journalism graduate who had only just begun working as a reporter at CTV. There was 43-year-old language tutor Gillian Sayers, who had studied linguistics and philosophy at the University of Canterbury and was known for her animal rights advocacy. "The tears flow like rain," her brother- in-law wrote on the Stuff website.

There were so many more. CTV managing director Murray Wood. King's Education managing director Brian Taylor. Teachers Heidi Berg, Christian Chandler, Timara Harca and Elsa Torres Defrood. CTV employees Andrew Bishop, Matt Beaumont, Susan Chuter, Joanna Didham, Samuel Gibb, Jo Giles, Shawn Lucas, Donna Manning, Isaac Thompson and Stephen Wright. Medical professionals Maysoon Abbas, Husam Al-Ani, Dominic Bell, Janet Meller, Trish Stephenson and Allan Sinclair.

The King's Education website lists those who are "missing in the earthquake": 19 students from China, 28 from Japan, two from South Korea, 11 from the Philippines, one from Serbia, one from Taiwan and six from Thailand, along with nine staff. And in the days after the earthquake, it was the Japanese media who were the most persistent in asking why the building failed as it did and killed so many.

Stefano Pampanin is one of the experts that the international media consulted. Quotes from this Canterbury University associate professor of engineering appeared in Australian newspapers and other publications, as their reporters looked for answers.

Pampanin told them that the CTV building's design was obsolete, based on the level of knowledge and code provisions that existed before the mid-1980s.

"The non-ductile buildings, typically designed before the 1970s and until the mid-1980s, are internationally known to be a danger," he said. "But the question is often who knew and who should have done what."

Those quotes sounded severe. A month later, his stance seems to have softened a little.

In fact, he would rather not talk about why the CTV building, and the slighter older Pyne Gould Corporation building on Cambridge Tce, came down.

Instead, he wants to turn the question around: why did so many concrete buildings of that vintage stay up? We know now that the shaking on February 22 was more than twice as intense as that allowed for in the design of new buildings in 2010, Pampanin says.

Or to put it into a comparison that the Japanese reporters immediately grasped, the February 22 earthquake had similar "conceptual characteristics" to the Kobe earthquake of 1995, which was also stronger than allowed for in the building code. "The earthquake does not read the code," Pampanin jokes.

After he pointed out the similarities with the Kobe quake, in which buildings of the 1970s and 1980s "badly collapsed", the prejudice of some Japanese reporters about New Zealand standards disappeared.

He is quick to add that New Zealand codes are among the best in the world, and seen as conservative by others. He points to the pioneering work in seismic capacity design by Tom Paulay and Bob Park at Canterbury University in the 1960s, with that legacy being one of the attractions that lured this Italian seismic expert to Christchurch.

In the wake of the February 22 earthquake, there was consternation that two "modern" buildings could have been so damaged. The assumption being that we might expect this from old brick and masonry structures - the heritage buildings that kill people, to paraphrase Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee.

"What is modern for us? Nothing," Pampanin says. "What is constructed is old." He estimates that the CTV building would have been built three earthquake codes ago, and Pyne Gould five codes ago.

Even published knowledge is a few years old. Research moves on and new technologies become safer. He likes to use a car analogy: how much safer is a car built now than a car built in the 1960s? Imagine that February 22 saw your 1960s car do a crash test at twice the speed that would be safe for a car designed in 2010. "But it doesn't mean we can go to 100 per cent safety." But he says he can perhaps offer 99 per cent safety.

Pampanin has been working with engineering firm Structex on buildings that should withstand one-in-1000-year seismic events. They have produced one South Island building so far: the Southern Cross Hospital Endoscopy building in Christchurch. It got through both earthquakes without a scratch, he says.

As well as thinking about new building techniques, Pampanin has been leading research on "the seismic performance of multi- storey concrete buildings from the 1930s onwards", which naturally takes in the CTV and Pyne Gould buildings, and thinking about ways to retrofit those remaining.

Major earthquakes can be seen as both a wake-up call and a learning opportunity. The world learned much from Kobe, he says, but we should have moved faster.

In an ideal world, every building in Christchurch would have been strengthened to the 2010 code with no concern about the cost. But this is how that wake-up call works, he says. After September, things started moving. After February, there was panic. Now we suddenly remember that Wellington exists and is at risk.

As for us in the south, the Alpine Fault could kill more people tomorrow. "The priority is right now."

When Pampanin talks about non-ductility in buildings, he means that their reinforced concrete frames do not bend when shaken or twisted. Instead, they break. You want flexibility, not brittleness.

Last month, Prime Minister John Key said that the CTV building will be one of four buildings to come under the spotlight within a wider Royal Commission of Inquiry. The other three are Pyne Gould, Forsyth Barr and the Hotel Grand Chancellor. Pampanin will be one of the engineering experts on the panel that will advise the Royal Commission.

Questions include whether they met the building code and whether they should have been green- stickered after September. The pending Royal Commission means that few want to talk openly or attach their name to speculation about possible reasons for the CTV building's failure. But that hasn't stopped some from wondering.

One theory has suggested that demolition work in the weeks before the February earthquake weakened the structure.

A commentator online wrote: "They have been dropping the buildings next to CTV. It felt like massive aftershocks every day for weeks. Then they dug out along the foundations of the CTV building and removed massive slabs of concrete from underground. The large trenches were then filled with dirt and stones. At the time of the quake the damaged exposed wall of the CTV building was being repaired."

CTV presenter Rob Cope- Williams expressed similar views to the Japanese media after the February 22 quake, saying that demolition work nearby caused cracks to appear on the interior walls of the CTV building.

He said that some cracks were several metres long and that employees were concerned that the building would not survive another quake.

The Japanese media also consulted Japanese experts about possible reasons for the building's failure. Professor Akira Wada, of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, believed that the building might have twisted around its core. As the pillars supporting it gave way, it collapsed.

A second Japanese expert, Shunichi Igarashi, disputed the twisting theory. Instead, he thought the earthquake thrust upward violently, collapsing the building in a second.

A third expert, architect Hideki Miyamoto, said that inspectors who examined concrete samples at the CTV site reported that the steel reinforcement in the concrete was below current quake-resistance standards. Others talked about liquefaction and poor soil quality.

Quotable Value property hazard reports showed that both the CTV and Pyne Gould buildings were built on "very soft soil" that would be prone to "a large increase in shaking" in a "strong distant earthquake".

The reports also said that the buildings were "in an area where the ground is classified as having a susceptibility to liquefaction that is very high".

After these reports were obtained and made public by the New Zealand Herald, Quotable Value research director Jonno Ingerson clarified the risks in a statement, pointing out that "many properties in Christchurch have a high or very high risk of liquefaction in a large earthquake".

Which of these many properties would actually sustain damage from liquefaction "will depend on a number of factors including the location and size of the earthquake, the depth of the ground water in the area at the time, and the specific construction of the building".

But were CTV employees and other occupants right to feel unsafe in the building after September?

Christchurch businessman Lionel Hunter, director of the building's owner, Madras Equities, told a reporter that he had lost a friend in the collapse and that if he had known there was anything wrong with it, "I would have pushed it over myself".

Madras Equities spokesman, Christchurch lawyer Ken Jones, said that the building was cleared by the Christchurch City Council after the September quake and that a structural engineers' report raised no issues about its structural integrity.

The engineers' report did recommend internal and external work to repair superficial damage to the building fabric from the September quake and aftershocks, Jones said.

That work was ongoing at the time of the building's collapse. After February 22, CTV chairman Nick Smith said that he had no problem accepting the judgment of the building owner and the engineers' report. "I'm not an engineer," he said. "You accept the expert advice, and you hope it's correct."

A different perspective gives you different stories. The Japanese media talked about Japanese survivors and Japanese victims. For them, this was not a catastrophe that flattened their city at lunchtime; instead, it was an event that struck some of their young, far from home.

There was 20-year-old Hitomi Inoue, a student who was on only her eighth day at King's Education. On every other day, she had eaten a lunch prepared by her host family in the school cafeteria; on this Tuesday, she had opted to go to a nearby Japanese restaurant for lunch. The simple decision probably saved her life.

Other students described the scene inside the cafeteria. The moments when everything shook and went black, when walls collapsed.

There was 19-year-old Kento Okuda, whose right leg was amputated in the rescue. He had been a leading high school soccer player in Japan. When he returned to Japan he was reported to have experienced a form of survivor's guilt, saying: "I don't know why I'm the only one who was rescued out of all those people."

More than a week after the quake, 69 relatives of the dead and missing visited the CTV site by bus, having heard the news that rescue attempts had been abandoned.

The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper recorded the range of emotions: words like sadness, anger, despair. But there was also a sentence that you might expect in a Japanese newspaper but not a New Zealand one: "The family members calmly listened to [the] explanation and did not lose their self-control."

There was the story of Japanese language professor Kuniaki Kawahata who lost his 20-year-old daughter Kyoko in the earthquake and arrived in New Zealand two days later, supporting the families of other students he had taught in Japan.

His own father had died six days before the quake and he had served as chief mourner at the funeral, for which Kyoko briefly returned to Japan. When Kyoko flew back to Christchurch, her parents saw her off as usual.

The building collapsed and burned and became a lasting ruin. What happens now? What would you do if you owned this site? Would you rebuild sensitively? Would you create a memorial park?

Lionel Hunter owns 50 per cent of the shares of Madras Equities and is sole director of the company, which has owned the CTV building since 1991.

In 2007, the building had a Christchurch City Council rating valuation of $5.75 million. Hunter is also the co-owner, with his son Paul, of Hunter Furniture, which has four branches in the South Island and two in Auckland. The furniture retailer has been active for some 30 years.

I wanted to know about the history of the building, his reaction to events, his plans for it. I phoned him. He said: "I don't wish to talk about it."

Then he directed me to spokesman and lawyer Ken Jones, from Christchurch firm White, Fox and Jones. He didn't wish to talk about it either, and dashed off a quick email to that effect: "As you will be aware, a Commission of Enquiry has been announced, which will deal (inter alia) with the collapse of the CTV building. Madras Equities Limited as the owner of the property will be a party to that enquiry, and it would be entirely inappropriate for the owner, or me on the owner's behalf, to make any comment at this point in relation to the matters you raise."

In other words, this is a continuing story and the Commission of Inquiry keeps the door open. This might be another way in which the CTV building has become our dominant earthquake symbol: its story refuses to end quickly and easily, no matter how much we might want it to.

But some parts of the CTV story do have to come to an end. In the same week that I heard back from lawyer Ken Jones, the chief coroner, Judge Neil Maclean, talked about the unidentified human remains in the ruins of the CTV building. What should be done with them? He suggested a co- mingled mass burial, as in a war grave.

He said: "We know from past experience of people who have lost someone, and have never got a trace of them, that there's always this 'heart over head' that says perhaps something happened and one day they will turn up at the back door.

"We need to do what we can to give them some official closure on that."

The Press