EQC withheld dangerous, 'deadly' info

BEN HEATHER
Last updated 05:00 16/12/2011

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The Earthquake Commission (EQC) withheld information on a dangerous and ultimately deadly Christchurch building to protect privacy and property prices, a royal commission has been told.

Two women were killed in Wicks fish and chip shop in Worcester St after a brick wall from the neighbouring two-storey building collapsed into the shop during the February earthquake.

Natasha Hadfield, who owned the shop with husband Geoffrey, was serving Betty Dickson when they were both crushed by falling bricks.

The Canterbury earthquakes royal commission was told yesterday that on February 1 a commission inspection of the two-storey building found two walls were unstable and "in danger of collapse".

The EQC inspector urgently requested an engineering inspection of the building, but the request appears to have gone nowhere.

EQC chief executive Ian Simpson said yesterday the file had "gone into a hole", blaming a paper filing system that had since been replaced.

"I can't answer why an engineer was not contacted," he said.

After the September 2010 quake, the building sustained substantial damage. It had its eastern wall propped, and a hole in the roof was covered by a tarpaulin. It was cleared by at least one engineer as safe.

The western wall, which fell on to Wicks on February 22, was not braced.

EQC inspectors identified the western wall as dangerous, but the information was never passed on to neighbouring building owners or the Christchurch City Council.

Simpson said the policy had been to not release any information on inspections to third parties to preserve property prices and privacy.

"It was about bricks and mortar and property prices," he said.

The policy had reflected many residents' concerns that if information on quake damage was attached to their property, it could affect values, he said.

The policy was changed in October this year, largely because of the deaths at Wicks, he said.

Since then, the commission had informed the council or neighbours of 17 potentially dangerous buildings, but had not rechecked any previous inspections.

Structural engineer Peter Smith, who has reviewed the building's performance, said the commission's safety concerns should have been shared. "Such opinions should not be retained within the Earthquake Commission files."

In a statement read out yesterday, Wicks co-owner Geoffrey Hadfield said he was unaware of safety concerns about the wall that killed his wife. He said he would have taken steps to secure their safety if he had known.

The Worcester St building's owner, Pak Loke, was asked yesterday why he did not tell Hadfield or the council about the dangerous state of the building.

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Loke said he was not told the building was dangerous, finding out only when he received a letter sent on February 15.

"I got very angry when I saw there was serious damage," he said. "I thought: `Why did someone write that without telling me before he left?"'

He did not act immediately because he was concerned the letter was "a mistake".

The royal commission has been hearing evidence on 20 buildings – in addition to the Canterbury Television and Pyne Gould Corporation buildings – in which 42 people were killed in the February 22 quake.

Other buildings to be considered next month will include the Methodist Church in Durham St, in which three people were killed, and The Press building in Cathedral Square, in which one person died.

- The Press

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