Wife dies before Port Hills home rebuilt

CHARLES ANDERSON
Last updated 13:40 28/12/2013
wallace

BITTERSWEET RETURN: Ian Wallace and his children are one of the first families to move back into a rebuilt home on the Port Hills.

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Christchurch Earthquake 2011

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After months of delays Ian Wallace and his children are one of the first families to move back into a rebuilt home on the Port Hills. Only they did it without his wife who died before seeing it completed. CHARLES ANDERSON reports.

The tide was out on the morning of the move. Ian Wallace awoke early to make his two children breakfast before setting about packing up four months of their lives. He took a photo of his wedding day off a shelf in the rented house that was only meant to be shelter for a few weeks.

He picked up a wooden box, shrouded in blue velvet, and placed it carefully on the back seat of his car. Then he drove home for the first time in almost two years. Only it wasn't home. Not quite.

It was a house that he and his wife Belinda stumbled upon one afternoon about 10 years ago and decided that it was a place to raise a family. There were memories all through it - of the early days when they began to renovate, of the children, Will and Charlotte, stripping the stairs when mum was too sick to help. Of the kids sitting on the floor eating fish and chips and of Ian blowing out a single candle atop a birthday cake.

Then there was the morning that mum and dad enforced "extra cuddles from their angels" in bed. They were memories in photo albums now stacked on bookshelves and meticulously annotated in Belinda's teacher's cursive.

As the boxes made their way up Mt Pleasant and around the bend to Soleares Ave, the kids felt like it was the same home. It felt like you were moving, Charlotte said. But you weren't. You were just trying to go back to a life that was interrupted one afternoon in February 2011 when Will was jolted from the playground at Mt Pleasant school and looked up to see clouds of dust being shaken free from the city below.

When he stood up and tried to run in a certain direction he couldn't. The ground beneath him was moving the opposite way. It felt like running on a treadmill, he said.

The house was one of the first to be rebuilt on the Port Hills. It was the same floor plan - if it was changed by more than 6 per cent then new consents would have to be applied for. It was the same colour carpet, the same colour walls. Belinda had chosen all of them along with the gleaming new kitchen appliances that Ian was now staring at.

"I just wouldn't know where to start with this," he said turning to his longtime family friend Lorraine Borrmeister.

"Seriously?" she said. "Come on it's easy."

She showed him the high grill and the low grill and the setting for baking cheesecakes and the one for roasting chickens. Ian smiled and nodded vacantly before turning to his son.

"You watching this Will?"

Will rolled his eyes before they both headed back to the trailer to grab more things. Lorraine stayed to clean plates and coffee mugs left over from the myriad volunteers who were helping with the move.

"It's hard coming back here," she said. She could still hear a voice telling Ian to move furniture around.

"Most of us just lost our houses but . . ." she trailed off.

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The Borrmeisters had donated their garage to store the majority of the Wallace's things after the earthquake. They lived a short drive up the road which was tracked back and forth with a trailer hanging off the end of Ian's car.

Occasionally, when they got to the driveway, the kids in the back would ask Ian if they could jump into that trailer for the final push to the garage.

"Oh go on," he said, more than once.

They sorted boxes with names like "Will's books" and "Charlotte's room" and "Xmas decorations". There were toys and patio furniture. Hidden beneath a blanket there was a glass case filled with Ian's pride and joy. There were models of military vehicles, air force jets and Star Wars spaceships.

There were also bedside drawers. They had jewellery and makeup and a declaration of relationship values. It said the pair would share in each other's interests and respect each other's moods and one another.

All of them were piled into the boot and strapped down onto the trailer and then wound their way back down the road. The books and toys went to Will's room and the furniture to the garage. The drawers went to Ian's bedroom.

For 20 years he had worked as an air traffic controller - ever since he saw an ad in the newspaper while trying to get his flying hours up. He manages the safety of of planes travelling around the Bay of Islands - Hamilton, Tauranga and Rotorua, as well as air traffic feeding into Auckland.

It was something he could control, Ian joked.

On February 22, he had been at work on Sir William Pickering Drive. It took him hours to get back home and figure out that this family, including his 5-year-old german shepherd Ava, was safe.

Usually Ava would be tied up in front of the house when Belinda, who worked as a relief teacher, went into work. That day, however, she called in sick. Ava was inside. When the quake hit concrete blocks collapsed right where Ava usually lay.

Ian lived in the house for a while.

The kids and Belinda were up at the school living in a tent.

Later that year, Belinda started to complain of back pain and trouble sleeping. There were doctors' appointments and tests and scans.

Then in October that year the diagnosis became clear. She had renal cancer. She underwent an operation to remove a kidney within days.

In early 2012, Belinda found her cancer had spread and began undergoing chemotherapy. Around the same time, the family was put on their insurer, IAG's, priority list.

At first, the rebuild moved rapidly. They all watched one day in June 2012 as their home was demolished. A digger pulled out a beam out which fell and dropped and rolled landing only metres from Ian, who was on the driveway below.

His heart was pounding but there was little sadness watching their house come down. He was just pleased to be moving on and knew that there would now be no more discussion over whether the home was a rebuild or repair.

There was more good news. A visit to the doctor in August revealed that Belinda had the all-clear. She was free from cancer.

However, it would be another six months of back and forth before their original building company was finally dropped as too expensive and the rebuild went out to tender.

From two potential building companies, Benchmark Homes was selected in late-November. Ian said their tendered rebuild-time frame of 120 days (plus 28 days extra for the Christmas period) against the other companies 160 days was a major factor in their selection.

By this point, Ian was close to cash settling with his insurer and getting away from that house. At times, he just wanted a payout and to get away from the whole situation.

But Belinda wanted to go home. She loved living on the hill and if they had taken the money it was unlikely they would have been able to afford to rebuild up there themselves. She wanted to go home. Then, a day before signing the rebuild contract in November, she was re-diagnosed with cancer. She went into hospital for a week.

The rebuild started on December 4, 2012.

"House build start date!" Ian wrote in a diary he kept of the process. "Suffice to say no-one was onsite."

The build schedule provided by Benchmark gave a completion date of July 12, a day after Belinda's birthday. But what Ian thought would be a 120 days rebuild turned into 160. Then 200.

There were meetings where Ian said he was assured that the July completion time frame was still achievable.

"We don't feel that we have anyone looking after our best interests," Ian wrote in February to his insurance case manager.

"We want to ensure that the build time frame stays on track, to ensure Belinda gets to maximise her time in the new place."

Then the chemo stopped working. Ian said it was like taking a foot off the brake.

"We knew it was likely to stop working at some point," he said. "But we didn't expect it so quickly."

In April, he was assured by Benchmark that the time frame was still achievable. "The fat" had gone from the schedule, he was told. But by now the house was six weeks behind schedule and Belinda was going downhill quickly.

That month Ian wrote to the Benchmark project manager. The house was now six weeks behind schedule, he said. There were many times when he visited the house when there was no-one there and little progress being made. He could not see how this could happen. He wanted to know what actions Benchmark was taking to meet to make sure the build progressed to meet the mid-July completion date.

"There is still a slim chance that Belinda may get to see the house completed," he wrote.

His emails stop for more than a month after that.

Benchmark director Richard Evans said the company had worked hard for the Wallaces. He said there was never a contractual obligation for a 120-day rebuild and the company had even offered work in kind to help the family move on.

He said he had written off $10,000 worth of work to help de-escalate what had been a very stressful situation for the family. Even before the earthquake a year would be a good time frame for a rebuild, he said and there were many variables in this rebuild. It meant it was very difficult to achieve all the goals the company would have liked to achieve, he said.

In early May, Belinda died. She was cremated and her ashes put in a wooden box shrouded in blue velvet.

It was almost 18 months to the day that the home was demolished that the Wallace family moved back in.

Although the house was still not totally finished, it was finally able to be occupied. In September, Ian said IAG and Hawkins, the project manager, had taken a major interest in the rebuild. They were meeting weekly to try and get the family in for Christmas.

The night of the move, the family ordered pizza. Ian sat with the kids and watched a movie before letting off a few fireworks, saved over from Guy Fawkes. It was a celebration. It was a relief. It was, Ian said, time to move on with life.  

The kids had grown in the time since the earthquakes and when the house was packed up. Over the coming days Will would pull toys out of cardboard boxes that as a 12-year-old he might have enjoyed. But now, at 14, he was almost a different boy. He has a brown belt in karate, less interested in Lego and more interested in video games. Charlotte, now 12, discovered how quickly they had packed.

There were chocolate wrappers strewn through boxes. It had happened fast.Ian had not even thought about the new year. He had been putting off his five-week long service leave to coincide with moving into the house. He needed time with the kids just to settle in and figure out what was next. He wasn't angry. No matter what had happened, in the end Belinda would not have seen their new home, even if it had been completed by July.

He tried not to think about it.The whole timeline had been a blur, Ian said. It was difficult to put it all together. His arm wrapped around his daughter.

''You're just getting old,'' Charlotte said grinning. ''It's old age.''

Ian shrugged and pulled her closer. The photo of his wedding day in Havelock was back in the living room. He wore a waistcoat and she a long white veil. The Christmas decorations were up.

''It's definitely harder being in the house. It being the same way without Belinda being here.''

He would look at pieces of furniture and remember times before the earthquake and think that was the place where Charlotte and her friend dived under a table to escape an aftershock. But it wasn't the same place. Not quite.

*****

There is a place at the top of Mt Pleasant. There is a single tree where the family used to go, especially when it snowed. From up there you can see everything, back across to the city that shook itself free of dust. Belinda liked it up there. That is where she wanted to go. There would be a small gathering of family and friends. There would be some words spoken about love and life and moving on. The wooden box would be slid from beneath the blue velvet bag and Belinda's ashes would be scattered. 

''She wanted it that way,'' Will said. The tide would be in. 

- The Press

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