Fatal site 'unsuitable for build'

MARC GREENHILL
Last updated 09:37 26/02/2014
Raekura Pl rockfall
Don Scott

FATAL ROCKFALL: An aerial photograph of the cliff collapse behind Raekura Pl, taken the day after the February 2011 earthquake. No 54 is pictured top left.

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A Christchurch property where a bed-ridden elderly woman was killed by rockfall in the February 2011 earthquake was years earlier deemed unsuitable for building on, court documents reveal.

Wai Fong Lau, 87, was one of two victims when a cliff collapse sent more than 7000 tonnes of debris onto properties at the top end of Raekura Pl in Redcliffs.

Two doors down, Don Cowey, 82, was picking raspberries when rocks buried his garden.

Documents from a court case 16 years earlier show the former owners of Wai Fong's home, Uwe and Sylvia Grasmeuck, fought unsuccessfully to have it removed from the site for safety reasons, despite the judge finding the property was unsuitable for building a home.

No 54 Raekura Pl had a history of rockfall pre-dating the creation of the subdivision in the 1970s.

The Grasmeucks abandoned the house after just two months and took legal action against the Christchurch City Council, which issued the building consent in 1985.

In his 1995 finding, Judge Michael Green said he was satisfied the site was unsuitable for building a home because of the potential rockfall danger.

The evidence indicated the potential danger remained "but cannot say if or when it will become real", he said.

"Further rocks of similar magnitude may fall tomorrow or may not fall for a further 100 years. No- one can say which."

The judge ruled a "reasonable" council would have decided in 1985 the land was not suitable for the proposed house and that it was "preoccupied" with small, isolated rocks that posed no significant danger.

"It should have been focused on larger falls whether in isolation or together which constituted a significant danger."

He awarded $23,725 in damages, to be used for the construction of a rockfall barrier. The couple had wanted the house removed from the site.

The Grasmeucks never lived in the house again and sold it "as is, where is". A subsequent owner installed the rockfall protection system in 2000.

Engineer Marton Sinclair told the court the safest measure was removing the house.

"Any other measure would, at best, do no more than improve the level of protection. Complete protection could not be assured, because there would always be the risk of a large rockfall in regard to which any protective measures might be inadequate," he said.

Uwe Grasmeuck told The Press he and his wife decided it was "still stupid to live there", despite the payout.

Concerns were first raised when a rock came through the window shortly after they moved in. The final straw came when a 150-tonne rock that broke off the cliff they thought "had looked pretty stable" came near the house.

The house was unoccupied when rockfall again hit it in 1996.

"As the rock falls became more frequent and bigger, we decided to go," Grasmeuck said.

The couple saw pictures of the house on the internet shortly after the February 22 quake. A former neighbour informed them someone had died in the house.

"We tried extremely hard to [ensure] this didn't happen," Uwe Grasmeuck said.

"Whatever was built there, no- one could guarantee that it was safe."

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In a statement, acting council chief executive Jane Parfitt said the council considered the hazard of loose rocks had been "satisfactorily addressed" by the rock protection work completed in 2000.

At that time, it accepted professional advice in consenting the rockfall protection measures intended to protect the building and the people in the building from loose rocks from the cliff above.

Rockfall protection measures around individual buildings were never intended or designed to deal with "such a catastrophic event", Parfitt said.

About 7000 cubic metres of rubble landed on No 54 when the cliff collapsed, with rocks weighing up to 25 tonnes and 10 cubic metres in size.

- The Press

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