CTV families still search for answers

Almost seven years after Christchurch’s CTV building collapse, the victims’ families are still searching for answers. David Williams reports.

When Christchurch couple Maan Alkaisi and Maysoon Abbas built their house in 2005, they divided the duties. Abbas, a medical doctor, was in charge of colours, furniture, decorations and curtains. Alkaisi, a professor of electrical engineering, turned his mind to design, orientation and the size of windows and doors.

The couple, who fled to New Zealand from Iraq in 1995, ensured their new house was generously proportioned. Alkaisi told his wife their daughters, Sarah, Marwa and Mariam, were going to get married and have kids, so there needed to be room for them to stay or they might not come. Today, two of their daughters still live in Christchurch and one lives in Auckland. They have three grandchildren.

Alkaisi: “Every time everybody comes to our house have lots of fun. Even if it’s empty most of the time, when they come, I feel now we did the right thing.”

Abbas died in the CTV building in Christchurch’s 2011 quake, one of 115 people who lost their life after the six-storey building collapsed and caught fire.

Yesterday, police announced no one would be prosecuted over the tragedy. Detective Superintendent Peter Read told media that police recommended two engineers of the building, Alan Reay and David Harding, be charged with negligent manslaughter. Christchurch Crown Solicitor Mark Zarifeh initially agreed. But they were overruled by Deputy Solicitor-General (criminal) Brendan Horsley. Horsley advised there was insufficient evidence to prove the CTV building wouldn’t have collapsed without the design errors. There was also a potential technical obstacle, with the Crimes Act’s “year and a day” rule, which Horsley called a “historical anomaly”.

In October, when Newsroom sat down with Alkaisi at his University of Canterbury office, he had a feeling how the police investigation would end.

His gut told him it wasn’t good the police investigation had taken so long. The Royal Commission had done a great job, he says – interviewing more than 80 witnesses, including Reay and Harding (who refused to be interviewed by police), with lawyers and experts attending each session. Thousands of pages of documents were examined and cross-examined.

Maan Alkaisi: knew the police investigation was taking too long. Photo: David Williams

“And the conclusion was clear,” Alkaisi says, speaking almost exactly five years since the Royal Commission’s findings were released. “At the end of October 2012, we knew what exactly went wrong with the building, the design deficiencies, what were the non-compliance issues, how the building collapsed, why it collapsed in this way. And we know that we lost 115 people. These are facts. And from October 2012 till this minute I did not learn anything new about this building.”

The police announced their investigation in September 2014. The families have been updated on progress but given little in the way of detail.

Alkaisi: “So if you want to ask me, is this a useful exercise? I honestly do not know. Because I did not learn, in five years, anything new. What they were doing? I don’t know.”

And, as yet, no one has been held accountable.

“I was hoping this would not happen,” Alkaisi said, presciently. “But after seven years and nobody held to account? Not a single person held to account?”

Preventable building collapses

Alkaisi lays out the details. In all, the February 2011 quake killed 185 people. Almost all were killed by building collapses – collapses that were preventable. Preventable if the designer had followed the building code or the building was properly inspected or authorities had cordoned the area to keep people away.

“If they followed these three things, then 95 percent of these people would still be with us.”

Knowing this, the authorities conducted various investigations, Alkaisi says matter-of-factly. There was the Department of Building and Housing report into the CTV building's collapse, released in February 2012. Also, the Royal Commission into the quakes, including advice from law firms, building companies and experts. There was also an enquiry (aborted in the case of Reay) by the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ) into the conduct of its members.

"You feel it's so unfair."

Then, this police inquiry. It cost $1.18 million, almost all of which was spent on expert advice. The salaries of police staff, the up to 13 people working on the case, weren’t included in the final tally.

(The police have now ruled out criminal charges in all but one case – the death of Linda Arnold outside the Andersons car parking building on Lichfield St.)

Alkaisi raps his pen on the table in front of him, punctuating his initial words: “Until this minute, there is no single person being held to account for any of those buildings that collapsed. As if everything is perfect. Nobody has done anything wrong. And it just so happens that the building collapsed on people.”

It’s frustrating, Alkaisi says. Disappointing. Sometimes he feels angry – something that’s out character for him. He’s a calm person, usually.

“But when all these things, when I think about them, I become really very angry. You feel it’s so unfair.”

People ask Alkaisi if time has healed his wounds, if he can move on. He can’t.

He refers back to his job at the university. “Teaching people how to think, how to behave, how to analyse. This is my job. And I look at this huge event and I don’t learn from it? And I don’t change?”

Widower paid $73 a week

While millions of dollars have flowed into the pockets of lawyers and experts, the CTV victims' families have had to make do with what little they’ve received from the Accident Compensation Corporation. The CTV victims' families have received payouts in the same way that people do when they’ve fallen from a bike and need physiotherapy.

ACC's legislation blocks class actions from being taken.

A man, whom Alkaisi doesn’t name, lost his wife in the CTV collapse. The family, who had two little kids, had been struggling for money. So the wife, who was well-qualified, took a cleaning job to earn money while she prepared to get back into her chosen profession.

Because she was working as a cleaner when she died, the widower said he was paid $73 a week by ACC.

“This is compensation for a person who died in the CTV building – and she has very high qualifications,” Alkaisi says. “What do you do with $73?”

Alkaisi had a good job, at least. But his wife’s death hit him hard, emotionally and financially. As a medical doctor, Abbas earned more than him. It’s drawn his family together. He adds, with delight: “Even my two son-in-laws, they’ve been fantastic.”

Alkaisi also turned to other CTV victims’ families. The Quake Families group was started to share information, to try and get a lawyer to represent the families at the Royal Commission hearings. Special friendships have also formed – initially at events organised by the Red Cross.

“If you cry, if you show your feelings and all that, everybody understood,” Alkaisi says. “And that’s why people felt very comfortable with each other. They knew how it feels, they have same worries, concerns and sadness.”

Alkaisi and another Quake Families member, Tim Elms, also started the hunt for justice. They chased IPENZ – now called Engineering New Zealand – to investigate and punish Reay and Harding. When Reay resigned and IPENZ dropped its investigation, they lobbied IPENZ to change its rules – which it did.

What did they want? “At least to cancel his registration,” Alkaisi says, incredulously. “He built a building that was called non-compliant, it was illegally built and it collapsed and killed 115 people.”

(The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment took a judicial review of the IPENZ decision to investigate Reay, which is still with the High Court.)

The firm connected to Reay continues, under the new name Engenium.

Commission's troubling findings

The Royal Commission found many troubling aspects of Reay’s involvement in the CTV building’s design and a belated attempt to fix some design flaws.

It said structural designer David Harding, of Alan M Reay Consulting Engineer, was “working beyond his competence” in designing the multi-story building with “a significantly eccentric configuration”, and Reay shouldn’t have left him unsupervised.

A city council engineer, Graeme Tapper, found several problems with the initial drawings. The commission report said floor connections to the north wall were “inadequate and non-compliant”. Harding worked up a new set of drawings but the floor connection issue “was not resolved”.

Tapper’s widow, Patricia, told the commission her late husband had concerns about the design but was “under pressure to approve it”. Tapper’s boss, buildings engineer Bryan Bluck, also had concerns about the design but he’d been “convinced” by Reay that his concerns were unfounded.

Maan Alkaisi has been promised the CTV site will be a beautiful place. Photo: David Williams

The commission report said: “This is despite the fact that on his own evidence Dr Reay knew very little about the structural details of the building, having not reviewed any of the structural drawings prior to a permit being issued.”

It’s likely Tapper was “directed” to approve the structural design, the commission said.

In 1990, potential buyer Madras Equities Ltd circled the CTV building as owner Prime West went into receivership. But a pre-sale review of the building by Holmes Consulting Group identified the floor connections problem.

Alan Reay Consultants, as it had become, came up with a solution – installing steel drag bars. However this was only done in the north-south direction, leaving the building vulnerable to violent shaking in the east-west direction.

The works were done in October 1991 – an “unacceptable” delay, the commission said. No council permit was sought, leading to a recommendation of a legal obligation for structural weaknesses to be disclosed.

Connections between the CTV building's floors on the top three levels and the north wall remained “non-compliant for seismic actions in the east-west direction”. The report said: “This defect was not identified and therefore not remedied.” Despite such a fundamental design defect being identified, Alan Reay Consultants, as it had become, didn’t undertake a full review of the building.

(Last night, Reay issued the following statement: “While I am pleased that the investigation is completed the reality for all involved in the CTV tragedy is that it is still with us. I remain deeply anguished by the failure of the building and the continued pain and suffering of the family and friends of those who died as a result. Since the collapse I have spent considerable time and effort in researching the structure of the building including engagement of relevant expertise where necessary. I have tried to understand why the building characteristics changed after the September 2010 earthquake and then ultimately collapsed. It is my strongest hope that from this tragedy every possible lesson is learned.”)

Hopes for change

The quake families still cling to the hope of changing things. They’ve been quietly lobbying the Government changes to ACC, building and engineering laws. A law firm (which Alkaisi won’t name) has worked with them, pro bono, for three years. Under the previous Government, the changes went before Attorney General Chris Finlayson, Justice Minister Amy Adams and Building Minister Nick Smith. Smith, an engineer, met them a couple of times and seemed positive about potential changes, Alkaisi says.

And then the Government changed after September's election. Alkaisi laughs: “I don’t know what we’re going to do, to be honest.”

Yet another disappointment. Seven long years of disappointments. Alkaisi shakes his head.

“There should be by now a good story to tell. We wanted some action. They left us like a story with no end. I can tell stories, but where do they end? I don’t know yet.”

Yet one story, the story of the CTV site itself, is almost at an end. The Government bought the site and years have been spent deciding what to do there. There were discussions about possibly constructing another building there or installing a public sculpture. They were dropped in favour of landscaping, to turn it into a peaceful place with grass, gardens and a water feature. Cherry trees will be planted – a reminder of some of the 65 international students who died.

Alkaisi has asked Crown rebuild company Otakaro, which is managing the project, to build a vertical element for placing flowers. He’ll judge it once the work's finished.

“I work by the results. They promised me that it’s going to be a beautiful place. And this is the only thing that I will accept, honestly.”

Why beautiful?

“Those people who we lost there, they were working till the last minutes of their lives, not knowing what’s coming. They were giving to the city. And I would like this adding value to the city to continue by having a nice place when you go there.

“You look at the nice place and this actually represents them, still making a contribution to the city life and to the city beauty, also. This is exactly how I envisage this place.”

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