NZ engineers found building safe before collapse

AP News
Posted: Dec 01, 2011 1:22 AM
NZ engineers found building safe before collapse

Engineers inspected and declared a New Zealand office building safe five times in the months before it collapsed and killed 18 people in an earthquake earlier this year, according to testimony at a government probe.

Two engineers testified this week about their inspections of the Pyne Gould building at an ongoing probe into building failures during the Feb. 22 Christchurch earthquake, which killed 182 people. The engineers acknowledged that during their inspections, they never looked at building plans or a report that detailed the structure's vulnerability.

The first inspection of the building was carried out by city engineers after a strong September 2010 quake. The engineers briefly examined the building's exterior and gave it a green tag, deeming it safe for occupation.

An October examination by The Associated Press detailed shortcomings in the process, which was developed in the U.S. and is used by governments worldwide to assess buildings after earthquakes.

The building owners then ordered four more inspections over the next five months in response to tenant complaints about widening cracks. Each time, the Holmes Consulting group concluded that the building remained safe for tenants.

Introduced as evidence in the probe was a 2007 memo written by another engineer at the same company concluding that the building's unusual design was a "severe weakness" that made it vulnerable to "severe failure" in an earthquake.

But engineers Mark Whiteside and Alistair Boys both testified that they did not see that report.

The engineers each said their role was not to examine the building's overall structural strength or its ability to withstand future quakes, but instead was limited to assessing whether the building had suffered any significant structural damage in the Sept. 4, 2010, earthquake, which had a magnitude of 7.0 but did not cause any deaths.

The men testified that each of their four inspections lasted less than an hour and did not involve tearing back walls, examining building plans or pulling previous reports.

"So you're not looking at whether a building is structurally good or bad, you are just saying it is less good or bad than before?" asked Marcus Elliott, a lawyer representing the victims and their families.

"That's correct," Whiteside responded.

Elliott questioned whether that made their assessments "a bit meaningless."

But both engineers testified that they had followed procedures and wouldn't have done anything differently in retrospect.

"The cracks that I saw, I didn't deem to have significantly diminished the capacity of the building," Whiteside said.

The government probe, called a Royal Commission of Inquiry, is scheduled to continue next week. Evidence about the most deadly building collapse in the magnitude-6.1 February quake _ the Canterbury Television building, which killed 115 people _ is scheduled for March 2012.