Olivia Carville is an investigative reporter with the NZ Herald.

Christchurch earthquake: Frustrated families await justice following CTV building collapse

Police and volunteers work to rescue people trapped in the collapsed CTV building. Photo / Geoff Sloan
Police and volunteers work to rescue people trapped in the collapsed CTV building. Photo / Geoff Sloan

The 2011 collapse of Christchurch's CTV building was one of the worst engineering failures in New Zealand history.

It took only 20 seconds for the six-storey office block to be shaken to the ground -- killing 115 people -- in the magnitude 6.3 earthquake.

Families who lost loved ones in the collapse have spent the past five years waiting for justice and say the lack of accountability has exposed major flaws in the justice system.

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"The fact that after five years there is nothing; how do you explain that," asked widower Dr Maan Alkaisi, a professor of electrical engineering at Canterbury University.

The CTV collapse not only showed deficiencies in the design of the building; it brought to light deficiencies within New Zealand's engineering industry and legal system at large, Dr Alkaisi said.

In 2012, a Royal Commission found the collapse of the building was caused by multiple engineering, construction and council-related errors.

The commission found building designer David Harding made fundamental errors in the plans.

It also criticised his boss, prominent New Zealand engineer Dr Alan Reay, for handing over sole responsibility of the building's design to the "inexperienced" Mr Harding.

Police and volunteers work to rescue people trapped in the collapsed CTV building. Photo / Geoff Sloan
Police and volunteers work to rescue people trapped in the collapsed CTV building. Photo / Geoff Sloan

Following the commission, the families of the CTV victims sought legal advice in the hopes of launching a class action lawsuit, but were told New Zealand's justice system could not support such a case, said Dr Alkaisi, who lost his wife Dr Maysoon Abbas in the quake.

They were told police were responsible for finding criminal liability and the Institute of Professional Engineers New Zealand (Ipenz) would hold its members to account over any technical failures.

After the police investigation was launched, the families made complaints to Ipenz against Dr Reay and Mr Harding.

Five years later, the police investigation is ongoing and families say Ipenz has been "toothless" regarding disciplinary action.

Both Dr Reay and Mr Harding resigned from Ipenz following the complaints, effectively removing themselves from its jurisdiction and avoiding censure.

However, because Ipenz had appointed a disciplinary committee before Mr Harding quit, the High Court determined that the complaint against him should be heard.

The committee found Mr Harding had breached the Ipenz Code of Ethics, but because he was no longer a member it had no power to discipline him. The decision to drop the complaint against Dr Reay is now the subject of a judicial review.

Building and Housing Minister Nick Smith said the Government had "taken every opportunity to support the families and their request for accountability".

Ipenz chief executive Susan Freeman-Greene conceded that she was "mindful of the frustrations" families have had over the institute's disciplinary process.

CTV building before the February Earthquake. Photo / Supplied
CTV building before the February Earthquake. Photo / Supplied

Following this, Ipenz has made sweeping changes to its complaints process, including closing the loophole that allowed members to resign to avoid disciplinary hearings.

Dr Reay was unable to be reached for comment. But his lawyer, Willie Palmer, said "the thoughts of Dr Reay, like all Christchurch people, will be with the families who lost loved ones" on the fifth anniversary of the quake.

Detective Superintendent Peter Read acknowledged families "may be feeling frustration" at the police investigation, but added that it was complex and technical.

Tim Elms, who lost his daughter Teresa McLean in the building, said the families had no option but to "just wait and see and hope".

Every year, February 22 is a "very sad occasion" for Elms and his family.

"We will never get over it."

Dr Maan Alkaisi In his own words

Dr Maan Alkaisi lost his wife in the CTV building collapse. Photo / Facebook
Dr Maan Alkaisi lost his wife in the CTV building collapse. Photo / Facebook

As a family member who lost my wife on that day, even after five years, it is still very hard to go through what happened. The actions (or inaction) of the engineering professional body, Ipenz (Institute of Professional Engineers New Zealand), in those five years leave me very disappointed.

"In spite of the national and international significance of the event, in spite of the findings and recommendations of the Royal Commission, in spite of the many complaints the families and the Ministry of Building and Housing have lodged, Ipenz has shown a lack of proper action to ensure this will not happen again.

"I was expecting Ipenz would send a strong message to construction engineers, informing them the design deficiencies of the CTV building should never be repeated.

"I was expecting new regulations to improve the standard of practising engineers and the establishment of a meaningful system of accountability. Unfortunately, none of that happened."

- NZ Herald

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