Wellington Reading Cinemas carpark building 'likely to collapse' in large aftershock

By Susan Strongman in Wellington, NZME

The future of a carpark building on the verge of collapse in the middle of Wellington city will be decided after a fresh assessment by engineers.

About 100 people were evacuated from homes around the Reading Cinema carpark in Courtenay Central after it was deemed "likely to collapse" in a strong aftershock.

Cordons remain in place this morning and businesses are closed after yesterday's sudden evacuation.

Wellington City Council Civil Defence controller Simon Fleisher said structural engineers would need to examine the carpark closely to see what the next step would be.

"We have to wait for the detailed structural engineering assessment to be absolutely certain what, if any, repair scheme is possible."

The same building was damaged in the 2013 earthquakes.

Tory St, which the carpark backs onto, remains cordoned off between Wakefield St and Courtenay Pl.

Regional fire commander Brendan Nally said firefighters evacuated the building, as well as others nearby.​

He said the building was deemed unsafe.

"It's likely to collapse in a significant aftershock," he said.

"As a result of that, we were asked by council to evacuate the area."

Rob Zorn was one of the residents who was given just a couple of minutes to pack a suitcase and evacuate.

"I'm self employed, I'm away from all of my work stuff, so no one's paying my wages while this happens."

But he saw the need for the evacuation.

"I'd rather be inconvenienced than dead."

Zorn said he was "worried" and didn't know how long he'd be out of his home.

Firefighters cordoning the Courtenay Central car parking building in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Firefighters cordoning the Courtenay Central car parking building in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The first earthquake was the "most terrifying experience" of his life and it was "troubling" to discover he'd been living beside a seriously affected building.

He had hurriedly packed a change or two of clothes while a firefighter stood by and tried to speed him up, and was "absolutely sure" he'd forgotten something he needed.

Suitcase in hand, Zorn was heading off down Courtenay Pl.

"I've still got a bed at my ex partner's place, she can find me when she comes home from work."

Manu Muzzi was on her way home from work this afternoon when she discovered the cordon.

Muzzi lives on Tory St in the apartment next to the affected building.

When she arrived at the cordon her boyfriend was still inside. She tried to call him "a hundred times" not realising he was in the shower.

"I was so worried," she said.

Although it was frightening to know she had been staying next to a dangerous building, Muzzi said she also felt lucky that nothing had happened.

She said she knew assessment teams were "trying their best".

Muzzi and Zorn are two of approximately 100 people who have been evacuated, Wellington mayor Justin Lester said.

He said there was "significant structural damage" to the carpark building.

"We're doing everything we can to make the area safe," he said.

The council was working with evacuated residents to sort out alternative accommodation for them. An evacuation centre has been set up for affected residents at the Salvation Army on Jessie St.

As well as the cinema and multi-level carpark, the building houses a food court.

Structural engineers and fire service staff were surveying the building.

Council contractors were putting up a temporary fence to block the area off overnight.

The carpark building was badly damaged in the 2013 earthquakes, a council spokesman says.

It was damaged when earthquakes struck Wellington in 2013 and was "closed for a very long time," he said.

"The owners had started restrengthening the building. Obviously this latest earthquake has obviously hit it really hard again."

He said the building was owned by an Australian company but he did not know who it was.

The owner engaged engineers to check the building after Monday's earthquake, and the engineers raised concerns, the council said.

The engineers' report is being peer-reviewed by council engineers.

Any cars inside the carpark will have to remain where they are.

Council contractors on Tory Street putting up a temporary fence to block the area off overnight. Photo / Susan Strongman
Council contractors on Tory Street putting up a temporary fence to block the area off overnight. Photo / Susan Strongman

Reading Cinema carpark is the latest in a number of buildings in the captial to cause concern, although many have now been cleared for residents to return.

Earlier, two buildings in central Wellington were cordoned off.

The Terrace, from 41-55, was out of bounds as structural engineers and contractors work to make it safe. The cordon was about two car lengths and was set up near 55 The Terrace.

The building that houses Archives New Zealand on Mulgrave St had also been evacuated as a "precautionary measure", the Department of Internal Affairs said in a Facebook post.

'A shock for some people'

Photo / Susan Strongman
Photo / Susan Strongman

The vibe at the emergency evacuation centre at the Salvation Army on Wellington's Jessie St is warm and welcoming.

Walk in the the door and you are immediately offered hot pizza, coffee, tea, biscuits and friendly smiles.

The Salvation Army band is practising in the auditorium, and the concrete block building feels solid, like a bunker.

Angela Rampton, a Wellington City Council staffer helping to coordinate the centre says 12 people have been through since they were evacuated from their homes on Tory St yesterday.

"We've just enjoyed a dinner of pizza followed by tea and coffee," she said.

It is dry and toasty - a pleasant respite from those evacuated from their homes on a cold, wet and windy Wellington afternoon.

"Some people came in to to just sit down, have a hot drink and collect their thoughts," Rampton said.

"Some have just wanted to have a talk to us and get more information and some people were asking for help with accommodation for the night."

Those who were unable to stay with friends of family will be put up in Victoria University halls of residence.

Rampton said the people coming through were resilient, but surprised by today's events.

"You don't wake up thinking 'I'm going to be evacuated from my building today', so it is a shock for some people."

She said it was cold, wet and windy when residents were evacuated, so many made their way to the centre, which is a five-minute walk from the cordoned area.

The centre is run by the Emergency Organisation Centre, staffed by council employees and Wellington Region Emergency Management Office (WREMO) staff.

- additional reporting Susan Strongman

- NZ Herald

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