Landlady 'raised alarm over doomed building'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 August, 2011, 12:00am


The owner of a 55-year-old To Kwa Wan tenement building had warned the authorities that it was unsafe nearly two and a half months before it collapsed, killing four people.

Testifying yesterday at an inquest into the collapse of Block J at 45 Ma Tau Wai Road on January 29 last year, Chak Oi-luen, a 53-year-old divorcee with three children, said: 'I told the [Buildings Department] that if nothing was done the building would collapse and many people would die. It would become not only Hong Kong news but international news.'

Lawyer Jolie Chao, representing the Director of Buildings Department, rebutted her remarks. Chao said Chak had told police after the collapse that she had seen no problems when she reclaimed occupation of a ground-floor shop after its tenant's departure.

However, Chak told the inquest she had been terrified by what she saw after the tenant, who ran a clothing shop, moved out on December 31, 2009. 'The main gate of the shop could not be closed properly and a wall inside the shop, near the Bank of China, was sinking into the ground,' Chak said. 'My heart pumped very fast and I felt very uncomfortable.'

She said she called the Buildings Department the next day, asking for help in finding a contractor. 'A Mr Wan at the department, however, only told me to try to find a registered contractor in a pamphlet that he sent me,' she said. She had called many contractors on the list, she said, but they all refused the job as the project was too small.

Chak told Coroner Michael Chan Pik-kiu she had owned the building since 1992 under a company called Halesweet Limited. She said she started calling the department as early as November 16, 2009, after being informed by a contractor about its structural condition.

'I did not know what I could do as the tenant on the ground floor refused to move out, so I could not do any renovation work,' Chak said. 'I demanded that the department's director issue an order to close the building, as it was very dangerous.'

This was challenged by Chao. 'According to a statement that you gave to police, you mentioned that on the night when you got the ground-floor shop back, you did not find any problem in the shop or the penthouse,' Chao said, adding that Chak wanted to sell the shop.

Chak then became emotional. 'Why should I exaggerate the facts?' she said. 'The building was mine and I called my former husband and my friends many times, telling them about the incident. I cried many nights. Why should I lie?'

To Chao's question about whether she had received any letters from the department, Chak replied that she had received none about safety issues. She had, however, received notices to remove illegal structures, including two canopies on the ground floor and some signboards.

Lee Chui-sun, widow of Choy Toa-keung, 40, who died in the collapse, asked why Chak did not ask all the tenants to move out immediately if she knew the building was unsafe. Chak replied: 'I feel that I was a good landlady. I asked the Buildings Department to come and inspect the building and I could not sleep for nights.'

Chak said she had called the department more than 150 times before the collapse. 'And how can I have the right to ask [the tenants] to move out of the building? Even if I asked you, would you listen to me? I could only request the Buildings Department to help.'

Chu Wai-wing, 75, whom Chak had hired to repair the building, said he had known the tenement was unsafe as early as 2008 or 2009, as he found many steel bars of the building's outer wall were exposed and deformed. He told a person who handled the building's tenancy for Chak about the dangers, but he had not been able to warn Chak in person until November, 2009. Chu said he had started the job two days before the collapse.

The inquest continues today.