Inspectors ruled no urgent repairs were needed to doomed tenement
Frontline Buildings Department officers considered no immediate action was needed on a 55-year-old tenement in To Kwa Wan, despite spotting scores of dangerous signs two months before its fatal collapse last year, the Coroner's Court heard yesterday.
Surveyor Wan Chi-wai said he first received a complaint about the building's condition from owner Chak Oi-luen on November 16, 2009, two months before the tragedy.
'My inspection two days later found many spots of concrete peeling and rusty steel bars inside the columns,' he said on the third day of the inquest on the four people who died.
'This would affect the structure and reduce the load-bearing ability of the block. I concluded that there was potential danger with the block and it needed repairs,' Wan said. In what he said was a visual inspection without the aid of tools, Wan saw steel bars in two structural columns inside the ground-floor clothing shop bent into a V shape. He was unable to see the column in the middle of the shop which investigators later found broken because it was hidden behind wooden boards.
Wan said that judging from the different patterns of how the bars were twisted, an 'external force' was responsible for the bending rather than overloading by the subdivided flats on each floor above the shop.
A closure order was not necessary as there was no immediate danger, he said. Instead, he issued an advisory letter, which had no binding power, to Chak that day.
'In my experience, landlords in the neighbourhood usually do nothing with our advisory letters. I didn't expect [Chak] would take action so I was preparing to issue a repair order at the same time,' he said. He also said he tended to give Chak more time to deal with past problems over illegal structures in the block because she was suffering from cancer.
The repair order was not issued until two months later on January 13 last year, 16 days before the tenement collapsed. It gave her until March 13 to start the work.
Wan's successor, Candy Wong Yuen-man, who issued the order with reference to Wan's information, said she made two site visits to the block, each lasting five to 10 minutes, in December and January before giving the order.
When lawyer Shahmim Khattak, for Chak, asked whether she thought the building condition was serious or had worsened, Wong replied: 'It was potentially dangerous but it was not immediate. I only saw the external walls. I'm not clear.' She said she noticed a structural column nearest the shopfront had unusual signs.
'Every steel bar in it was bent to different degrees. I suspected that someone bent the bars to chisel out the concrete inside.'
Despite this, Wong issued the repair order as planned and did not communicate with the owner further until the day before the collapse.
Wong said the landlady and her contractor rang her to tell her they wanted to erect a metal bar on the footpath to support the building while carrying out repairs.
'[The contractor] asked me what procedures he had to go through. I told him he had to apply for an excavation permit from the Highways Department and to check online,' she said.
days before the To Kwa Wan tenement collapsed, the Buildings Department issued a repair order