A tragedy that must not be repeated

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2011, 12:00am


The coroner's verdict that a fatal building collapse in To Kwa Wan was accidental will do little to bring comfort to the victims' families or to ease public concern about the safety of our city's old buildings. During the hearing it became clear this was an accident that should have been prevented. Family members had waited more than 18 months for this ruling and they understandably wanted to know who was to blame for the tragedy. A number of people were responsible for failings that contributed to the collapse. But the coroner found that their conduct did not make the deaths unlawful.

This may seem unjust. But the purpose of an inquest is not to point fingers or rule on liabilities; it is to establish what happened and to try to make sure that there is no repeat. Hong Kong was shocked by the collapse of the five-storey building, which killed four people. Although the building was 55 years old, run down and in a poor neighbourhood, such occurrences should not happen in a city with ample resources to ensure high safety standards are maintained. Amid fears that more structures were at risk, the government launched an immediate investigation and began a city-wide flurry of inspections of the estimated 4,000 buildings that are 50 years old or more. Those that are at least 30 years old will be examined at least once a decade under an amendment to the Buildings Ordinance. By February, 680 repair orders had been made and a crackdown is under way on illegal structures.

But the findings of the inquest point to more specific oversights and problems that caused the accident and coroner Michael Chan Pik-kiu has determined that extra steps are necessary. His recommendations have to be taken with the utmost seriousness by authorities. He has suggested that the manner in which warning notices are issued be changed. A professional structural engineer should also accompany a surveyor during inspections that have been determined to be of an urgent nature.

There is every reason to correct these failings. As was made plain during testimony, advisory letters from the department are not binding and are therefore not treated seriously by landlords. Surveyors do not have the expertise to properly judge the structural soundness of a building. While the inspecting surveyor had believed the building to be potentially dangerous, photographs examined by a structural engineer for the inquest determined that it was on the brink of collapse and therefore a matter of urgency.

The affected families can still take civil action, but so far as the public interest is concerned, it is important that lessons are learned from the accident. A better mechanism has been devised for inspecting old buildings. It is unacceptable given our substantial means that lives should be put at risk.