THE roof over the atrium of an apartment block in Bankstown, which might have contributed to the fire in which a woman died on Thursday, was not included in plans approved by the council. The private certifier who oversaw the development said he would not have approved the building had the roof been there. .
The NSW fire services commissioner, Greg Mullins, has said an enclosed atrium in the centre of the building meant ”thick black smoke” amassed outside residents’ doors, hindering their access to internal fire escapes. But the building certifier, Barry Johnson, told the Herald that when he issued an occupancy certificate for the building in April 2009 there was no roof on the atrium.
”I did not approve a roof,” Mr Johnson said. ”If you look at my stamped plans it was an open pergola. If there’s a roof on that area it does affect the way I would have approved the building. I would have required other things to be done. I don’t know if I would have allowed the roof.”
One woman, known as Connie, died, and another, Yino Jiang, 27, is fighting for her life after they jumped from the fifth floor of the building to escape the inferno. Another 52 people were evacuated and 43 were treated for smoke inhalation.
The Herald understands the NSW Fire Brigade first raised the alarm over the roof and other fire safety matters in the building, the Euro Terraces, in December 2010.
Bankstown Council is believed to have investigated and issued an order in February last year – the first of a number of orders issued against the building by the council and the fire brigade.
The most recent correspondence to the building owners, raising continuing, serious concerns over fire safety, is understood to have been only a couple of months ago.
Mr Johnson said he had received a threatening phone
call on Thursday night saying, ”you know what you’ve done, we’re going to come to get you”. He reported the call to the police.
As police and fire authorities continue their investigations to prepare a report for the coroner, it has emerged that the building’s developer has previously been challenged over additions to at least one other building.
In 2002, Baulkham Hills council took a director of Silky Constructions to the Land and Environment Court over an apartment block at Northmead which was deemed to ”differ so substantially” to approved plans that it was a completely different development. He could not be reached for comment.
The tragedy has renewed calls for closer examination of the role of private certifiers in granting building approvals. The Greens MP David Shoebridge said the case illustrated how dysfunctional the system had become. ”The explosion in private certification in the last decade and a half has produced very questionable results for building standards,” he said.
Mr Shoebridge called on the government to revisit a proposal to expand the role of private certifiers in a draft green paper on the system.
But the Planning Minister, Brad Hazzard, said that last week he had indicated to the Building Professionals Board, which regulates building certifiers, that he wanted to see tougher penalties for councils and certifiers that did not fulfil their responsibilities properly.
”We will get a lot tougher with those who certify buildings if they don’t do the right thing,” he said, ”but at this point there is no indication that is necessarily an aspect of this particular fire.”
Residents of the apartment block told the Herald they had trouble reaching fire exits or had ignored the fire alarm at first. Haytham Wafa, who works at a restaurant in the bottom floor of the complex, estimated the alarm had gone off 150 times in the past year. Another worker, Eduardo Garcia, said it took more than 20 minutes for the smoke alarms to activate once smoke started billowing out.
”We went outside because I could smell smoke,” he said. ”We called police and then 10 minutes later the fire alarm started sounding.”
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