A cost-cutting developer with little regard for safety and incompetent strata management have been partly blamed for the death of a Chinese student who leapt five floors from her burning flat.
Had the building in which Connie Zhang lived been 10 centimetres taller, it may very well have had the sprinklers that could have saved her life.
Deputy State Coroner Hugh Dillon criticised building regulations and the local council, as well as developer Ray Finianos who built the Sydney block 10 centimetres short of the 25-metre threshold that requires sprinkler systems to be installed in properties.
In handing down his findings into Ms Zhang’s death on Friday, Mr Dillon found she could still be alive if sprinklers had been installed at the Bankstown building.
“The most effective fire safety measure in any building housing multiple occupants is a fire sprinkler system,” Mr Dillon said.
“Had such a system been installed it is almost certain that Connie would not have perished.”
While describing Mr Finianos as “cost conscious”, Mr Dillon also said regulations aimed at ensuring the building was constructed to strict standards failed.
“In part the failures were caused by the fact that the Bankstown City Council section responsible for following up safety orders was under-resourced; in part by what appears to have been lax or incompetent management by the strata agent; and in part by what appears to have been an insouciant attitude to fire safety on the part of the developer,” he said.
During the inquest, Mr Finianos denied he had shaved a few centimetres off the building’s height to ensure it did not exceed an effective height of 25 metres to avoid the cost of installing sprinklers.
“While his evasive answers on this topic did little to enhance his credibility as a witness, it is difficult to be critical of a developer merely for complying with a rule that will save costs. The real issue here is the rule itself,” Mr Dillon said.
If sprinklers were present, temperatures would have been kept at a survivable level and the synthetic furniture thought to have fuelled the fire would likely not have ignited.
Mr Dillon has recommended that sprinklers be installed in all new shared residential buildings – such as the one Ms Zhang lived in – regardless of height.
He’s also recommended authorities research ways to lower the cost of installing sprinklers, improve research to assist fire-safety policies, formalise accreditation for fire safety inspectors, and issue annual safety statements, among other measures.
“It is critical that adequate measures are taken, and taken now,” Mr Dillon said.
The fire broke out on the balcony of the unit, probably sparked by a cigarette smoked by Ms Zhang’s flatmate Jason Zeng.
Ms Zhang and her friend Ginger Jiang were soon trapped and retreated to a bedroom.
The women climbed through a window and on to a ledge as the fire’s temperature increased to at least 600C.
“The aluminium frame on the window was melting and burning (Ms Jiang’s) arm,” Mr Dillon said.
Both then jumped from the ledge.
Ms Zhang died on impact from multiple injuries.
Ms Jiang survived but was hospitalised and now suffers long-term disabilities.
Ms Zhang was an only child and her parents “remain tormented” by her death.
“If fire sprinklers had been installed, Connie Zhang would be alive today,” the family’s lawyer David Evenden said.
Mr Finianos said his company has always “built to the standards required by the Building Code of Australia”.
“This development, as with all our buildings, was constructed in accordance with these standards seeking all relevant approvals and expert advice to ensure it met safety requirements.”