Fatal unit fire: Builder Ray Finianos reduced height of building to avoid installing fire sprinklers, inquest told

The builder of a south-west Sydney unit block where a young woman plunged to her death during a ferocious fire told a certifier to reduce the height of the building by millimetres prior to construction so he wouldn’t have to spend millions on a fire sprinkler system, the coroner’s court has heard.

But the builder, Raymond Finianos, of Silky Constructions, says he never gave this instruction and that saving money on fire safety had never crossed his mind.

Pingkang “Connie” Zhang died on September 6, 2012 when she was forced to jump from the fifth floor window of her unit in the West Terrace unit block in Bankstown after it caught fire.

The ongoing inquest into Ms Zhang’s death has heard that it is likely the 21-year-old would have survived if the unit had been fitted with fire sprinklers, but that because the building was just under 25 metres high they did not have to be installed.

On Monday counsel assisting the inquest, Stephen Rushton, SC, put it to Mr Finianos that he had deliberately ensured that the block remained under 25 metres because it would have cost him $3.7 million to install a sprinkler system.

This allegedly included instructing the private certifier for the project, Barry Johnson, to reduce the height of the building by just 100 millimetres.

“Mr Johnson is expected to give evidence that he was instructed to by you to reduce the level by 100mm,” Mr Rushton said.

“No, I don’t know why he did that,” Mr Finianos replied.

“He just made the decision himself did he?” Mr Johnson continued.

“Possibly,” Mr Finianos replied.

“It’s bleedingly obviously that developers and builders go under 25 metres because that saves them the cost of fire safety measures including sprinklers,” Mr Rushton said.

Mr Finianos responded that he had simply been sticking to the Local Environment Plan for the site.

The inquest heard that, after the building was finished, Mr Finianos also ordered that 25 square metres of clear plastic sheeting be placed on the roof of an atrium inside the unit block without counsel approval.

He was told by Bankstown Council that the roof was a fire safety hazard, but did not remove it, instead electing to investigate “alternative engineering solutions”.

A fire expert employed to investigate the fatal fire found that this sheeting had prevented the smoke from escaping during the blaze, and that, as a result, dozens of residents had suffered smoke inhalation as they tried to escape.

Mr Rushton put it to Mr Finianos that he knew he was acting unlawfully by building the atrium without approval and in dong so he had created “very very serious fire risks”.

Mr Finianos denied this, claiming that he did not know at the time that he required council approval for “such a minor alteration” and that smoke had spread into the internal well because the fire door on Ms Zhang’s level had been left open.

When asked during the subsequent fire investigation whether any lessons could be learned, his only suggestions were that occupants of the building needed to be better informed about keeping fire doors closed and the dangers of adding extra bedrooms to their units without approval.

The inquest continues.

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