The Herald accompanied SkyCity chief executive Graeme Stephens as he went up the Sky Tower for the first time since the convention centre fire, to survey the damage. He revealed how he handled the disaster on a day he was meant to be meeting Fletcher Building about the completion of the project and how a building delay could have saved the casino and hotel.
Hours before the New Zealand International Convention Centre spectacularly went up in flames, SkyCity chief executive Graeme Stephens, his Fletcher Construction counterpart Peter Reidy and two others were standing in a shower arguing.
The shower was in the yet-to-be-completed $700 million convention centre, Stephens told Herald Focus Live in a wide-ranging interview, days after an area of the roof where blowtorches were being used erupted in flames and thick, black smoke, disrupting lives and businesses in the downtown area of our biggest city for days.
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“Four men in a shower … Peter, myself, our head of hotels and his construction development head and we were arguing over the minute detail of where to position the shower head.”
Stephens has a photo on his phone of the four men, clad in their high-vis jackets, standing in the shower.
“And the very next shot, and I looked at the time stamp — two and a half hours later — and I’m looking down [from the Sky Tower] at a burning convention centre.
“That’s in the space of a few hours, from the fine-tuning of 2.5cm on a shower head to wondering when we’re going to get [the centre].”
Stephens walked Herald Focus Live through the his first moments after news of the fire came in, while looking down on the damage from the SkyTower.
“It’s a mess. I haven’t been up here since the fire started. I’ve seen lots of pictures but this is the first time I’m looking down on it. It’s going to be really interesting to figure out the way forward from here.
“It’s just very sad, devastated … depressed when I look down at it, relieved that here were no people involved. Give me a weekend and we will start to get optimistic about how we are going to rebuild it.”
When the news came
News of the fire came in a text message which arrived as Stephens sat in a meeting on a conference call. He was with SkyCity’s chief operating officer Michael Ahearne.
“We stepped out. We didn’t have to go much further and it was just black smoke billowing over our main site. We shot around the corner to Hobson St and it was pretty obvious it was a pretty big fire at that point.”
So what does the boss of an entertainment complex that includes a 300 metre-high tower do?
Catch a lift to the observation deck, of course.
“It’s a really good vantage point. There were still members of the public there, looking out. At that stage it was more smoke than fire, the fire itself seemed pretty small in the far corner of the roof … my first impression was maybe we can still put it out. You’d expect fire services too – they were arriving and setting up.”
He texted his chairman to start the business’ crisis management procedures. A text went out to the management team, asking them to convene in the boardroom.
“I got into that first crisis management meeting and our plans started to roll from there.”
He then called Reidy who, at that stage, was off-site and travelling back into central Auckland.
“He [was starting] to see the smoke. [I called] one, to tell him there was a fire, but also to tell him, ‘hey your people look like they’re okay’ … to give him some reassurance from the ground that it didn’t look like people were panicking’.”
But Reidy was still talking about the meeting the pair had planned at 3.30pm. Stephens found himself trying to explain to the Fletcher Construction boss that, actually, “this is a really big fire”.
“I might’ve been a bit more explicit at the time, and I suggested that we weren’t going to be meeting at 3.30pm, and as it turns out we’re probably not going to have the meeting about the completion just yet.”
Stephens then turned his attention back to the SkyCity complex and the thousands of people inside.
“We had full hotels, the convention business was full, restaurants full, the casino was busy. Between customers and staff, there was certainly a couple of thousand people on site.”
There were big decisions big to make. One, when there were briefly fears the fire could spread, was to post people with fire hoses on “platforms and elsewhere where they could hit the roof of the main site if sparks started to fly across”.
Rooms facing a crane on the convention centre site were also emptied in case the crane, weakened by fire, toppled into the hotel.
Another decision was how to evacuate.
“We were in constant contact with emergency services … they kept assuring us air quality was fine, there was no need to evacuate for that reason.”
But realising the fire wouldn’t be out anytime time soon, the decision was made to evacuate in stages, starting with the casino, to avoid panic, Stephens said.
“Ultimately [it was] driven by safety and staggered so we didn’t rush people out because in fact the safest place to be was inside where the air was clean.”
Transport had to be arranged to collect those leaving, another challenge in the fire’s gridlocked aftermath.
There have long been ructions between SkyCity and Fletchers about delays.
“Obviously the relationship has not been great for a large part of the project but, actually, in the more recent months has been very good, as the end was in sight,” Stephens said.
“Everyone could taste the finish. The teams have been working really constructively with the common goal of just finishing it and opening it.”
But there was one delay which turned out to be fortuitous. An air bridge planned between the convention centre and the casino should have been installed a week ago — but Fletchers missed the deadline, he said.
“We commented [on Tuesday] more than once, if that air bridge had been installed it would’ve connected the convention centre to our site, and that would’ve been a different problem to deal with.”
When asked if the project was cursed, he said: “The only thing about it has been the delay. We actually really wanted it and still want it … it is a core business. We’ve got the biggest convention in Auckland today, on level four and five. We were really looking forward to getting this new convention centre, which I think will be truly an iconic building.”
Asked whether he had met “the man with the blowtorch” variously blamed by others throughout the week for starting the fire — the cause is yet to be confirmed — Stephens said he didn’t know who the man was.
He also doused cheerful chatter about the use of straw in the building’s roof.
It was “sound-deadening acoustic stuff” which was standard, fire-proofed and, in a situation when fully installed and with the right sprinkler systems, not a risk.
“In the situation we’re in, it sounded a little bit like The Three Little Pigs, where you had bitumen and wood and straw.
“I think it’s an aspect that’s getting focus, when you can reasonably assume it was an appropriate material. You can reasonably assume it wasn’t there because we couldn’t afford something better.”
He said that when you looked at the building, a lot of the facade looked okay.
“I don’t know how you replace the roof and the stuff that was in it … cabling. I don’t know how you fix it and not break the facade that still exists. That’s a challenge for the engineers.”
Stephens acknowledged there was “some confusion” in letting evacuated workers know they would be paid. The decision to do so was immediate, but not well-relayed.
He didn’t expect any lay-offs in “existing operations” and would be pushing to save convention centre jobs by “using our teams, our kitchens and finding alternate venues” so conventions could still take place in Auckland.
“I’m pretty confident it can be done.”
He said he hadn’t looked at SkyCity’s share price.
“I couldn’t tell you what it is and that’s the truth.”