UPDATE, 1pm: Would-be looters attempted to inflict more pain to the devastated Pelican marina residents overnight on Monday, using rocks and bricks in an attempt to break in and steal alcohol.
Several police cars were called to the destroyed building about 10pm following reports from security guards that a group of people had arrived and were attempted to gain entry.
It is understood they hurled rocks and bricks at the northern side of the building and were attempting to gain entry to Milano’s On The Lake, the hugely-popular restaurant partially destroyed in Monday’s collapse.
EARLIER: AN elderly woman was able to clamber down a disappearing staircase after watching her walls crack and open up, while a man grabbed his dogs and got to safety before the Pelican Marina building crashed into Lake Macquarie.
That was Monday morning – if it had been less than a day earlier, more than 100 patrons would have been inside the iconic Milano’s On The Lake restaurant as piers gave way and sent large sections hurtling into the water below.
As questions were being asked about the state of the building, and what had caused the sudden collapse, emergency services and tenants were also conscious of what could have occurred if times were different.
“If you saw the amount of damage inside we have been told there’s residents up there on first floor, it’s very very lucky people were not seriously injured if not killed,’’ Fire and Rescue NSW Superintendent Brett Davies said.
Milano’s On The Beach owner Sue Kelleher said: “We do at least 100 people on a Sunday, if it had happened then, then who knows. But no one has been hurt, we are insured.’’
The Department of Crown Lands, which had taken control of the marina after terminating the lease in December, brought a team of structural engineers into the site to investigate what caused the collapse.
The department’s Hunter manager, Tim Deverell, said said a structural assessment had been done before Christmas and had identified “some urgent matters that needed to be done such as electrical and fencing which we have replaced’’.
“There was nothing in that report to indicate that there was a danger of imminent collapse but obviously something has occurred since then so we will be investigating that.”
Mr Deverell confirmed that parts of the boardwalk at the front of the building had become no-go zones for the public, and at least one of the unit tenants was warned off using their balcony.
One of the tenants, boat broker Jim Sommers who lost an estimated $15,000 worth of equipment, said some pylons had been held together with “ratchet straps”.
The collapse occurred about 9.30am, with the 78-year-old female occupant escaping injury as her unit, the most northern of the building above the restaurant which suffered the most damage, was ripped apart.
She later spoke of hearing a loud bang before seeing the cracks in her walls open up and the building start to move.
“All I’ve got is what I’m wearing,’’ she told friends.
Fears remained on Monday night that large portions of the rest of the building, which would probably have to be demolished, may collapse into the lake.
Superintendent Davies said crews had found the structure had suffered “severe structural faults” and it appeared the piers underneath the front of the building had “given way”.
“The piers have gone from underneath the structure,” Mr Davies said.
“We can’t get in there to have a look to see how many piers have gone that’s why we’re really restricting access to the premises.
“Even the bits that are still standing, from a distance you can see the beams holding the top floors up have all bent and twisted out of shape.”
Fire and Rescue NSW has isolated electricity, gas and water to the site and marine rescue has installed booms in the water to ensure no contaminants pollute the lake.
Mr Davies said Public Works structural engineers were also at the site to assess the structural integrity of the building.
Builders are installing protective barrier fencing around the site.
“The floor from the first floor is actually into the lake itself, so unfortunately we won’t be allowing anyone into the structure to obtain any goods or any of their items,” Mr Davies said.
“We’ll be working with the Salvation Army for the welfare of these people.
“If you saw the amount of damage inside – there’s residents up there on first floor – it’s very, very lucky people were not seriously injured if not killed.
“We’re lucky it didn't happen yesterday when the restaurant was fully operating at lunchtime, because it could have caused severe injuries to people.”
Mr Davies said structural engineers would determine the future of the site and would consider whether it needed to be demolished.
“That would appear to be the only option due the amount of damage, it would probably have to be demolished,” he said.
“With the piers being washed away underneath it’s very unlikely they'll be able to rebuild on current site.”
Mr Davies said the restaurant owners were “distraught”.
“It’s their livelihood,’’ he said.
“At the moment we’re trying to assist them as much we can to minimize the concern they have.”.
Mr Sommers, who ran boating company Marine Sale Solutions on the ground floor, said he had only left the marina 20 minutes before the collapse.
He said there was an inspection done on the marina in December.
"Some of the pylons were being held by ratchet straps," Mr Sommers said.
Mr Deverell said Crown Lands “initiated forfeiture” from the company leasing the marina, Elidock Pty Ltd, “for various reasons, including failure to pay rent” on December 4.
“The department had a structural assessment report done before Christmas, once we took possession, which we identified some urgent matters that needed to be done such as electrical and fencing which we have replaced,” Mr Deverell said.
Former lessee Ben Ensor said his company Elidock Pty Ltd had paid $1.4 million for the Crown Lands’ lease in 2011.
He said he was forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars of his own money repairing piers around the building over the past five years.
He starting withholding rent following a breakdown with the Department of Crown Lands over what should be done to rectify the problem.
Mr Ensor believes the collapse of the Milano’s restaurant building could have been prevented if appropriate works had have been undertaken to reinforce its piers.
Mr Ensor, whose company Elidock Pty Ltd took on the lease in 2011, estimated he spent about $200,000 on repairs to the building and the marina precinct.
Emails between Mr Ensor and government agencies detail a long-running dispute over the need to take action to secure the building’s foundations.
A series of photos provided to the Newcastle Herald highlight significant erosion caused by dredging works in the lake channel.
“It would have cost me $800,000 to put new piers in,” Mr Ensor said.
The Department of Crown Lands terminated the lease in late 2015 due to a range of issues including unpaid rent.
Mr Ensor, who now lives in North Queensland, said that he was justified in withholding the money.
“Some rent was withheld on occasions as a partial offset against damages,” Mr Ensor said.
TREADING WATER AS TRADE SINKS
SUE Kelleher was booked out in March for weddings at the ever-popular Milano’s On The Lake.
She was enjoying summer patronage, where more than 100 people would spend their Sundays at the Pelican restaurant as the sun went down over Lake Macquarie.
Boat broker Jim Sommers began negotiating a new lease a fortnight ago and had more than $15,000 worth of equipment inside the bottom level business which was now partially under water.
The attractive, if not weathered, Pelican marina was a thriving little place on the sleepy banks of the eastern side of the lake that attracted a strong and loyal clientele.
Not anymore, although there is hope for a revival.
Ms Kelleher, who bought the restaurant with her husband James Baldwin a year ago, had also just signed up to open a kiosk downstairs.
She has 15 staff who are now without a job, although she was already trying to re-employ some at her Belmont business and would help others find work.
“It had been really difficult for a while but things were getting back on track,’’ Ms Kelleher said.
She spent most of Monday telling devastated clients that the restaurant they had booked for functions and weddings was now teetering over the water.
Mr Sommers had only left the marina about 20 minutes before the collapse, and fears he has lost irreplaceable photographs and other valuables.
“I would have been inside except I had left my laptop at home,’’ he said.