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Probe: Doctored Inspection Unfolds

Thursday, June 20, 2013

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One discredited Ontario engineer touched up the structural assessment, while his partner signed off on the report, based on verbal assurances and despite his own knowledge of problems at the site.

That is how an inspection report declaring the Algo Centre Mall structurally sound came to be approved just weeks before the Ontario complex caved in June 23, 2012, killing two women and injuring dozens of others.

Both Robert Wood and Gregory Saunders, of now-defunct M.R. Wright & Associates in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, had previously noted leaks and problems with the mall dating back years. Wood, a structural engineer, was president of the firm; Saunders, also an engineer, worked there.

The mall's failure has been laid to a failed weld destroyed by corrosion that resulted from decades of notorious, chronic leaking at the mall.

Robert Wood
Elliot Lake Inquiry

Engineer Robert Wood has been charged with health and safety violations stemming from the Algo Centre Mall collapse last June.

Nine additional corroded steel areas were at the breaking point when the weld gave way, authorities have said.

Professional Misconduct Cited

In testimony this month before the Elliot Lake Inquiry, Wood admitted removing damning photographs and descriptions from his structural assessment report at the behest of mall owner Bob Nazarian.

Both Wood and Saunders were found guilty of professional misconduct in 2010 for their work on an unrelated bridge project. Wood ended up losing his license in 2011 after failing to write remedial exams, but Saunders completed his exam work, news reports said.

In April 2012, Wood inspected the Algo Centre Mall and its rooftop parking garage

His report of that inspection, Wood testified this month, differed in some significant ways from what he saw—changes that have already drawn health and safety charges by Ontario's Ministry of Labour.

Wood called himself "gullible" and said he had doctored the report at Nazarian's request.

Key Photos Removed

At Nazarian's request, Wood said he had removed images of yellow tarps hanging from the ceiling in one of the mall’s stores and other images from a final version of the report.

Nazarian had told Wood that the tarps were part of “a leakage collection system” and, because the roof was being waterproofed, were just “an eyesore” that would be removed, Wood testified.

yellow tarps
Robert Wood / Elliot Lake Inquiry

During his testimony, the engineer admitted to removing photos showing large yellow tarps hanging from the ceiling in one of the mall's stores.

“These pictures that I took were the worst things I saw,” he said. “Often, clients don’t like to see the worst things that you saw, because they want it to reflect a general condition of the mall, especially when they’re applying for funds.”

The inspection was performed as part of a mortgage application by Nazarian, he said.

Nazarian is expected to testify the week of July 15.

Other alterations made to the final document included removing the word “ongoing” from “ongoing leakage” (testimony and evidence has shown that the mall leaked from the day it opened) and the words “particular concern,” testimony showed.

In the end, Wood's report, submitted May 3, 2012, concluded: “It is our opinion that severe rusting at this time has not detrimentally changed the load carry capacities of the structure, and no visual signs of structural distress were observed.”

Signing Off

Saunders did not personally inspect the mall in April 2012, but he had signed off on earlier mall inspections by Wood that noted leaking at the structure as far back as 2005, testimony showed. Saunders said he was not aware of a 2009 city order for an extensive inspection of the mall until after the collapse.

Gregory Saunders
Eliot Lake Inquiry

Gregory Saunders testified that he had forgotten about earlier reports of leaking when he signed off on an assessment declaring the mall sound just before it collapsed.

In the 2012 inspection, Saunders and Wood talked about Wood's inspection for about 45 minutes just before submitting it, Saunders testified this month.

Saunders said Wood had assured him that he had conducted a thorough investigation and that upside-down umbrellas, tarps and other measures in place to catch leaks (as shown in photos taken during inspection) were only temporary and did not reflect a serious or longstanding problem.

Of corrosion shown in some photos, Saunders said, "Bob told me that it was surface rust and that, in his opinion, there was no loss of section."

Saunders said he had not asked for any measurements or field notes, but had relied on Wood's 40 years of corrosion inspection experience.

He also said Wood had told him "they were about to do roof repairs."

Evidence and testimony have shown that the mall's series of owners refused a permanent waterproofing solution over many years because of the cost.

Saunders said he did not recall signing off on the earlier mall inspection reports, which indicated longstanding leaking.

One Car, One Second

The inquiry has heard that the 32-year-old mall leaked from the day it opened until the day it collapsed. A report conducted for the Ontario Provincial Police found that the combination of road salt and water had a lethal effect on the steel structure.

“It is, in fact, somewhat surprising that failure did not happen earlier,” the report concluded.

NORR report / Ontario Provincial Police

NORR report / Ontario Provincial Police

The mall in Elliot Lake, Ontario, collapsed June 23, 2012, killing two people. The mall had severe corrosion levels, per the forensic assessment after the collapse.

With corrosion levels so severe, it took just one car driving over an unstable welded connection between a support column and beam to cause the cave-in in one second, the engineers’ report said.

Wood testified that he had not really expected to see any “rust or corrosion of any significant kind there” at the mall. But he also said he had limited experience with this particular type of structure. He said he was familiar with rust and corrosion in the industrial environment.

Wood admitted that altering the documents after signing was “inappropriate.”  He said Saunders learned of the edits after the collapse.

After his testimony, Wood told reporters he was “sorry” for the people who had lost their lives and their families and said his life had been affected by the collapse as well, according to a report by The Canadian Press.

Wood has now retired.

About the Inquiry

The government of Ontario launched a public judicial inquiry into the incident on March 4, 2013. The hearings have resulted in testimony and evidence regarding the mall’s allegedly flawed design, water-proofing system failure, and severe corrosion.

The hearings are scheduled to resume July 8.

The Algo Centre Mall, built in 1980, has been demolished.


Tagged categories: Building design; Building envelope; Engineers; Fatalities; Health and safety; Parking Garages; Waterproofing

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