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Mall Investigation: Litany of Failures

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

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A drumbeat of neglect, indifference, professional lapses and outright defiance in the face of years of structural red flags resounded through the seven-month investigation into the fatal collapse of an Ontario shopping mall.

Over 117 days, the Elliot Lake Commission of Inquiry heard, saw and reviewed scores of witnesses and thousands of pages of evidence that painted a picture of longtime owner neglect, sketchy inspections, failed waterproofing, poor design, missing specifications and numerous other problems before the cave-in at Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, Ontario.

The $20 million judicial inquiry, led by Commissioner Paul Bélanger, was aimed at finding answers to questions surrounding the cave-in of the mall’s open-air rooftop parking deck and the emergency response that followed.

The collapse June 23, 2012, killed two women and injured more than 20 other people.

Algo Centre Mall
NORR report

Algo Centre Mall, built in 1980, partially collapsed June 23, 2012, killing Lucie Aylwin, 37, and Doloris Perizzolo, 74, and injuring more than 20 others. An eight-month judicial inquiry probed the players involved with the structure and the frantic rescue after the collapse.

The hearings began March 4 and concluded Oct. 9. Bélanger's findings and recommendations are not expected until March 2014.

In all, the inquiry heard from 125 witnesses, including architects, structural engineers, city employees, product manufacturers, owners, inspectors and emergency personnel.

The Ministry of the Attorney General said the inquiry cost taxpayers $20 million, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported Oct. 21.

'Failure of the Engineering Profession'

The collapse of the mall, built in 1980, killed Lucie Aylwin, 37, and Doloris Perizzolo, 74, and injured more than 20 others.

Immediately, reports surfaced about years of chronic leaks in the structure that were never addressed properly.

Those reports were bolstered by multiple witnesses, who testified that the 32-year-old structure leaked from the day it opened until the day it collapsed.

A series of witnesses also testified about critical structural issues that were never addressed, including pieces of concrete slab that had fallen through the ceiling of a business.

The testimony also revealed a "failure of the engineering profession," as one lawyer put it: from the mall's very first inspector (who allowed it to open despite misgivings about the design and knowledge of "sloppy workmanship" and deficiencies) to its very last (who declared the structure sound just weeks before it caved in).

Even the mall's owner called it a "black hole" not worth repairing.

Marine-Level Corrosion

Engineers and third-party investigators who examined the mall after the collapse traced it to a single corroded structural weld, but they noted that multiple areas of the structure were also on the brink of failure when the incident occurred and said the structure's failure was inevitable.

The 700-page forensic engineering report by global engineer firm NORR is available here.

NORR report

Corrosion levels at the mall were similar to those observed in a marine-like environment, according to an engineering firm that examined the structure.

The combination of road salt and water had a lethal effect on the structural steel, according to the engineers. They described corrosion levels at the mall as similar to those observed in a marine-like environment.

NORR experts also testified about lapses and irregularities in the original design drawings, construction codes and waterproofing used on the mall.

For example, NORR architect Chris Hughes reported inconsistencies in the design documents and noted that the waterproofing sealer material “was not described in any way within the drawings or specification.”

“In fact, no specification was given to us for review,” he said. “Whether it didn’t exist or has been lost in time is unknown at this point.”

Owner: 'The Mall was Doomed'

The inquiry also heard from the mall’s most recent owner, Robert Nazarian, 68. He purchased the mall in 2005 for $6.2 million and rejected repeated recommendations to fix it, according to testimony.

"Algo Mall was a black hole," Nazarian testified July 25. "No matter how much money put in…the mall was doomed."

Numerous witnesses testified that the unsheltered rooftop garage deck was an odd design for a structure facing Canadian winters and lacked sufficient waterproofing. Several, including architects hired to find solutions, said they had recommended more extensive waterproofing to Nazarian over the years, but he had repeatedly rejected the option as too expensive.

Robert Nazarian
Elliot Lake Inquiry

The mall's most recent owner, Robert Nazarian, testified that the mall was "a black hole" and rejected recommendations to waterproof the structure.

“Simply, I would not put my life in it, no," he testified. "I worked 42 years to gather some fund for my family. I’m not going to put everything in this building and…everything goes down the drain.”

Nazarian immigrated to Canada from Iran in the early 1980s and testified that he hadn’t been advised of the mall’s longstanding leakage problems at the time he purchased it from Elliot Lake Retirement Living, the previous owner.

City Knew, but Didn’t Act

Testimony also indicated that city building officials were aware of the mall’s chronic waterproofing issues, but failed to act.

For example, city councilor Al Collet testified May 23 that he had told the city building department about the building's condition a couple months before the collapse, according to a report by one Canadian press agency.

He said a restaurant owner in the mall had showed him a “piece of concrete that had fallen through his ceiling and into his kitchen.”

Collet said he had presented the concern to chief building official Bruce Ewald.

Ewald testified May 27 that he had not seen the fallen concrete as indicative of a structural problem and that he had not investigated the matter further.

He said that closing the mall, a focal point of the community, “would have been economically detrimental to the city.”

What’s Next?

Officials say they are confident that the issues exposed and answers given throughout the inquiry will help to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Commissioner Belanger will review tens of thousands of pages of testimony and exhibits and consult with panels of experts over the next few months as he reaches his conclusions in the case.

Meanwhile, Ontario Provincial Police say they will continue to investigate the collapse to determine if any criminal charges should be brought against those involved.

The mall has been demolished.


Tagged categories: Architecture; Bridge/parking deck waterproofing; Building envelope; Corrosion; Engineers; Fatalities; Health and safety; Parking Garages; Waterproofing

Comment from Car F., (11/5/2013, 12:47 PM)

The central point of the disaster was GREED, everything else is just a consequence of it.

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