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Inspector Who Cleared Mall is Charged

Friday, May 3, 2013

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Engineers who inspected an Ontario shopping mall last year declared it structurally sound one month before it caved in and killed two people.

Robert Wood's professional assessment, which reported "no visual signs of structural distress," has now led officials to charge him with health and safety violations as the public inquiry into the collapse continues.

Wood, a professional engineer, is alleged to have "endangered a worker" by providing "negligent advice," Ontario’s Ministry of Labour announced April 22. The ministry also disclosed that Wood had been found guilty of professional misconduct in 2010 at an unrelated site.

M.R. Wright & Associates Co. Ltd.

An April 2012 photo shows rusting (highlighted in yellow) on steel beams below the Algo Centre Mall's parking deck. Engineers said they could not inspect the underside of the precast slabs.

Wood, then owner of M.R. Wright & Associates Co. Ltd., inspected the Algo Centre Mall on April 12, 2012. Two months later, the rooftop parking garage gave way and smashed through several levels below it. Two women perished, and dozens of people were injured.

Severe Corrosion

The cause of the collapse was quickly traced to the failure of an extremely corroded weld in the parking deck's supporting beams. The 32-year-old structure had leaked since the day it opened, and investigating engineers reported a level of steel corrosion not typically seen outside a marine environment.

Like other engineers throughout the mall's leaky life, Wood urged the mall owner last year to install a full-scale waterproofing membrane to protect the structure. "The upper surface waterproofing is considered only a temporary solution," he said.

Other engineers had made the same recommendation through the years, but the mall's owners rejected the idea as too expensive. Instead, they caulked and patched for years before trying to sell off the troubled structure.


Wood and a colleague from M.R. Wright and Associates examined the mall two months before it collapsed and reported that it was structurally sound. The firm is no longer in business.

Wood's 2012 inspection letter noted "surface rust" but said it had "not detrimentally changed the load carrying capacities of the structure and no visual signs of structural distress were observed."

The letter included a dozen photos of a damaged expansion joint, leaking, and rusting on steel beams below the parking deck. A photo caption referred to "Typical oxidized steel beams" on the deck's underside. A copy of the inspection documents and letters to owners can be seen here.

Wood conducted the inspections with his colleague Gregory Saunders, also of M.R. Wright. Saunders has not been charged.

Fire Coatings Questioned

Wood and Saunders also inspected the mall in October 2009. That inspection focused on the water leakage problem and on concerns about damage to the "sprayed-on fireproofing of the steel structure."

The 2009 report notes "areas of significant leakage within the Mall below the parking deck" and says that steel beams are exposed to significant leaks. Again, however, Wood concluded that "the rusting has not created any structural loss of beam capacity."

The engineers were unable to inspect the underside of the parking deck's precast slabs, which were covered with insulation, the report says.

On the other hand, Wood writes, "Our major concern is the loss of fireproofing on the bottom flange of steel beams that are required to have complete fire protection. We are recommending that in areas where the original fireproofing has fallen away that the top and bottom surfaces of the bottom flange be cleaned off and suitably sprayed with a fireproofing product that is not water absorbent."

inside of the mall

Forensic engineers have determined that the 32-year-old Algo Centre Mall leaked since the day it was built until the day it collapsed.

The coating should be replaced "as soon as a contractor can be scheduled," Wood said.

It has not been disclosed whether that problem was ever addressed.

Engineer Faces Fines, Jail

The Ministry of Labour also charged Wood with allegedly working in a manner “that may endanger a worker.” The worker was not identified, and a copy of the charges was not immediately available.

The engineer faces a fine of up to $25,000 and/or up to 12 months imprisonment if convicted under the province’s health and safety laws.

He is scheduled to appear May 15 at the Ontario Court of Justice in Elliot Lake.

His attorney, Michael O’Neil, told reporters that Wood would plead not guilty to the charges and that they would have “no impact" on the mall inquiry.

M.R. Wright and Associates is no longer in business. The assets of the firm were sold to Tulloch Engineering.

Wood is scheduled to testify June 6 (and 7, if necessary) in the judicial inquiry that began March 4. Already, the hearings have yielded dozens of witnesses and thousands of pages of documents attesting to the mall’s flawed design, construction problems, water-proofing system failure, and severe corrosion.

Ministry Official Questioned

In other developments last week, attorney Douglas Elliott of the Elliot Lake Mall Action Committee, a citizens group, grilled Sophie Dennis, an official of the Occupational Health and Safety Office, about the agency's efforts over the decades to protect workers at the mall.

Dennis testified that her agency had inspected the structure more than 30 times since 1995, and she acknowledged knowing of complaints by workers about water problems. But she said her agency had never sent engineers to look at the structure.

She said that the Building Department, not her office, was primarily responsible for the building's safety; and she said that employers, not her office, were responsible for employee safety.

"Well, Ms. Dennis," said Elliott, "the reality is that although you issued orders with respect to scissor lifts and eye wash stations and other things, not once, not once did the Ministry of Labour issue an order with respect to the leaking roof in the entire history of the matter; is that not correct, Ms. Dennis?"

"It's true," she replied.

Secret Meetings Discovered

Testimony also revealed last week that the state of the doomed mall was a topic of discussion at “secret” monthly city council meetings for three years, according to a report from CBC news.

Documents reportedly found by commission staff on the computer of a former Elliot Lake city employee referenced the secret meetings.

Algo Centre Mall
NORR report / Ontario Provincial Police

The mall in Elliot Lake, Ontario, collapsed June 23, 2012, killing two people.

"[There was] a regular practice of monthly secret meetings—[held] without notice—where subjects [that] the council [was] required by law to discuss only in public were, in fact, discussed secretly, behind closed doors,” Peter Doody, an attorney for the Elliot Lake Inquiry commission, told reporters.

The Commission also heard Tuesday (April 30) that former city building officials had failed to order repairs, despite knowing of the long-running structural problems at the mall.

The testimony echoed previous evidence that the city knew, and was suspicious, of issues but did not act.

Engineer Report Key

In a report conducted for Ontario Provincial Police last month, engineers concluded: “It is, in fact, somewhat surprising that failure did not happen earlier.”

The 32-year-old structure leaked water from the day it opened until the day it collapsed. The combination of road salt and water had a lethal effect on the steel structure, according to the report. 

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. The collapse was short, lasting for one second, the engineers’ report said.

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


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

Comment from Benny Abbott, (5/3/2013, 2:26 PM)

I really hope that the mall owners will be held liable as well. Was told a better water proofing needed to be performed but just too expensive. How expensive is it now? Sounds like there is a lot of areas to point the fingers of blame.

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