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Federal Probe Urged in Mall Collapse

Thursday, June 6, 2013

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A citizens group is demanding a federal investigation into the fatal cave-in at the Algo Centre Mall, after an Ontario Labour Ministry official defended her agency's oversight of the doomed structure.

“Everyone has been thoroughly investigated by the Ministry of Labour, except the ministry itself,” said John Pomerleau, chairman of the Elliot Lake Mall Action Committee. “It’s not right.”

Sophie Dennis, a ministry official, has acknowledged that her office inspected the structure more than 30 times between 1995 and 2012 and knew that the structure had leaked for decades, but never dispatched engineers to investigate further.

At the Breaking Point

Meanwhile, the judicial inquiry into the collapse learned from a panel of engineers that nine steel beams at the mall had corroded to the breaking point when the structure caved in last summer, killing two women.

The engineers, from NORR, were the among the latest witnesses—including architects, city officials, and building product manufacturers—called to testify before the Elliot Lake Inquiry.

“Many areas [throughout the structure] were depleted to the point where collapse could be imminent,” said Hassan Saffarini, the structural engineer in charge of NORR’s forensic inspection.

corrosion at Algo Centre Mall
NORR Report

A severely corroded steel beam fell through the roof of the Algo Centre Mall. Engineers testified that as many as nine beams were in critical condition and that any one of them could have caused a collapse.

The panel also testified May 29 on the design, construction codes and waterproofing issues at the mall. A series of other witnesses testified regarding pieces of the concrete slab that had fallen through the ceiling of a business at the mall.

NORR was retained by the Ontario Provincial Police after the rooftop parking garage gave way on June 23, 2012. The mall, built in 1980, has been demolished.

Corrosion Dangers

Saffarini identified nine areas in “critical condition” that posed an immediate threat to public safety, he said. Team members testified that they had safety concerns regarding the structure's stability when they inspected it July 25-28, 2012.

One of the most at-risk locations was a walkway near a shop entrance.

"There was a good probability it [steel beam] would soon have failed," said Saffarini. "The amount of corrosion was so severe the flange was almost completely depleted."

Earlier reports identified corrosion levels at the mall as like those observed in a marine-like environment.

Cause of Collapse

The testimony follows a 700-page report released by NORR in March 2013. The report, which has been key in the inquiry, identified the corroded beam connection that caused the collapse and further detailed the dilapidated state of the structure.

"The failure presented itself in a way that is clear," Saffarini testified. "There was a connection loss and a failure that resulted in the collapse."

NORR Report

The Algo Centre Mall collapsed June 23, 2012, killing two and injuring others. The Elliot Lake Inquiry is studying the accident's cause and emergency response.

The 32-year-old structure leaked water from the day it opened until it collapsed. The combination of road salt and water had a lethal effect on the steel construction, according to NORR’s 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 happened in one second, the engineers’ report said.

One engineer who had inspected the mall’s condition as recent as April 2012 has been charged with health and safety violations in the case.

Design Problems

The NORR experts also noted that although the design of the uncovered rooftop parking garage in Northern Ontario was not an ideal choice, it did not contribute to the collapse.

“Avoiding rooftop parking all together would have been the simpler approach,” Saffarini said. “The fact that it was located in the North didn’t help.”

The experts further testified on the original design drawings, construction codes at the time, and waterproofing used on the mall, according to the transcript from Wednesday (May 29).

For example, NORR architect Chris Hughes said inconsistencies in the design documents were present 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.”

Elliot Lake Inquiry

Months before the building collapsed, pieces of concrete fell through the ceiling of businesses at the mall, according to evidence at the inquiry.

The overall design of the mall has been called into question at numerous points throughout the inquiry, as has the waterproofing.

Falling Concrete Cited

Recent testimony in the Elliot Lake Inquiry has also revealed evidence that the city knew, and was suspicious, of issues at the mall but did not act.

For example, city councilor Al Collet testified May 23 that he told the city building department about the state of the building a couple of 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 presented the concern to the chief building official, Bruce Ewald.

“His response to me was, ‘It's difficult, it would look very bad for the city to shut the mall down,’" said Collet. "My response to that—and I regret saying it now—was, 'What are we waiting for? Somebody to die?'”

Sophie Dennis
Elliot Lake Inquiry

Testimony by Sophie Dennis, of Ontario's Ministry of Labour, angered residents. The agency inspected the doomed mall more than 30 times.

The city’s building officials are required under law to fix or demolish buildings that are not watertight or structurally sound, the report said.

A structural engineer with Coreslab Structures, the manufacturer of the concrete slabs used on the project, confirmed in her testimony Tuesday (May 28) that the concrete that fell from the mall's roof was a section of the "actual slab."

The fracture, which resulted from the volume of corrosion pushing at the concrete, posed a "serious cause for concern," the engineer said.

Building Official Responds

Ewald testified May 27 that he had not seen the piece of fallen concrete as indicative of a structural problem and that he did not investigate the matter further, according to reports.

He admitted that he would have closed down the mall had he known of the more than 30 years of structural issues there. He also clarified Collet’s earlier statement.

Bruce Ewald
Elliot Lake Inquiry

The city's chief building official, Bruce Ewald, said a piece of fallen concrete had not indicated a structural problem to him.

“What I said was, 'What do you want me to do, Al? Close down the mall?'”

Ewald also said closing the mall “would have been economically detrimental to the city.”

Architect Warned on New Roof

Architect John Clinckett also recently testified that he was hired in 2007 to find a solution to the leak problem that had plagued the mall for so many years.

He had discussed building a new roof over top of the rooftop parking deck with the owner, but said that it would not have solved the issue fully.

"The cars would still be driving in. They would have snow on them, ice and salt. They would be driving in on the deck, dripping water, and it would leak through," Clinckett testified.

In addition, there were concerns about the weight of a second roof.

Therefore, the architect—just as many experts before him—recommended a waterproofing membrane, a suggestion rejected by the owner of the mall as too costly.

The inquiry will continue for several more months. The first phase, focusing on the cause of the accident, is expected to wrap up next month; a second phase, into the emergency response, will follow.


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

Comment from Gary Burke, (6/6/2013, 11:05 AM)

Seems to me, nobody did there jobs and somebody did have to die before something happened! Seems like it wasn't built right to start with!

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