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Engineer Altered Mall Inspection Report

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

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An engineer who inspected a doomed mall in Elliot Lake, Ontario, two months before it collapsed has admitted to removing photographs and descriptions from a structural assessment report at the request of the mall’s owner.

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.

Robert Wood, the former president of M.R. Wright & Associates of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, inspected the Algo Centre Mall and its rooftop parking garage in April 2012 before the structure collapsed and killed two people on June 23, 2012.

Earlier this month, Wood testitifed before the public inquiry into the collapse that he had been “gullible” to rely on owner Bob Nazarian's assurances regarding the mall’s condition.

Wood, who had practiced for about 38 years, had his professional engineering license revoked in 2011 in an unrelated matter.

He has been charged with health and safety violations stemming from the deadly collapse, according to Ontario’s Labor Ministry.

Removing Key Photographs

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, according to his testimony.

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, according to Wood’s testimony.

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.”

Nazarian was applying for a mortgage, he said.

The mall’s owner is expected to testify the week of July 15.

Other alterations were made to the final document as well, including removing the word “ongoing” from “ongoing leakage,” and the words “particular concern,” according to his testimony.

Wood had previously inspected the mall in 2009. He admitted he knew of leaks at that time.

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. The collapse was short, lasting for 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.

Altered Documents

Wood further said he had removed the photos and made changes to the assessment report without discussing those with his partner and fellow engineer, Gregory Saunders.

Both Saunders and Wood had signed off on the report that gave the mall a somewhat clean bill of health.  The engineers informed the owners that the mall was structurally sound despite evidence of rust on concrete beams and water damage, according to the inspection documents.

Wood admitted that altering the documents after signing was “inappropriate.”  He said Saunders learned of Wood's 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 noted that 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 scores of evidence regarding the mall’s allegedly flawed design, water-proofing system failure, and severe corrosion. More than 75 witnesses are expected to testify.

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


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

Comment from otis wayne Hale, (6/19/2013, 1:16 AM)

The man is bent, and without professional ethics. He is ruined. And well should be.

Comment from Dennis Guy, (6/19/2013, 10:39 AM)

What a sad way to end a long career... My thoughts and prayers to those who lost their lives and also to Mr. Wood who suffered a lapse of judgement.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (6/20/2013, 10:44 AM)

I haven't seen the original and edited reports, so I can't say whether this was a lapse in judgement or lack of professional ethics...but I can tell you that there is a fair bit of pressure out there for engineers to give clients what they want...soften up some language here, omit a photo there and make things a bit more favorable so the client doesn't reject the report and stiff the engineer on the bill (with all the legal fun that comes with trying to collect afterwards). I personally believe that there will be a lot of blame to go around on this one...lack of inspections by some, whitewashed inspections by others, an owner (or multiple owners as the case is) dropping anyone who doesn't have an immediate, cheap solution to the problem or wants to acknowledge there is a major problem to start with....the list goes on and on. It is unfortunate that people had to die in order to make the point that something was wrong...but hopefully it'll help prevent similar events from happening again in the future.

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