No shortage of blame as inquiry set to report on mall collapse

Commissioner Paul Belanger set to report this week on the deadly collapse of mall in Elliot Lake

When Commissioner Paul Belanger reports this week on the deadly collapse of a mall in northern Ontario, he and his team will have spent months sorting through numerous claims, counterclaims and finger-pointing as to who was to blame for the tragedy.

No one involved in the Algo Centre mall’s 30-year history of leaks – from the architect who designed it and the last owner on whose watch part of the rooftop parking caved in to the myriad players in between – has been willing to accept responsibility for the disaster that left two women dead and the town of Elliot Lake reeling.

“Those who ought to have known certain conditions appeared to have no idea or simply had no desire to know how bad things were becoming,” Keith Moyer, chairman of the Seniors Action Group of Elliot Lake, said in final written submissions.

“Those who ought to have known and ought to have demanded immediate action to stop this deterioration appear to have been in denial.”

There would be no denying what happened on a sunny Saturday afternoon on June 23, 2012.

Concrete and a vehicle crashed down into the mall, killing Lucie Aylwin, 37, and Doloris Perizzolo, 74. Several others were hurt. The collapse sparked a frantic scramble to get out, and then a search and rescue operation that many residents severely criticized as being woefully inadequate.

The victims’ families, who are suing the town and others for damages, see plenty of blame to spread around.

They argue town officials failed to do their building-inspection and enforcement jobs; the mayors involved lied when they claimed ignorance of a 1999 engineering report warning of the dangers of ongoing leakage; the various owners were dishonest, negligent and greedy.

Officially, of course, Belanger’s 744-page report on the events leading up to the collapse will not assign legal blame or liability when it is released Wednesday along with his recommendations aimed at preventing a repeat of a similar tragedy, and his findings cannot be used in any prosecution.

In practice, however, it will lay bare the roles played by those who should have, or could have, done something to prevent the collapse, who seemed to ignore the proverbial alarm bells – ear-splitting as they were.

The report from the $20-million inquiry comes against the backdrop of an ongoing police investigation that has already led to serious charges – criminal negligence causing death and bodily harm – against former engineer Robert (Bob) Wood, who signed off on the good health of the mall just weeks before a corroded structural-steel weld gave way.

Wood, whose 40-year career was ignominiously buried by the falling concrete, admitted to altering his report at the behest of the mall’s last owner, Bob Nazarian.

The discredited engineer, who tried unsuccessfully to get Belanger to black out parts of the final report that refer to him, blamed Nazarian for failing to pass on “necessary and relevant” information about the history of the mall that would have properly informed his inspection.

Nazarian himself has admitted to having had the millions of dollars required for the drastic renovations needed to save the mall, but said he did not want to pour more money down what he called a “black hole.”

“No matter how much money you put in…that mall was doomed,” Nazarian testified.

However, he insisted he had no idea of the history of problems he was buying into when he purchased what townsfolk dubbed the “Algo Falls.”

“Definitely, I would not buy the mall if I knew that the leaks were continuing from so long period,” he said.

Nazarian blames “defective design and installation” of the novel but cheap waterproofing system used when the mall was built in 1979 along with the centre’s first two owners’ “failure to take effective remedial measures.”

He also blames the town for failing to enforce the building code, and various engineers for missing the structurally significant corrosion that ultimately led to the collapse.

On Monday, the victims’ families said in a statement they hoped the commissioner will be recommending that the province make it an offence for the owner of a building – or directors of a corporation that owns a building – to keep secret any problems related to the structural integrity or threats to the safety of its users.

A look at the emergency response and recommendations will form the 652-page second volume of Belanger’s report.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.