Warning signs at the Elliot Lake inquiry

The timing of charges against engineer Robert Wood are just as troubling as the allegations
Microsoft Word - Forensic Engineering Investigation Algo Centre Mall Collapse 2013-03-08.doc ***If any additional info is needed, Frisco would LOVE to help;)
Warning signs
Ontario Provincial Police Exhibit

Two months and three dozen witnesses later, the Elliot Lake public inquiry is still in its early days. But as lawyers continue to sift through the wreckage of last summer’s deadly shopping mall collapse—an absolutely preventable disaster that killed two women and injured 20 others—the evidence is now appallingly clear: so many people made so many mistakes over so many years that it’s amazing the Algo Centre stayed up so long.

The rooftop parking lot (a ridiculous idea to begin with) was poorly designed and defectively waterproofed. Owner after owner used cheap, Band-Aid solutions to patch the ensuing leaks. The city failed to enforce its own bylaws, ensuring that buildings are watertight and structurally stable. And nearly every engineer who inspected the doomed mall failed to recognize that decades’ worth of salty slush and rain had dangerously corroded the steel beams holding the roof deck in place.

Like the warning signs that appeared so obvious, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Yet in a surprising development—smack in the middle of the inquiry—the Ontario Ministry of Labour has singled out one character in particular: Robert G.H. Wood, a former engineer who inspected the ill-fated mall just 10 weeks before the cave-in and declared it “structurally sound.” The ministry has charged the 64-year-old Sault Ste. Marie resident with two offences, including one count of “providing negligent advice.” If convicted, he faces up to one year in prison and a $25,000 fine.

The actual charges are hardly shocking. Wood—whose engineering licence was revoked for the “professional misconduct” he displayed on another job—was the last professional to inspect the Algo Centre’s rusty steel beams. A preliminary report prepared by ministry engineers Roger Jeffreys and Brain Sanders claims Wood failed to “react to the indications of corrosion that were openly visible” and neglected to examine any of the welded joints that connected the mall’s horizontal beams to its vertical columns. (It was one of those severely corroded connections that let go on June 23, 2012, crushing Doloris Perizzolo and Lucie Aylwin.)

Even more disturbing, the ministry discovered that Wood agreed, at the behest of mall owner Bob Nazarian, to remove two unflattering photos from his final report: one showing a drip tarp hanging from the Zellers ceiling, the other a badly rusted beam. “The mall management wanted to exclude from this report any negative indications of the mall’s condition,” Jeffreys and Sanders wrote. “Wood complied with this request and thus gave a false report on the mall’s condition.”

Still, the timing of the charges—and the source of the allegations—is equally troubling. While prosecuting Wood, the Ministry of Labour is itself under fire for the way its own staff responded to dozens of workplace complaints at the Algo Centre over the years. Many, including Wood’s lawyers, are calling for an independent probe of the ministry’s conduct. “We’re going to ask that the charges be delayed until the completion of the public inquiry, and until some decision is made about how the Ministry of Labour is going to be investigated,” says Mike O’Neill, one of those lawyers.

Evidence from the inquiry reveals that one ministry inspector visited the mall in January 2012, just five months before the collapse, to investigate an anonymous tip about the leaky roof. The manager, Rhonda Bear, assured him that a repair plan was in the works, and the inspector didn’t ask to see any actual leakage. But he did spend time in Bear’s office, talking about cooking and her upcoming wedding.

On June 4, less than three weeks before the ceiling fell down, a Zellers employee named Robert Comeau emailed the ministry. “We have water leaks in the roof so bad that the lights in some areas kicked off,” he wrote. “Could someone help us as I feel my health and my fellow workers [sic] health is on the line.” A government employee told him to call a toll-free number. The day after the collapse, June 24, Comeau sent another note: “Could you reply to my first email about the water leaks and air quality as now the roof came down.” Amazingly, the response was the same. “If you want a safety inspector to investigate a complaint, you need to call the Health and Safety Contact Centre.”

Grilled at the public inquiry, assistant deputy minister Sophie Dennis said her officials have conducted their own internal review and made certain “tweaks” to the system. An independent investigation isn’t necessary, she said, because the ministry has identified “additional training opportunities” to ensure staff “continue to do the good work they do.”

Douglas Elliott, a lawyer who represents a large group of mall merchants and customers—and who is leading the class-action lawsuit filed against a long list of defendants—was incredulous. “Has anyone employed by your ministry been disciplined as a result of this tragedy?” he asked Dennis. “I’m not asking for names. I’m just asking: Has anyone been disciplined as a result of this tragedy?”

“No,” she replied.

“This is a case where your own ministry repeatedly investigated and did nothing with respect to the roof parking deck but file reports, a course of action that failed to prevent the death of a working woman, Lucie Aylwin,” Elliott continued. “Is not that a context that requires a very thorough investigation of the ministry, by the ministry or by someone else?”

“I don’t necessarily agree with that,” Dennis answered.

As for Wood, his first court date is May 15. Three weeks later, he is scheduled to testify at the inquiry. O’Neill says his client will “absolutely” plead not guilty, and urges the public to listen to Wood before passing judgment. “This has been terrible for him,” he says. “He has had a lot of sleepless nights. But for him to take on the responsibility that ‘I am the cause of this,’ I don’t think he feels that way.”

As O’Neill points out, Nazarian commissioned Wood’s now-shuttered company, M.R. Wright & Associates, to conduct a “visual” inspection of the mall’s structural, mechanical and electrical systems. Nazarian was looking to refinance the property in the weeks before the collapse and needed an engineering firm to walk the property and prepare a report. “He was asked to do a very limited thing, certainly much less than probably four, five or six other engineers that had been in the mall the previous ten or 12 years,” O’Neill says. “But his inspection was so close to the actual collapse, and I think obviously someone wants to zero in on a person at fault—and he happens to be the one.”

The ministry’s charge sheet, however, says the offences occurred as far back as October 5, 2009, suggesting that Wood’s alleged negligence was not limited to just his final inspection.

In September 2009, after three decades of obvious decay, Elliot Lake’s building department conducted its own inspection of the Algo Centre and found a long list of defects, including the leaky roof, the rusted structural beams and a loss of fireproofing material in the ceilings. The city ordered Nazarian to “have the entire mall area inspected by [a] structural engineer” and “correct all deficiencies.” Robert Wood was that engineer.

In his subsequent report, written in October 2009, Wood confirmed that his job was to “specifically review and report on concerns that water leakage through the parking deck may have created a weakening of the structure.” But despite “severe areas of leakage,” he found “no visual structural concerns” and concluded that the corrosion on the beams was merely “surface rust.” His biggest worry was that the incessant leaking had damaged the sprayed-on fireproofing on the beams, so much so that he urged mall management to replace it as soon as possible.

Wood’s 2009 report also included a photograph of the rusty beam directly above lottery kiosk, the same one that would let go 2½ years later.

When Wood returned to Elliot Lake on April 12, 2012, just ten weeks before the tragedy, he was still convinced that all was well. Despite what he described as “ongoing leakage” and “evidence of rusting” on many of the steel beams supporting the parking deck, he considered “the members still structurally sound.” As he wrote in one letter, co-signed by Gregory Saunders, his company’s manager of engineering: “It is our opinion that the observed rusting at this time has not detrimentally changed the load-carrying capacities of the structure, and no visual signs of structural distress were observed.”

In their report, the Ministry of Labour engineers criticize Wood for not testing any of the welded connections. A separate team of forensic engineers, hired by the Ontario Provincial Police to investigate the collapse, was surprised that Wood described the corrosion as “surface” rust. “The observed evidence of extensive severe to very severe corrosion in the structural steel of the roof parking level framing contradicts such a statement completely,” they wrote. “There is no evidence that any measurement of loss of section was made to support this statement.”

Wood is anxious to explain himself on the witness stand, his lawyer says. “It’s bad luck that he happened to be the last guy in,” O’Neill says. “But to simply say nobody saw it until he came in, and that he should have seen it, is unfair.”

Michael Friscolanti’s full investigation, Doomed: The Untold Story Behind the Collapse of the Elliot Lake Mall, is available on eBook.