Norr Engineering
Testimony at a commission of inquiry shows mall owner's unusual approach to repairing the mall's leaky roof.

Where once it looked like the entire blame for a fatal mall roof section collapse in northern Ontario last June would rest on the shoulders of a single engineer and his employer, testimony given in Toronto at a special provincial inquiry about the accident now shows a series of missteps and sloppy practices that may have contributed to the disaster.

Testimony presented on May 14, the 43rd day that the Ontario Ministry of Labor has heard witnesses, offered some of the most telling details.

The 2012 accident, in which the parking deck rooftop slab of the Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, collapsed onto a retail concourse below. Two women employed in the mall were killed in the accident.

Witnesses testifying in Elliot Lake, located 375 miles northwest of Toronto, described cursory inspections, overlooked rust on structural members and insufficient fixes on the leaking concrete roof slab.

In prior sessions, witnesses testified about every aspect of the building and the collapse.

This includes the original structural designer talking about whether the building was constructed as designed, and Ontario's provincial engineer answering questions about why he was not involved in the matter when the province’s Ministry of Labor was investigating the mall’s leaking roof.

Under the rules of the proceedings, attorneys for all the various parties involved in the accident are able to question witnesses, which accounts for the great length and volumes of testimony produced so far.

A separate criminal case has also begun. In March, the provincial police, which is conducing the criminal probe, released a 130-page forensic engineering report on the collapse by NORR Ltd., Toronto. The police hired the firm.

The labor ministry announced on April 22 that it had charged Robert Wood—a licensed engineer who had been president of M.R. Wright & Associates Inc., based in Sault St. Marie—with endangering a worker as a result of providing negligent advice and “working in a manner that may endanger a worker.”

Wood and the firm's former engineering manager—Gregory Saunders, who had signed off on the inspection report on the the mall several weeks before the accident—sent a letter to the mall manager stating the facility was structurally sound, although they noted problems such as rust in the structural-steel members and leakage from the parking deck.

Attorneys for Wood did not return requests for comment, but the engineer is set to appear in court in Elliot Lake on June 4, according to a local published report.

He was charged with two violations, and faces a fine of up to $50,000 and 24 months in jail. In previous published reports in Canada, Wood's attorneys had said he would plead not guilty.

Civil lawsuits also are under way.

The families of Doloris Perizzolo, 74, and Lucie Aylwin, 37, filed suit Oct. 1 in Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Sault Ste. Marie for about $5 million against M.R. Wright, the city of Elliot Lake, and developer Robert Nazarian and his company, Eastwood Mall Inc., an owner of the Algo Centre Mall.

M.R. Wright has been acquired by Huntsville, Ontario-based Tulloch Engineering.

Unusual Mall Repair Approach

In the testimony, witnesses noted Nazarian’s unusual approach to repairing the mall roof.

Nazarian’s IT consultant, Alexander Sennett, said that Nazarian had hired him to do an upgrade of the mall’s camera security system. His role was later enlarged so that he became a liaison to help deal with government officials and others.

Sennett even incorporated Empire Roofing and Restoration  Inc. to get financing for roof repairs for the mall.

Empire served as general contractor and billed the mall for construction management services.

During a 2008 roof repair at the mall, the contractor and a consulting architect relied on a nine-year-old report about the roof’s condition, witnesses testified.

Performed by Peak Restoration, the project was supervised by John Clinckett, a consulting architect, according to witnesses.

The project team selected a fix involving a waterproof membrane, asphalt topping and caulking/sealant, witnesses testified.

The load tolerances of the membrane and topping may not have been factored into the work, according to testimony, as both Peak and Clinckett apparently relied on the 1999 report.

And witnesses that included a Nazarian employee testified that the mall owner never went ahead with installation of the membrane.

During testimony and examination of Clinckett, attorneys at the commission describe an email from an engineer to Sennett, about the loads imposed on the building’s frame by the roof project:

"Bob, I've reviewed the ... requirements for the loading on the roof slab of the Algo Mall in Elliot Lake in conjunction with the original Coreslab shop drawings and design tables…After our review and discussions both Coreslab and Kleinfeldt are of the opinion that the existing structure is not capable of carrying the additional loading of the proposed waterproofing membrane and asphalt overlay."

Lawyer Joe Bisceglia, representing engineer Greg Saunders (who was granted status allowing him to ask questions at the hearing), drove the point home in his examination of Clinckett: "Is it your evidence under oath that the Ontario Building Code permits you to ignore the snow load requirement for a structure?"

Clinckett: "Not on a roof."

"So with respect to the Algo Mall, you would agree with me that [whoever] designed it would have to make an allowance for the snow load. And in addition to that you have the live load, and you can't ignore these two calculations on those two weights, is that fair?"

Clinckett: "They are both live loads, yes."

More light may be shed on the complex train of decisions if and when Wood testifies as scheduled early next month.