EXCLUSIVE: Engineering reports warn of extensive leakage and fire risk at Elliot Lake mall

The owners of a northern Ontario mall were warned of rust and water damage to a parking deck but were told the building was structurally sound in the months before it collapsed and killed two people, according to engineering reports obtained by Global News.

Many Elliot Lake residents were not as optimistic about the mall’s safety, pointing to the rust and leaks as evidence that it was only a matter of time before the rooftop parking deck crumbled.

See our interactive graphic of the mall’s water damage and read the reports here.

Time proved wary residents right on June 23, when a section of the Algo Centre Mall’s roof crashed down into the building, killing Doloris Perizzolo, 74, and Lucie Aylwin, 37, and injuring 20 more people.

Already in 2009, mall management, concerned about the building’s structure, commissioned a study from an engineering firm based in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

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The report from M.R. Wright Associates states the purpose of their work: “to specifically review and report on concerns that water leakage through the parking deck may have created a weakening of the structure and damaged the required sprayed-on fireproofing of the steel structure.”

The report is addressed to then mall manager Henri McCleery and also indicates it was copied to Bob Nazarian of Eastwood Mall Inc., the company that bought the building in 2005.

The review of the building included a visual inspection of areas where, according to the engineering firm, there was “significant leakage” within the mall, below the parking deck.

The main mall’s ticket kiosk, which was the point of collapse in June, was a focus of the inspection due to “significant previous water leaks.” Engineers found minor surface rusting where the fireproofing fell off as a result of water saturation. Insulation batts on the beams were also missing in some places exposing the concrete slabs.

The report mentions varying degrees of rusting to steel beams in other locations, but the engineering inspection revealed “no visual structural concerns both with the structural steel or pre-stressed (pre-cast concrete) slabs.”

At the time of the inspection, the engineers said waterproofing repairs were being conducted on the parking lot at the south end of the mall. The engineers cited the loss of fireproofing as their major concern.

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The same engineering firm was asked by management to inspect the mall again on April 12, 2012, just two months before the collapse.

Again, engineers observed rusting on structural steel beams in a report addressed to mall manager Rhonda Bear. However, their report stated there were “no visual signs of structural distress” due to the rust.

The engineers also noted the mall was conducting waterproofing of the parking deck, which they considered “only a temporary solution.” The opinion was repeated in a memo addressed to Bear, which indicated it was copied to Bruce Ewald, the chief building officer at the City of Elliot Lake.

The memo suggests the city had concerns about how maintenance would impact the mall’s structure.

The city’s mayor said he couldn’t elaborate what those concerns were, although there were obvious problems at the mall.

“The structure was leaking and everybody knew that to be the case,” said Rick Hamilton. “But I don’t think anybody had any notion that it was going to be an imminent catastrophic failure.”

A forensic architect said finding that much damage and no structural problems simply doesn’t add up.

“The warning bells should have went off, should have been raised when the same engineer came back earlier this year and saw that no long-term repair, no waterproofing had been installed since their visit in 2009,” said Martin Gerskup, president of Toronto-based BEST Consultants.

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Gerskup said water is the enemy when it comes to aging buildings such as the mall, constructed in 1980.

“I’m afraid that what we’ve seen in Elliot Lake may be the beginning of several failures due to the fact that the buildings that we do have built 30 or 40 years ago are coming to a point in their age that if they weren’t properly waterproofed they will fail,” he said.

City councillor Tom Farquhar said the reports never came to the current council and that any questions about responsibility would be addressed by the public inquiry called by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.

“I’ve certainly seen the leaks, and I’m also on the board at the library, but I’ve certainly never seen anything to make me believe there was structural damage,” he said.

Eastwood Mall Inc. referred questions to its lawyer, who was not immediately available for comment. The engineering firm also declined to comment on the reports.

While the mall’s engineers weren’t predicting calamity, many community members were.

“We all had bets on when this mall would fall down, and we were all hoping it would be at night so no one would get hurt,” an unidentified woman shouted at a lawyer for the mall in a press conference following the collapse.

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Photos posted on Facebook by Elliot Lake residents show tarps covering holes in the ceiling, and what appear to be bricks shifting on the façade of the building, cracks in tiled floors, rusting posts and beams and water damage to ceilings.

The allegations have become the basis for a $30-million class action lawsuit filed Friday on behalf of a group of plaintiffs who claim they suffered physical, emotional or financial harm in the collapse.

The lawsuit names the owner of the Algo Centre Mall, Eastwood Mall Inc., and its controller Robert Nazarian, the city of Elliot Lake, the provincial government and an unnamed engineer who approved the structure of the mall shortly before the collapse.

The notice of action alleges the defendants ignored warnings of dangerous safety conditions and failed to conduct adequate safety inspections. The allegations have not been proven in court.

The Ontario Provincial Police have launched a criminal investigation and the Ontario Ministry of Labour is conducting its own probe, after visiting the mall six times over the past three years.

Follow Jennifer and Rebecca on Twitter: @GNHealth and @rebeccalindell 

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