Warning signs at Elliot Lake mall: Ignored, until it was too late

Evidence at the inquiry into the Algo Mall collapse shows there were multiple warnings, but no one was listening

Slideshow of a doomed mall. Click on the right of the image to take you to the next slide:

Michael Friscolanti spent months chronicling the events that contibuted to the tragedy at the Algo Centre. His findings appear in our new ebook: Doomed: The Untold Story Behind the Collapse of the Elliot Lake Mall, which is available here.

Here’s Friscolanti’s latest report on the inquiry:

Dmitri Yakimov could sense something wasn’t right. He could hear it. He could feel it. He just couldn’t quite see it.

A Ukrainian immigrant with 20 years in the construction industry, Yakimov had been tasked, like so many before, with trying to stop the incessant leaks eating away at the only shopping mall in Elliot Lake, Ont. In the summer of 2009, three years before the Algo Centre collapsed, Yakimov walked up to the rooftop parking lot to take a closer look at three decades’ worth of water damage. As he stood outside, directly above the ill-fated lottery kiosk, a car drove by—triggering, in his words, “a flex in the concrete surface.”

Alarmed, Yakimov pointed his flashlight at one particular horizontal beam supporting the parking deck. As he later told police, the steel was obviously rusted and worn, but he couldn’t inspect the entire beam because part of it, including its welded connection to a vertical column, was covered in drywall. “What concerned him more was what he could not see, in particular the welds on the beam at the joint,” reads a synopsis of Yakimov’s police interview, filed along with hundreds of other exhibits at an ongoing public inquiry. “Yakimov didn’t know why this section of the parking lot was flexing but believed there [were] issues with the beam, or the welds may have failed at the joint.”

Yakimov told investigators he specifically warned the mall’s owner, Asadoor Bob Nazarian, to close down the parking deck. “[He] advised him [that] some day this was going to end badly, it will come down and he has to get someone to deal with it,” the synopsis continues. “Yakimov advised Nazarian to get a structural engineer in to inspect it because he knew there was a problem.”

According to Yakimov, Nazarian said he couldn’t rope off the roof because it might jeopardize a new lease agreement with a major tenant. Weeks later, Yakimov was fired.

The public inquiry examining the Algo Centre cave-in and the ensuing rescue effort has just begun—and already the testimony is shocking. Shoddy workmanship. Crooked columns. A rooftop waterproofing system that was anything but. The exact cause of the collapse is also now clear: water and salt had so heavily corroded one of those welded connections—the very same one, apparently, that so worried Dmitri Yakimov—that it simply couldn’t hold another second longer.

But buried in those inquiry exhibits, in thousands and thousands of pages, are the answers so many people want to know. Who saw it coming? Who should have (but didn’t)? And why was every warning, including Yakimov’s, seemingly ignored?

Like a giant puzzle, the Algo Centre parking lot was pieced together with precast, hollow-core concrete slabs (eight inches deep, four feet wide, and, for the most part, 30 feet long). The developer, the real estate arm of Algoma Central Railway, chose not to cover the deck with a typical waterproofing membrane; instead, it settled on an experimental system that applied a three-inch concrete topping to the slabs and a polyurethane seal to critical points, such as exposed expansion joints. At the time, the plan was considered so state-of-the-art it was featured in the January 1980 edition of Canadian Building magazine.

“The concrete surface, carefully cured and sealed, serves as its own waterproofing system,” reads the article, now an exhibit. (Nicholas Hirt, Algoma’s lead official on the project, told the reporter he saved more than $1 per square foot by choosing not to install a full membrane.) “If the system works as predicted,” Hirt concludes, “it will represent a significant breakthrough for the industry, and for the team who put it all together.”

It didn’t work, of course. By the time that article was published, the Algo Centre roof was already a leaky, soggy mess. Trying to plug those holes, year after year, owner after owner, was an endless battle.

Did anyone suspect all that rain and slush might chew away at the mall’s structural integrity? Sadly, the answer depends on which engineer was walking through the building.

In April 1991, 11 years after the mall opened, Algoma commissioned Trow Consulting, a Brampton, Ont., firm, to conduct a detailed “investigation” of the parking structure. “It is our opinion that the design used for this roof slab is inappropriate in achieving a watertight condition over commercial areas,” reads their report, which recommended the installation of a complete waterproofing membrane. The firm’s biggest concern was further deterioration of the concrete topping and the slabs below, but not necessarily the structural beams holding them up. Three years later, when Trow conducted another on-site inspection, the concrete slabs, not the steel beams, were once again the top priority. “The beams appeared to be sound with some surface corrosion,” their report states.

In 1995, however, Trow wrote to Algoma yet again; if the deck damage was not repaired, the consultants warned, the core slabs would continue to deteriorate and the ensuing leaks could cause “subsequent corrosion” of the “supporting steel beams.” A year later, in 1996, Trow proposed a detailed structural review, including, for the first time, a “spot check” of the steel connections that, by then, were already destined to fail. For reasons that are sure to surface in the weeks to come, Algoma did not approve the proposal.

Two years after that, in September 1998, Albert Celli visited Elliot Lake. An engineer at Halsall Associates Ltd., he was retained to conduct a visual structural review, with a focus on the now-infamous parking deck. At the time, “Retirement Living” (the not-for-profit group that helped transform Elliot Lake from a busted mining town into a go-to destination for seniors) was considering purchasing the mall and the adjacent 80-room hotel.

“From the underside of the parking deck, we observed some corrosion of the structural steel beams and columns, indicating past leaking of the deck,” Celli wrote. “We understand that there is no existing waterproofing protection system.” Although Celli found “no evidence of structural distress or excessive deterioration of the structural steel framing,” he did recommend further study of the “beam and bracing connections.”

A year later, Halsall returned to the mall. “Corrosion of the steel beams supporting the precast panels has occurred at leak locations, typically causing the red-oxide coating to be removed by surface corrosion,” the company concluded. “Severe scaling has generally not occurred.” Halsall recommended two remedies to Retirement Living, which did buy the mall in 1999: rout and reseal all the cracks and joints on the parking deck, or install a waterproofing membrane with an asphalt topping. In the end, Halsall suggested the first, less expensive, option.

Yet again, a membrane was not installed.

Ignored, until it was too late

Chris Young/CP

Nazarian purchased the Algo Centre in August 2005, seven years before the roof fell in. A real estate investor based in Richmond Hill, Ont., he paid $6.2 million for the doomed mall. Two years later, he approved—then refused to pay for—a repair job that would have included that ever-elusive membrane.

It was probably too late, anyway. NORR, a global engineering firm hired to investigate the scientific cause of the collapse, concluded that installing a membrane in 2007 may have postponed the tragedy, but not prevented it. “We believe that it was already essential at that time that a detailed structural evaluation be conducted and structural retrofit be executed,” their report says. “By that time, we expect, that a significant load-carrying capacity had already been lost due to corrosion and in particular of the steel connections.”

By the time Dmitri Yakimov shone his flashlight on that steel beam, the city of Elliot Lake was conducting its own investigation. Responding to an unspecified complaint, Bruce Ewald, now the city’s chief building official, personally inspected the Algo Centre on Sept. 24, 2009. Accompanying him that day were fire chief Paul Officer and Darren Connors, one of the many emergency responders who would later sprint inside the building after it collapsed.

Ewald found such a long list of deficiencies—the leaky roof, the rusty structural beams, the loss of fireproofing material in the ceilings—that he ordered Nazarian to “have the entire mall area inspected by [a] structural engineer” and “correct all deficiencies” within the next five weeks. (Many in Elliot Lake have accused city officials of not doing enough to ensure the mall was safe; Ewald’s 2009 inspection seems to suggest otherwise.)

Nazarian turned to Robert Wood, the president of M.R. Wright and Associates (MRW), an engineering firm based in nearby Sault Ste. Marie. At the time, Wood and his colleague, Gregory Saunders, were facing regulatory charges of “professional misconduct” for their work on an unrelated bridge rehabilitation, a project that would eventually cost Wood his engineering credentials.

Now 64, Wood examined the mall on Oct. 5, 2009, to “specifically review and report” on the city’s concerns “that water leakage through the parking deck may have created a weakening of the structure.” He noted “severe areas of leakage”—including rust on the very beam that later collapsed—but found “no visual structural concerns.” Wood’s biggest worry was the loss of fireproofing insulation on some of the beams.

Yakimov said he was stunned by the engineer’s conclusions. He told police that when he went back to look at the beam over the lottery kiosk, he realized the drywall had not been removed. “Therefore the beam Yakimov expressed concerns about couldn’t have been thoroughly inspected,” the police wrote. “This really surprised Yakimov.”

Nazarian fired Yakimov in late October 2009, the same week Wood submitted his draft inspection report confirming the structural integrity of the mall. But Yakimov did not keep quiet. According to the paper trail, he went directly to Ewald and the fire chief, warning them that the deficiencies he found would not be “addressed correctly” by Nazarian. In hindsight, he was absolutely correct. The city accepted Wood’s professional opinion. In a November 2009 email to Ewald and Fred Bauthus, then Elliot Lake’s chief administrative officer, Officer wrote: “Just an update on the mall concerns. They have supplied the engineering report from M.R. Wright that does not have any concerns with the structural components of the building that have been subject to the leaks all these years.”

Two-and-a-half years later—on April 12, 2012—Wood returned to the Algo Centre to conduct one last structural inspection. By then, his engineering licence had been officially suspended, punishment for his professional misconduct on that bridge project. As far as Wood was concerned, nothing much had changed since his last trip to Elliot Lake. Despite “ongoing leakage” and “evidence of rusting” on many of the steel beams supporting the parking lot, he considered “the members still structurally sound.”

If Wood examined any of the rotted weld connections, it’s not mentioned in his report.

“It is obvious that by May 2012 when the last MRW report was issued that the condition of the structure was already unsafe and that failure was imminent,” NORR concluded in its post-collapse report. “However there is no reason to believe that MRW had actually seen the grossly deteriorated connections. No photographs or commentary referred to the condition of the connections.”

When that connection slipped, on June 23, 2012, two women died in the debris: Lucie Aylwin, 37, who was working at the lottery kiosk; and Doloris Perizzolo, a 74-year-old widow buying her day’s tickets.

For Dmitri Yakimov, his worst fear had come true. Now living in Niagara Falls, he “viewed pictures of the incident online,” the police report states. “The area where the roof collapse[d] was the exact area where he expressed his concerns to Nazarian a few years prior.”