Why one man faces criminal charges in the Elliot Lake mall collapse

Michael Friscolanti unravels the latest on the doomed mall

Ontario Provincial Police Exhibit

Ontario Provincial Police Exhibit

When Robert Wood walked into Elliot Lake’s shopping mall that Thursday morning—April 12, 2012—he was, in brutal hindsight, its last hope. A once-respected engineer hired to inspect the now-infamous building, Wood had the chance to prevent a disaster. His word alone could have saved two innocent lives.

Nothing wrong, he concluded. “Structurally sound.”

Just 10 weeks later—in a split-second captured on tape—a portion of the Algo Centre’s rooftop parking lot caved in, sending thousands of pounds of steel and concrete raining onto the plaza below. Lucie Aylwin, working a weekend shift at one of the mall’s lottery booths, was selling Nevada tickets to a kiosk regular, Doloris Perizzolo. Neither had time to react, buried by the downpour.

The full story, of course, is hardly so simple. As made abundantly clear during months of testimony at a recent judicial inquiry, Elliot Lake’s only mall was doomed long before Robert Wood ever laid eyes on it, a star-crossed structure plagued by dreadful timing, sloppy construction, gross neglect and a collective blind eye. The rooftop parking lot (a questionable 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 rigorously enforce its own bylaws, ensuring buildings are watertight and structurally stable. And a long list of inspectors somehow didn’t recognize that decades’ worth of salty slush and rain had severely corroded the steel beams and welded connections holding the parking deck in place.

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To blame Robert Wood—and him alone—for the tragic events of June 23, 2012 is to ignore the obvious: many people over many years made many mistakes, calculated and otherwise.

But it’s Wood, now 64, who could end up behind bars for a very long time. On Friday morning, following an 18-month investigation by the Ontario Provincial Police, Wood was arrested at his Sault Ste. Marie home and charged with three offences: two counts of criminal negligence causing death and one count of criminal negligence causing bodily harm. (If convicted, a single count of criminal negligence causing death carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.)

Why single out one person? With a trial looming and the criminal investigation still active, the OPP would not say what specifically warranted Friday’s charges. (“He was an engineer who conducted inspections of the building that included the mall and the parking structure,” Superintendent Dave Truax told Maclean’s. “I can’t say anything more than that.”) But the charges—criminal negligence—speak for themselves. Despite a long list of dubious characters forever linked to the Algo Centre collapse, police clearly believe Bob Wood is the only one (for now, at least) who not only botched his duties, but displayed a reckless disregard for public safety.

In other words, he wasn’t just derelict. He was derelict to the point where he should have foreseen the terrible aftermath of his alleged negligence.

Wood was released from custody Friday pending his first court appearance, scheduled for March 25. (He already faces two separate provincial charges filed last April by the Ontario Ministry of Labour, including one count of “providing negligent advice.”) Contacted by Maclean’s, his lawyer declined to discuss the new charges. “Mr. Wood has been extraordinarily co-operative with OPP,” Mike O’Neill wrote in an email. “We will be interested in their disclosure.”

But much has been disclosed already, thanks to the parallel public inquiry (which, for the record, is completely separate from the OPP investigation.) Wood himself took the witness stand last summer, expressing his condolences to the victims’ grieving loved ones—while insisting, under oath, that he acted responsibly at all times. If nothing else, the evidence on record paints two distinct portraits: the talented, respected Bob Wood described by many colleagues as brilliant. And the stubborn, arrogant Bob Wood who had his engineering licence revoked just months before that fateful inspection because he finally confessed to “professional misconduct” on an unrelated project.

Engineer Robert (Bob) Wood is shown at the mall-collapse inquiry in Elliot Lake, Ont., on June 6, 2013. (The Canadian Press)

In one telling moment during his two days of testimony, Wood told the inquiry: “Engineers are sometimes wrong. But we never admit …”
He stopped himself midsentence.

Born and educated in Britain, Wood moved to Canada in 1973 and was granted an Ontario engineering licence the following year. Although he worked in larger cities like Toronto and Hamilton, he preferred the smaller-town life, eventually settling in Sault Ste. Marie and landing a job at one of the city’s then-leading engineering firms, M.R. Wright and Associates. It wasn’t long before Wood earned a reputation as a standout structural consultant in northern Ontario. “We’ve always held him in the highest esteem with his quality of work,” Jerry Dolcetti, Sault Ste. Marie’s commissioner of engineering and planning, told Maclean’s last year. “He is very articulate, he is very specific about his responsibilities, and he maintained a high degree of professionalism in anything he did.”

Drive around the city, and Wood’s fingerprints are all over the landscape, from the junior hockey arena that houses the OHL’s Soo Greyhounds to the newly constructed headquarters of the Public Utilities Commission. By 2008, he was president and majority shareholder of M.R. Wright, where he boasted a famously messy desk and a strong rapport with his staff. “Bob was a good-hearted person,” said one former employee. “He went above and beyond to make us happy.” Said another: “Bob was old school. He knew his stuff, he knew his calculations in his head, and you could see how smart he is.”

Looking back, though, 2008 was the beginning of the end of Wood’s stellar career. That fall, he and his firm’s manager of engineering, Gregory Saunders, were hauled in front of a disciplinary committee of the PEO, the organization that regulates Ontario’s engineers. At the heart of the allegations was a bridge rehabilitation project near Wawa that was riddled with “numerous errors, omissions or deficiencies.” To this day, Wood insists he did nothing wrong on that project—“I was right,” he said during his inquiry appearance—but he and Saunders eventually agreed to a plea deal.

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On Oct. 5, 2009, while still awaiting the details of his punishment, Wood steered his car toward Elliot Lake, a two-hour drive from Sault Ste. Marie.

By then, the Algo Centre was approaching its 30th birthday. Originally built in 1980, when the local uranium mines were supposed to boom, the mall proved a colossal bust from the day it opened. When all the mines eventually shut down—and the struggling city rebranded itself as a Retirement Living community—the oversized mall, roof leaks and all, became a centerpiece of recruiting efforts to lure seniors to rural Elliot Lake. Some days, the building featured more bucketsthan benches. Garden hoses dangled from above, draining gallons of water from plastic drip tarps pinned to the ceiling. “Diapers,” as the locals dubbed them. “Algo Falls.”

Two weeks before Wood arrived, the city building department issued a violation notice against the mall’s latest owner, a company operated by a Richmond Hill real estate investor named Asadoor “Bob” Nazarian. Noting “excessive rust” on the structural beams propping up the roof deck—including the beam right over Lucie Aylwin’s lottery booth—the city ordered Nazarian to have a certified engineer inspect “the entire mall area” and “correct all deficiencies.” Wood conducted a visual inspection. “I did what I thought I was expected to do,” he testified.

In his written report, Wood said he was retained to “specifically review and report on concerns that water leakage through the parking deck may have created a weakening of the structure.” He noted “severe areas of leakage” but found “no visual structural concerns.”

A former mall employee, Dmitri Yakimov, told the inquiry he specifically took Wood to the rooftop parking deck to warn him about strange “vibrations” in the concrete right over the kiosk—the same section that collapsed less than three years later. “I didn’t consider it a concern,” Wood testified. “I didn’t see anything that was out of the ordinary when we were standing there.”

Wood stamped his 2009 inspection report with his engineer’s seal, a privilege he was about to lose.

The following year, in November 2010, Wood and Saunders finally learned their punishment for the bridge rehab debacle. Guilty of professional misconduct (but not incompetence, as per their plea deal), M.R. Wright and Associates received a public reprimand and a $10,000 fine. But Wood—who “had a number of opportunities to reconsider the elements of his design and failed to do so,” according to the ruling—endured the harshest penalty. While Saunders was ordered to retake a professional practice exam (which he did),Wood received an immediate two-month suspension. The committee also gave him one year, until November 2011, to pass a technical exam in “advanced structural analysis and design” or lose his certification for good.

Wood never did write the test, and on Nov. 16, 2011—after nearly four decades as an engineer—he officially lost his credentials. That same autumn, he also received phone call from Ron McCowan, a Barrie, Ont., developer who was considering purchasing the Algo Centre from Nazarian. McCowan was given a copy of Wood’s 2009 inspection report and wanted to ask him about the parking lot. According to McCowan, Wood told him, point blank, that the roof would “cave in” without an immediate $1.5-million reinforcement. Wood insists he said no such thing.

By early 2012, Wood was in negotiations with another firm, Tulloch Engineering, to sell M.R. Wright’s assets and quietly retire. In the meantime, he continued to work as a “graduate engineer,” free to carry out his former duties as long as another engineer signed and sealed his work. When Nazarian phoned in April, requesting a second inspection of the mall, Wood did not mention the fact he was no longer licensed.

Unlike in 2009, when the city ordered an urgent assessment, Nazarian was looking to remortgage the property and required an updated inspection of the property’s mechanical, electrical and structural components. Wood drove to Elliot Lake alone, pulling into the parking lot at 9 a.m. on April 12, 2012. He was on his way home by 2:30 p.m.

His draft report, co-signed by Greg Saunders, was not much different than the previous one. Despite “ongoing leakage” and “evidence of rusting” on many of the steel beams supporting the parking deck, Wood considered “the members still structurally sound.” “It is our opinion,” the letter continued, “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.”

Sadly, we now know that one particular portion of the roof was literally hanging by a thread. A welded joint that connected a horizontal steel beam to its corresponding vertical column was so badly corroded it would only hold on for a few more weeks.

Wood said he didn’t examine that ill-fated connection because it was blocked from view by fireproofing material, and he was only hired to conduct a visual inspection. But in a post-collapse report, the Ministry of Labour criticized Wood for not testing even a single welded joint anywhere else in the building, even though there wereclear signs of corrosion. A separate team of forensic engineers, hired by the OPP, was also 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.” Asked at the inquiry why he didn’t examine any connections, Wood replied: “I didn’t see anything that gave me cause to advance it to the next level.”

For Wood, what happened next was even more incriminating. After Greg Saunders discussed and signed his report, and Wood forwarded it to Nazarian, Nazarian asked him to remove two unflattering photographs: one showing a drip tarp hanging from the Zellers ceiling, the other a badly rusted beam. Nazarian also requested some edits to the written portion, including changing “ongoing leakage” to just “leakage.” Wood agreed—without asking Saunders. Only after the collapse did Wood tell his colleague the truth.

“I apologized to him afterwards and I should not have done it,” Wood testified. (In their report, the Ministry of Labour engineers said that by complying with Nazarian’s requests, Wood “gave a false report on the mall’s condition.”)

On June 24, the day after the collapse, Wood phoned Michael Tulloch, the president of Tulloch Engineering. The two were still negotiating the sale of M.R. Wright’s assets, and Wood wanted to fast track the deal. “He said: ‘I’ve got some serious difficulties here to work with,’ ” Tulloch recalled in a previous interview with Maclean’s. “He said: ‘I don’t want to see my staff abandoned. Can we conclude this deal we’ve been discussing so my staff is looked after?’ ” They did. Six weeks after the roof fell down, M.R. Wright was no more; Tulloch acquired most of its assets and 13 new employees.

By then, Bob Wood was already a prime focus of the OPP’s Elliot Lake investigation, still in its early days.

At the inquiry last June, Wood said he hopes Commissioner Paul Bélanger recommends a system that requires building owners to keep a documented history of their properties, “somewhat like medical records.” He insisted that if he had known the mall leaked since the day it opened, he would have approached his inspections much differently. “I deeply regret that I could not see and did not predict the events of June 23, 2012,” he said. “I have spent my entire engineering career designing structures that protect the public of Ontario and the province’s workers. The loss of life and injuries at the mall, and the loss to the Aylwin and Perizzolo families, was avoidable had information been shared.”

In the end, Commissioner Bélanger may reach that exact conclusion when he issues his final report later this year. But in a criminal courtroom, that won’t necessarily exonerate Wood. He is accused of serious crimes—with life-altering repercussions—and he will ultimately be judged on his own behaviour, not anyone else’s.

Still, the optics do seem to lean in his favour. Although his lawyer isn’t speaking anymore, he did tell Maclean’s last year, after the Ministry of Labour charges, that his client is being singled out because he was the last engineer in. “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 10 or 12 years,” O’Neill said. “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.”

“This has been terrible for him,” O’Neill continued. “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.”

Even Roger Oatley, a lawyer who represents the Perizzolo and Aylwin families, says his clients are hopeful the charges won’t end here. “Unwittingly, the OPP may have made Robert Wood something of a scapegoat here,” he says. “The charges certainly seem appropriate, but the real question is: who else deserves to be charged?”

City staff? Senior politicians? Previous owners?

“The families aren’t suggesting that they know better than the police,” Oatley continues. “They’re merely saying that they’re looking forward to finding out if further charges are laid. Mr. Wood may have made a terrible, terrible error in judgment in doing what he did, but there were others who, unlike Mr. Wood, had knowledge of what was wrongwith the mall for years and years.”

Michael Friscolanti spent months chronicling the events that contributed 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. 

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