POLITICS

Engineer denies warning buyer mall roof risked collapse without immediate fix

06/07/2013 04:00 EDT | Updated 08/06/2013 05:12 EDT
ELLIOT LAKE, Ont. - A discredited engineer who declared the doomed Algo Centre Mall structurally sound just weeks before it collapsed had previously told a prospective buyer the roof was in urgent need of repair, an inquiry heard Friday.

In a 2011 conversation relayed by inquiry counsel, Robert (Bob) Wood told the developer it would cost $1.5 million to fix the mall's roof.

"It had to be fixed right away, or the roof would cave in," Wood was cited as telling Ron McCowan.

However, Wood said he could barely recall any such conversation. McCowan, who did not buy the mall, has yet to testify.

Inquiry lawyer Bruce Carr-Harris pressed Wood on the apparent conversation with McCowan, saying it suggested the engineer knew the mall was in deep trouble more than six months before its roof caved in.

"Did you tell him that salt leaked down the columns and made them not sound?" Carr-Harris asked.

"Absolutely not."

"You may have told him that a new roof had to be put on?"

"That portion, yes."

Wood denied giving McCowan a cost estimate, or telling him the roof needed immediate repairs or would cave in at some point.

"It's probably what I would have thought but, no, I didn't say that."

Subsequently, in May 2012, Wood reported to mall owner Bob Nazarian that steel supports at the shopping centre showed surface rusting, but were otherwise "structurally sound."

The assessment followed a superficial inspection of the property in which Wood noted "no visual distress."

"The serious problem was there to be seen, but you didn't see it," Carr-Harris said.

"It was covered up," Wood responded on his second day on the stand.

The inquiry also saw photographs from a town resident in early 2012, showing steel supports with clearly visible rust holes. Wood said he noticed no such damage during his walkabout.

The engineer did admit changing the final May 3, 2012, inspection report — after he and his partner, Gregory Saunders, had signed off on it.

The changes included removing photographs he had taken in a mall store showing yellow tarps strung up to collect water leaking from the roof and a "heavily" corroded steel beam. He also removed a reference to "ongoing" leakage.

The changes were made at Nazarian's request, Wood said. The owner was apparently unhappy the mall would look bad when he was trying to get refinancing for it.

"Often, clients don't want to see the worst things that you saw," Wood said of the deletions.

"Don't you think it misrepresents the actual condition of the building?" Carr-Harris asked.

"No. The substance of the report did not change."

Nazarian told him the tarps were going to be removed and the leaking fixed, Wood said.

"I gullibly believed him."

Wood admitted he did not discuss the changes he made to the report with Saunders, but refused to call his behaviour unprofessional.

"How could you do that to your partner?" Carr-Harris asked.

"I apologized to him afterwards and I should not have done it. It was inappropriate."

On June 23, 2012, weeks after the inspection report was completed, part of the roof-top garage caved in due to severe rusting of its steel support structure — the result of decades of water and salt infiltration.

Two women died and several others were hurt.

Wood was stripped of his professional engineering licence in November 2011 after admitting to misconduct unrelated to the mall.

He continued to practise as a "graduate" engineer and owner of M.R. Wright based out of Sault Ste, Marie, Ont. — essentially with restrictions on what he could do. His 40-year career ended shortly after the mall collapse.

On the stand, he said he had pleaded guilty to get the hearing over with, not because he felt he had done anything wrong.

"I was right," he said.

"But nobody agreed with you," Carr-Harris noted.

"That's correct."

In a statement to the commissioner after he wrapped up his testimony, Wood offered a statement.

"I deeply regret that I could not see, and I did not predict the events of June 23, 2012," he said.

"The loss of life and injuries at the mall ... was avoidable."

Without the commission and investigations into the tragedy, he said, "the answers and cause of the collapse would have continued to haunt me."

The inquiry continues Monday, when McCowan is expected to testify. Nazarian is due to testify next month.