06/06/2013 04:00 EDT | Updated 08/05/2013 05:12 EDT

Engineer declared mall 'structurally sound' weeks before collapse

ELLIOT LAKE, Ont. - An engineer had long known about severe rusting of steel beams at a mall in northern Ontario when he signed off on a report declaring the structure sound less than two months before it collapsed, a judicial inquiry heard Thursday.

Testifying at the probe into last year's tragedy, Gregory Saunders said his engineering partner, Robert (Bob) Wood, prepared the inspection report, and he signed it after a short discussion on May 3, 2012.

"We would consider the members still structurally sound," the report stated.

"It is our opinion 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."

Seven weeks later, on June 23, 2012, part of the roof-top parking garage at the Algo Centre Mall caved in. Two women were killed and several others were hurt.

The judicial inquiry under Commissioner Paul Belanger has already heard how the steel support structure — corroded by years of water and salt penetration — finally gave way.

Saunders, who never visited the mall, had seen reports dating as far back as 2005 that noted leaks and severe rusting.

He admitted taking no action on the reports, but could not explain why they failed to raise any red flags.

Saunders also said he had forgotten them when Wood asked him to sign the final inspection document in May 2012.

Wood did not mention the long-standing leakage, or a 2009 city order for an extensive inspection of the mall, when he presented the final report for his signature, Saunders said.

"Apparently he checked the worst spots, as far as I know," Saunders said.

"We went over the degree of rust. Bob told me it was surface rust."

"Basically, you're taking his word for all of this?" commission lawyer Bruce Carr-Harris asked.

"Yes," said Saunders, who called Wood a highly regarded structural engineer.

Wood is expected to face tough questions about the May report — which he altered after Saunders signed it — when he continues testifying on Friday.

He did admit on Thursday to doing only a visual inspection of parts of the doomed mall in September 2009, despite a city order to examine the whole building.

In testy exchanges with commission counsel, a combative Wood said it wasn't necessary to examine the entire mall because staff showed him the problem areas.

"I relied on their expertise to show me their areas of concern," he said. "I don't expect to have to go and look at every nook and cranny."

His inspection came after the city ordered the mall to remedy various deficiencies. The order noted, among other things, "excessive rust" on structural beams.

The city told the mall to engage a structural engineer to assess the building.

"Why didn't you do what you were supposed to do?" Carr-Harris asked.

"I did what I thought I was expected to do," Wood responded.

"I have over 40 years of looking at rusted steel and I did not see anything that gave me any concern."

Edwin Nichols, a town resident, said he was saddened by the evidence.

"People don't have a heart," Nichols said. "They don't care what they do as long as they get paid."

The inquiry also heard how Saunders and Wood, who were partners in M.R. Wright based out of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., were both found guilty of professional misconduct in 2010 for their work on an unrelated bridge project.

Wood ended up losing his professional engineering licence after failing to write remedial exams, but Saunders successfully completed his exam work.