An expensive plan to fix the perennially leaking Algo Centre Mall went nowhere because the rooftop garage could not have sustained the weight of the proposed repair, the mall's owner testified Wednesday.
Bob Nazarian told the inquiry into the mall's deadly collapse he was on the verge of signing a contract worth $903,000 in the spring of 2008 until he discovered the plan would not work.
"I'm thankful to my God that I did not sign the contract," Nazarian testified on his second day on the stand. "We could have had a catastrophe."
The plan, developed by an architect Nazarian had hired, involved putting down a membrane on the roof and covering it with asphalt.
A local newspaper article in April 2008 trumpeted the proposed fix, saying work would be starting in two weeks.
In testy exchanges with commission counsel Peter Doody, Nazarian blamed the mall manager for providing false information to the public.
"You did nothing to tell (people) it was not true," Doody said.
"I told my manager to take care of this false advertising," Nazarian responded.
Nazarian also described how he desperately sought financing for the repair work by, among other things, asking the town to forgo property taxes on the mall, the largest local taxpayer.
However, the town was legally precluded from lowering the taxes.
"I explained the mall needs help," Nazarian said. "The other suggestion was to help me to fix the damn roof."
Nazarian, 68, of Richmond Hill, Ont., also sought financing from the Royal Bank, which had been pressing for repairs to the mall.
Pressure mounted on Nazarian after the bank said his mortgage was in technical default because financial statements were late in coming.
"That was a terrible situation," Nazarian said. "They were virtually taking over the mall."
Ultimately, the proposed fix went nowhere, and the mall continued leaking, much to the consternation of its tenants.
Some of the mall's main occupants were complaining or threatening to leave over the constant water infiltration and mould, prompting a series of promises from management that a solution to the problems was at hand.
Part of the roof deck crashed down on June 23, 2012, the result of rusted steel supports, killing two women.
Earlier in the day, Nazarian admitted ignoring for years orders to replace fireproofing in the building.
However, he rejected suggestions he was simply being carelessly obstinate, saying he did not comply with the order from the town's fire chief because leaking into the building needed fixing first.
"Regardless of fire chief what he says, if the leak is continuing, the fireproofing is not adequate," he said.
Nazarian did comply years later, after a running battle with the city resulted in a conviction under the fire code.
'A positive outcome'
The owner of the collapsed Algo Centre Mall plans to rebuild on land he owns in Elliot Lake, because he wants to stay in the northern Ontario community dubbed as a retirement mecca, his lawyer says.
Robert Nazarian’s lawyer, Michael Title, said his client is looking for "a positive outcome for the site."
Title admitted it will take some time, as Nazarian is "going to have to do some work in the community to generate good will."
Elliot Lake resident John Marceau used to sit in the food court at the Algo Centre Mall, but now he spends his time in the hearing room of the public inquiry.
He's one of many in this community eager to hear Nazarian's version of the events and why more wasn't done to prevent the fatal collapse.
On the day of the collapse, Marceau had just put his coffee mug on a food court table — and was ready to sit down — when he heard a bang.
"That was it. I passed out," he said. "I was hit by the debris [from] that beam when it [fell] down."
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During testimony on Tuesday, Nazarian told the commission he knew there was potential for structural damage in the mall as early as October 2006.
But Nazarian said he didn't hire an engineer at that point because he couldn't afford it.
"We were using our line of credit in our house and expenses were going sky-high, and we were constantly working on this roof, and we couldn't fix it," he said.
This public inquiry has already heard how the Algo Centre Mall was poorly designed and built back in the late 1970s.
It's heard about how the roof — where cars parked — leaked so badly the mall was dubbed "Algo Falls" by people in the community.
Evidence has shown that all that water and salt from cars driving across in the winter eventually rotted the steel that held up the building.
The Inquiry’s senior counsel, Peter Doody, will question Nazarian about "what he knew when he bought it, what steps he took to look after it, while he owned it … and why he thinks the mall ended up in the condition it was just before the collapse."
Not 'enough fingers' to point
The inquiry has heard evidence that Nazarian realized the mall he bought in 2005 was a money pit.
It's heard how plans to fix it always ran up against the cost — and about desperate efforts to sell the mall in the years before the collapse.
Elliot Lake resident Art Hilder will be watching Nazarian's testimony with interest, but he's already come to his own conclusion about how the tragedy happened.
"I don't even have enough fingers or my toes to point fingers," he said. "There's too many that could have, should have, didn't."
Robert Nazarian's testimony is expected to take the rest of the week.
The public inquiry was established in July 2012 by the Ontario government and has been underway in Elliot Lake since March.
It was created to report on events surrounding the mall roof's collapse on June 23, 2012, the deaths of Lucie Aylwin and Doloris Perizzolo, the injuries to others, and the emergency management and response.