Elliot Lake mall patched 'on the cheap,' ex-manager says

A former manager of the Elliot lake, Ont., mall says the owner was warned as far back as 2008 that if he didn't make repairs to the mall roof it could collapse.

Roof problems cited by former staff of Algo Centre Mall

Mall warning signs

11 years ago
Duration 2:42
Warnings about the state of the Elliot Lake mall first came in 2008, says a former manager.

A former manager of the Elliot Lake, Ont., mall says the owner was warned as far back as 2008 that if he didn’t make repairs to the mall roof it could collapse.

Brian England says he was with Bob Nazarian, the 66-year-old Richmond Hill businessman who owns the mall, when Nazarian was told of the consequences of not doing repair work to the mall’s roof.

"The architect plain and simply told Mr. Nazarian that if he didn’t proceed with these repairs," said England, "that we could find that his structure was at the point of deterioration that it possibly could collapse.

"It was that clear."

On the afternoon of June 23 part of the roof collapsed and killed two women at the Algo Centre Mall, the major retail outlet in the former mining community northwest of Sudbury, Ont. Investigators are still trying to determine what caused the collapse, and the coroner’s office and Ontario Provincial Police have asked for tips from the public.

"The whole mall was held together with Band-Aids and duct tape," said England, one of five mall managers since Nazarian bought the mall in 2005.

Gary Gendron, the fiancé of Lucie Aylwin, one of two victims of the roof collapse, hugs a loved one after addressing the media. (Kenneth Armstrong/Reuters)

"We had the opportunity to do it up right, but he chose to do it on the cheap, or not at all," said England.

Nazarian was told of the accusations Friday morning by phone, but he declined to comment.

"I have put my heart and my soul into it," he told CBC News. "I have worked so hard. I'm sorry I cannot talk to you."

Nazarian's lawyer, Antoine-René Fabris, held a press conference Thursday to speak on behalf of the Nazarians. He offered the family’s "deepest and most sincere condolences."

Fabris also said a million dollars was spent on renovations, but he did not specify what work was done, over how long a period, or whether the money was spent to properly seal the roof, which had notoriously leaked for years.

He said he wasn't at liberty to say much about the case because he expects litigation.

Nazarian, who wasn't at Thursday's press conference in Elliot Lake, has been the subject of some threats, his lawyer said.

Some repairs done

England, who managed the mall between 2007 and 2008, said some caulking was done along the roof in 2007 to address continuing complaints about water seepage. But snowplows over that winter undid the work, and plans were made to fix the roof properly.

Architect John Clinckett of Kitchener, Ont., was retained to put a membrane on the roof to keep the water out, and the project was announced in June 2008.

Besides the protective membrane, which was part of the original engineer's plans for the building before it was built in 1979, the plan was to add a thin layer of asphalt to maintain the rooftop parking.

The plan was approved by Nazarian, England said, and Canadian Construction Controls, of Breslau, Ont., was hired to install a membrane to be constructed by Carlisle Syntec Systems.

"It was good days then," said England. "All these stores had been phoning me on a daily basis to complain about water damage.

"Finally, something was being done."

England said Nazarian returned from overseas before they began work. Nazarian complained about the million-dollar price tag and cancelled the contract, England said.

Within weeks the Toronto-area businessman had hired Peak Restoration, England said.

A crew began to repair the roof drains, but when they asked Nazarian for more money to order the membrane and complete the job, they too were fired, says England, who left his job shortly after, in summer 2008. To his knowledge, the roof was repaired by the maintenance staff at the mall.

Nazarian's lawyer said Thursday the work was done according to manufacturers' specifications and the mall was inspected on a regular basis.

Ray Leblanc, a former member of the maintenance staff, told CBC News Thursday night that all they did after Peak left was their regular maintenance on the roof.

"We used a polyurethane self-levelling compound to fill the seams between the core slabs to keep the water out," said Leblanc, who worked at the mall from 1991 to 2010. "It cost $110 a can, and we used a lot of them, but nowhere near a million dollars worth."

The mall owner had drawn controversy before the mall roof collapsed. During his seven years owning the mall, he has been involved in several lawsuits, over a range of issues related to the mall, including failure to pay.

Both England and Dave Brunet, an Elliot Lake plumber who had done work at the mall over the years, said Nazarian had a history of not paying his bills and struggled to find contractors.

Eight months before the roof collapsed, Brunet was working on a drain near the area that would later collapse. He noticed that there were obvious signs of water damage.

"Everybody always questioned and said someday something's going to happen to that mall," said Brunet. "A piece of something's going to come off that roof and possibly hurt somebody."

Christine Stoddart, a cook at a restaurant in the mall, Hungry Jack's, said a piece of concrete fell through the ceiling of the restaurant on a Sunday when it was closed last summer.

"I got a ladder and went up to take some pictures," Stoddart said. "I put my hand on the ceiling tiles, and it was mush up there.

"We reported it to mall management and city hall. There was supposed to be an inspector two weeks after it happened, but no one came to talk about it."

The mall manager at the time said a full report went to the mall owner, Stoddart said, but she never heard anything about it afterward.

Hungry Jack's was right next to where the mall roof collapsed.

The mall, which was purchased in 2005 for $6.2 million, was up for sale for $9.9 million in 2010.

After an arduous five-day rescue mission which ended with the retrieval of two bodies under the avalanche of concrete and metal, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty promised Thursday that his province will "carefully review" how it responded to the collapse.

On Friday, the premier called for an independent public inquiry into the mall-roof collapse in Elliot Lake. McGuinty released a brief statement late Friday afternoon saying that the victims' families "have raised important questions that deserve to be answered.

"We have an obligation to do whatever we can to prevent similar tragedies and respond in the best way possible when they do happen," the statement said.

An Ontario Ministry of Labour structural engineer spent part of Friday inspecting the partially collapsed Algo Centre Mall.

Friday's inspection was the first chance for engineers to examine the structure since Wednesday.

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With files from The Canadian Press