Some of you might be aware of a tragedy that occurred recently in Elliot Lake, a small rural town in northern Ontario. On June 23rd, a section of the rooftop parking deck of the Algo Centre Mall (Eastwood Mall) collapsed, killing two people and injuring several others. It was a tragedy not only in the sense that all deaths and disasters are tragic, but an even greater tragedy in that it was — in my opinion — completely preventable.

When a natural disaster wreaks havoc, we feel the immense loss and sadess of it all, but there is also a certain amount of acceptance that these things do happen and are part of the natural order of things. But when a building is neglected year after year and a tragedy results, it is difficult to derive any meaning from the experience, and the extreme anger felt by the community is very valid and justified.

A criminal investigation into this incident has been launched and a provincial probe is planned.  Until the findings are released, there is little judgment I can pass on any specific person or entity, but I have seen photographs that were taken in the months leading up to the tragedy and I can say that, even to a layperson, they spell danger.  I wasn’t surprised that the roof had collapsed; I was surprised it hadn’t happened sooner.

News reports have revealed that a structural assessment was conducted as recently as April, but obviously either no action was taken by the owner in response to deficiencies identified, or the engineering firm conducting the assessment failed miserably at what they were contracted to do.

Elliot Lake is not a wealthy city (that is even more true now that the roof collapse has thrown a bunch of people out of work).  In 2006, census results listed mean household income at $36,366, 45% less than the mean provincial household income at $66,600.  A good friend, who grew up in Elliot Lake, commented after the incident that people in the town have known for years that the mall was falling apart and that something like this was going to happen sooner or later.  She told me that complaints have been lodged but, because people who live in the town are “poor,” they will put up with it and still patronize the mall because they have no alternative.  There is probably at least a grain of truth to that, and it is appalling thought.  Economic forces might be at work that prevent the owner from keeping the building looking modern and updated, but if people or companies are unable or unwilling to take responsibility for the basic safety of the building they own, then it’s time to get out of the business, and there should be stiff punishments for those who don’t — stiff punishments pinned to the offender before the owner’s dereliction results in injury or death.

Readers familiar with the theme of this blog are no doubt wondering how and when I plan to extract gratitude from this situation.  I work as a property administrator and, when I am working with contractors to bring a project to fruition, I am often frustrated by all of the hoops through which we have to jump.  I have joked with contractors, “you need a permit to wipe your butt, nowadays.”  But, as frustrated as I am by the process, I am thankful that the process exists, because all of those safety regulations and standards are what keep disasters like the Eastwood Mall collapse from happening more often than they do.

This tragedy never should have happened, but I am glad that there are systems in place to try to prevent this exact sort of thing from happening.  Today, I am thankful for when those systems do work.