The Uncle Gnarley Blog has a new website. Click here to visit to view the latest posts!

Monday, 2 November 2015


COVER-UP AT RONCALLI SCHOOL  posted on this Blog August 31, 2015 was, regretfully, not followed up by a demand, from any quarter, for an independent investigation.

At issue wasn’t only the “cover-up” but “what” was being covered up.

I had hoped keen questions would be asked; that the authorities would be required to show proof newly constructed walls of the school were structurally sound.

Received was just rhetoric from the Minister of Transportation and Works.

But two informants contacted me, following publication of the item, with important information; both were familiar with the incident. One was a worker on the construction site; the other a professional person.

The information prompted three requests under Access to Information legislation, known as ATTIP. A new request was made to the Department of Transportation and Works, and first time requests were placed at the Newfoundland and Labrador English Language School District (NLESD), and ServiceNL.

I wanted the answers to two fundamental questions:

1.    Was the school separate from the construction zone, as the Minister asserted, and was it safe for occupancy when the students and staff arrived for school on the morning of Monday, September 22nd, 2014?

2.   Can the Department of Transportation and Works (TW), through diligent recorded inspections, demonstrate that the reinforced concrete block walls were constructed according to the design specifications?

(I refer to those reinforced concrete walls as "cinder block walls" in this piece.  I have been reminded the nomenclature is a bit "old-fashioned". But using the word "reinforced" might be a stretch, anyway.) 

I have some knowledge of these matters.  But the reader should know, to ensure a more technical review, I asked two professional engineers to assist in the preparation of the questions submitted to the government authorities, and to review the information received.

What I discovered may shock you.

The lists of questions and ATTIP responses are provided via the links noted in this piece.

First, lets review the issue.

A very large cinder block wall measuring 25 feet x 50 feet collapsed on the Roncalli Expansion project, on Sunday September 20, 2014 . After it was discovered by the contractor, an Incident Report stated that workers had failed to build the wall according to structural design specifications.

The contractor reported: “workers didn’t take time to dowel in rebar or ensure that plates were attached to wall”.

Collapsed Cinder Block Wall -Rocalli School (Monday, Sept. 22, 2014)

A later report by the consulting structural engineer added detail to the contractor’s failure and confirmed that the wall collapse was not due to the strong winds experienced, but to shoddy construction practices.

An adjacent wall, which did not collapse, was also sub-standard. That wall protected a stairwell which the school relied upon for emergency escape purposes. This is a matter to which I will return.

On morning of Monday, September 21, 2014 the 500 students and their teachers were permitted to enter their classrooms as usual. It seems, except for personnel of the Department of Education and the Department of Transportation and Works (TW) only the School Principal knew a major life-safety incident had occurred.

No public information was released from the Transportation and Works Ministry, none from the NL English Language School Board, and none from the Ministry of Education.

The incident was covered-up.

Response to the Blog Post

Public interest in the issue was huge. In addition, more than one person felt I had under-emphasized the risk to the workers who were closet to the site of the collapse.

The collapse of a 50 feet high by 25 feet wide concrete wall, improperly constructed, and lacking ties to the foundation, roof, and columns is a chillingly serious oversight. 

But, the workers are adults. Like one of my informants, all could see the rubble on the ground; workers typically know who to call if the work place is unsafe.

The students and teachers were not privy to this information. It might have afforded them the opportunity to direct questions to the authorities regarding their safety and other issues surrounding the structural failure.

In any event, an independent investigation was not called, as it should have been.

Response by politicians and authorities

Even the few politicians who commented climbed on board the wrong bandwagon.
Virginia Waters MHA Cathy Bennett questioned “how parents and students at Roncalli Elementary in Airport Heights were not made aware of a collapse at the school in September 2014.”

The CBC quoted St. John’s City Counsellor Bernard Davis, community representative on the school council, stating “a courtesy call still would have been appreciated…It probably should've been passed on along to us, and in hindsight I guess they would think that was an error on their behalf".

It was nice they were concerned; but loud demands for a full investigation were what was needed.

There was no word from the English Language School Board.

The Ministry of Education stayed silent.

Even the Parent’s Assoc. and the NLTA found themselves tongue-tied.

Then a surprise

Two individuals, familiar with the incident, lent weight to concerns that the Blog Post had exposed. They alleged sub-standard work practices which the Government has, so far, failed to allay. 

One informant wrote: “engineers called for anchors and plates to be installed into loaded block (but there is)…no loaded block is in that area and the anchors were cut off…check the solution/requirement as set forth by the engineer and then check one anchor….”

He continues: “The solution was never achieved to the satisfaction of what was called for from the engineers. The blocks where the anchors were installed, were assume (sic) to be back filled and were not. All of the anchors in the stairwell are holding nothing at all. (Later that morning) it became very evident that the incident was being covered up.

“There was incredible neglect and it is a terrible shame just how this all went down. And you can trust that the rest of that school is standing with the same integrity.”

This Blogger was in no position to confirm the veracity of his statements and I do not. 

However, I replied to his email and said I wanted to speak with him personally. We had a conversation. I found him serious and well-intentioned.

The second informant, a professional person, offered a narrative very similar to that of the first.

He stated: “the blocks were indeed not filled with cement nor built as designed. The stairwell blocks were (of) new construction and the stairwell was used by the children occupying the older part of the school. This was a concern which led to the school barring it off for awhile. OH&S was extremely lax.”

I showed the first informant’s remarks to the second informant. He concurred with them stating: “I absolutely agree with the statement that the entire school is built with the same integrity as the fallen wall. There is no reason to doubt that all walls built before the collapse were built the same way and there is no evidence that the older walls were disassembled and rebuilt to specification.”

That’s the background.

Now let’s get to the new information by asking the two questions posed at the outset.

Question #1.

Was the school separate from the construction zone, as the Minister asserted; was it safe for occupancy when the students and staff arrived for school on the morning of Monday, September 22nd, 2014?

Readers may recall that when the CBC reported on the Uncle Gnarley Blog Post, the story contained this quote from Transportation and Works Minister, David Brazil: “Maybe the communications could have been improved in a different directive, but at the end of the day there was no issue around safety for those students". Elsewhere, the Minister stated the school and the construction zone were separate.

The Minister was wrong because the facts suggest otherwise.

Likely, he was parroting the view of his senior officials. It was a position that the Deputy Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development also embraced in an email dated September 2, 2015 to Cory Grandy, of the Transportation and Works Department (TW).  

The Deputy said: “The area where the collapse occurred was within the construction site, which was cordoned off and distinct from the school…”

In the same email, she states the “stairwell would only be used in the event of an emergency evacuation, e.g. fire…and not part of the normal circulation of the school”. 

Isn’t an emergency exit an integral part of any building, especially a school? Is it really OK to have an egress stairway that is unsafe?

The final comment of the Deputy Minister is also revealing and of the school’s lack of readiness  for occupancy, on the morning of September 22nd.   Vivian-Walsh states: “based on the investigation of the stairwell, it was not deemed necessary to close the school. …mitigative measures….were completed overnight on September 22 and 6:00 a.m. on the morning of September 23.”

The Deputy Minister confirms the school’s fire escape was actually off-limits all day on Monday, September 22nd.

In addition, if you review the email from Claude Foley of the Dept. of Education (p. 30) to various officials he says "Representatives of TW and the consultant(s) are onsite now for the check and to /or to determine extent and solutions." His email is sent at 11:48 a.m. - half the school day is over. 

Another email….(dated Monday, September 22, 2014 at 8.38 p.m.) from Baraco, the contractor, to Cory Grandy states ”…the majority of the structural angles have been installed and the work should be finished in an hour or so”. Grandy then sends an email to TW staff saying: “Based on this we should be in good shape for tomorrow with school business as usual”. (emphasis added)

But school business had been going on all that day!

It doesn’t sound like that evacuation route was separate from the construction zone, does it?

Consider this email from TW's Jim Sinnott:

Note the words” “…as long as stairway accessible in the event of a real fire”. 

But the officials provide no proof a competent professional assessed the "access" and declared it safe.

This email from Natalie Hallett (p.25) is also telling:

Obviously, "IF" repairs “will allow the stairwell to be open tomorrow” it must be closed today!

Now, let’s look at the email from Jim Sinnott, Facilities Manager, NLESD to Natalie Hallett ....a serious lack of communications is now heard:

Next, I want to introduce a clip from comments made by Mr. Anthony Stack, Assistant Director of Education (Operations) NLESD, who responded to some of the questions contained in my ATTIP Submission. The full text of Stack’s remarks is found in NLESD's ATTIP reply, found here. He says:

Two points on Stacks' statement:

First, one of the two engineers I asked to review the documents, from TW and NLESD, offered this comment: this wasn’t a stairwell shut down because someone was painting. If the kids kicked over a gallon of paint, in an emergency, who would care. But, the stairwell was off limits, and not just because an inspection was being conducted, as Stack asserts. 

The second point is that Mr. Stack seems not to understand the level of incompetence he implicitly ascribes to the Department of TW. 

The Assistant Director mirrors assurances by the Deputy Minister of Education that the fire escape is disconnected from the school but he also suggests “…reinforcement of the wall was being added as an extra precaution…”

The phrase is used as if we should take comfort from such diligence; when, in fact, we should take no comfort at all, for several reasons.

First, if a wall, especially one of the size and weight under discussion, is viewed with scepticism as to its structural integrity, no one should be permitted to go near it until a structural engineer performs an inspection (though "investigation" might be a better word).

Second, that the wall of a school, no less, is given additional support “as an extra precaution” confirms someone knew that that it was probably not constructed according to engineering design specifications.

That implies no one was able to review logs or the photos that accompany properly prepared Inspection Reports (a matter central to the second question asked in this Post).

The photos and the logs are the Owner’s (in this case the Government's) assurance the building is being constructed according to the designer’s documents.  They show proof of the placement of dowels, anchors, and block grouting (some call it “loading”).

What Stack is describing is the “Mickey Mouse” approach to construction. There would be no need for such remediation work unless the engineers in the TW Department knew inspections were deficient, or not done at all!

Third, in none of the correspondence received from TW's ATTIP reply is there reference to the “Prime Consultant”, the project Architect. The Architect is the one knowledgeable of fire safety codes. This is not the structural engineer's expertise. He should have been consulted regarding whether the school ought to be have been kept open.  

Fourth, the first decision that ought to have been made that Monday morning, apart from closing the school, was to suspend the contractor.  That would have been the correct “precaution” because the failure of a structural wall, for the reasons already noted, demands a review, by competent personnel, of its workmanship practices, management personnel, and supervisory procedures. That TW permitted the very same contractor not only to stay on the job, but to conduct repairs, in the absence of structural engineer's inspection, constitutes a gross error at the highest level.

Meanwhile, Mr. Stack, his colleagues, as well as officials in the Departments of TW and Education, wittingly or otherwise, kept the whole matter from the attention of the public.

Next question:

    2.     Can the Department of Transportation and Works (TW) demonstrate, through diligent recorded inspections, that the structural walls, were constructed according to the design specifications of the structural documents?

In pursuit of the answer, I asked TW (see complete TW ATTIP reply here) for structural Inspection Reports including testing information on the grout used to load the cinder block walls, proof that the walls were dowelled into the structure, evidence of the location and quantity of rebar used and of the masonry anchors and their connection to the structural steel, among other questions. (Readers will note that the ATTIP submissions were detailed; two professional engineers were key to the precision of those questions.)

I had expected to receive a large amount of information and had arranged with the two engineers to be ready for an “information dump”.

Talk about over expectation!

TW’s information package contained little information of consequence. I will describe was received:

1.       Letter dated September 21, 2015 from DBA Consulting Engineers Ltd. (DBA) confirming “the Roncalli School Expansion construction is in general compliance with the structural design documents”. I will discuss this document in detail, shortly.

2.      DBA Site Inspection Report No. 1 was dated Dec. 5, 2012. This Report was prepared at an early stage of construction and dealt with formwork and reinforcements for the footings. It has no direct relationship with the block wall construction.

But this report points out the contractor is sloppy and does not seem to understand the importance of some basic structural norms. The inspection suggests a good number of repairs are required. Having detailed the deficiencies, the expectation is the Structural Engineer might describe the method of repair. After the repairs are made, they would be inspected again. Neither record was provided by TW.

3.      DBA Site Inspection Report No 4, was dated April 22, 2013. This Report also pre-dated construction of the cinder block walls and chiefly described a number of deficiencies in the erection of the structural steel which it noted was “on-going”. (Hence, this Report had no relationship with the erection of the block walls, either.)

4.      Inspection Reports 2 and 3 were missing from the information file. Based upon the date and content of Report #4, they might have given us a better picture of the contractor’s early structural workmanship, but they would not have been helpful with the stage of construction around which this Post is specifically concerned.   

5.     A copy of the contractor’s Report entitled “Baraco Inspection Reports TW/047/2015” with photos of the collapsed wall incident - was obtained prior to the first Roncalli Post by this blogger. For reasons unexplained, it was not included with the documentation received then. While this Report graphically described poor workmanship and was a top off to the possibility of other structural issues, the Report was prepared in relation to that singular incident. So, it is not relevant to the structural integrity of the other newly constructed walls (though, as noted, it might have provided a clue).

6.       TW Site Visit Reports TW/047/2015 – There were only two Site Visit Inspection Reports provided in the ATTIP package.

-      The first was dated May 13, 2013. The purpose of the Report was to permit the Inspector to conduct a “review on masonry mock-up”. This was essentially a demonstration wall where the masonry contractor exhibits that the masons understand the engineering design specifications. Again, the TW Report provided no evidence that the standards the contractor actually were consistent with the engineering design.

-      The second Site Visit Inspection Report was dated January 28, 2015. It provides scant information, and contains only one photo showing one piece of rebar reinforcement embedded in one partial cinder block wall.

Is it really possible that so few inspections were conducted on critical components of the Roncalli School Extension? It seems incredulous – a $20 million school project could justify so little oversight!  

But, again, that was the total package received from TW, in reply to the ATTIP Application.

What conclusions can be drawn from the dearth of inspection records?

It bears stating, that without follow-up inspections, which typically include journal entries regarding the contractor’s workmanship, photographs of at least some of the installed dowels, ties, and other connections, and written Reports, following the progress of construction, we have essentially no records to confirm the walls were built to design standards.

So what relevant information do we have to confirm the integrity of the walls of the school and to disprove the allegations of the two informants with respect to quality of the workmanship?   

Essentially, we have the Structural Engineer’s Report. 

Even that Report is not accompanied by photographic evidence the contractor was doing things right. I will return to this matter.

But, first, I should add this comment by one of the engineering advisors: when a contractor “screws up” as evidenced by the rebar, plates, and other attachments missing from the collapsed wall, the performance of the contractor enters a “show me” stage. 

The Contractor is not believed until proof is shown, based upon inspections and a consistent pattern of good workmanship. In addition, what one expects is an increase in the number of inspections conducted and an even greater diligent recording of the contractor’s adherence to the design documents.  Good workmanship is important. But the Owner (the Government) may need to dismiss the company  – if the contractor displays a continuing lack of diligence. To do this, he should have incontrovertible proof that comes from diligent inspections. 

That expectation makes perfect sense. But, that is not what occurred. The Government provided gave no increased surveillance to the contractor’s work; in fact, there is practically no information obtained through inspections, on which the Government or even the Structural Engineer can rely.

An email from Jim Sinnott of NLESD to various officials, dated September 1, 2015 is especially relevant, as we get ready to consider the completeness of the certification of the structural elements of the building. 

Mr. Sinnott writes (p. 18 of Link) “…it is an accurate statement to say “all walls at Roncalli Elementary have been inspected by a structural engineer”. The engineer’s sign offs are project based vs. a wall by wall sign off, but the statement is no less accurate”.

"Project based" is not a reassuring phrase, in this case. Sinnott will have a tough time convincing the Structural Engineer he should take responsibility for all those structural walls, especially when you consider the caveat contained in his structural certification of the building.

Let me draw your attention to the first paragraph on page 2 of the Structural Engineer’s September 21, 2015 letter to the Department of Transportation and Works:

This section of the DBA letter bears repeating: the structural engineer's “opinion” is based on the structural integrity confirmed in site visits, reviews of testing, photographs, and inspection reports “prepared by others”. He concludes the project is in “general compliance” with the design documents ..... 

Sinnott’s expectation is not grounded in the Structural Engineer’s contractual obligations to TW. It is, at best, wishful thinking.

But, given  the lack of proof available by way of inspection, we need to ask: what does the structural engineer mean by “general compliance”? What, exactly, is he certifying?

My ATTIP application demanded the same information the Structural Engineer needs to base his opinion. Yet, only two site inspection reports were received covering the concrete block wall construction phase - one, on the "mock up" wall was practically irrelevant and the other contained a single photo showing a single piece of reabar.

If other Reports and tests were available, TW did not provide notice they were refused, under ATTIP rules. Therefore, I have to assume that no other inspections or test results were conducted and, hence, not available. 

How did the structural engineer assess whether the structural walls of the school are building code compliant? Where is the proof? 

Finally - time to make a demand of the Provincial Government

A $20 million school expansion at Roncalli School: 

Government failed to arrange the site inspections essential to quality control (its quality guarantee). The Structural Engineer's "general compliance" certification is meaningless for those structural walls. 

It can’t call an Architect or insist on the immediate arrival of the structural engineer. It can't suspend a contractor. 

But, it can allow 500 students and teachers to show up for school, even if they don’t have access to a safe fire-exit. 

Therein lies the shame and the untold story (until now) of the Roncalli School Expansion Project.

A completely independent  and thorough third party inspection of the walls of Roncalli School, using available methods, including intrusive procedures, to confirm they are constructed according to design specifications, is called for.

The parents of kids at Roncalli should demand no less. 
1. I want to thank the two Professional Engineers who gave generously of their time to review and give advice on the questions submitted to NLESD and the Department of Transportation and Works, and review the responses received. 

2. Some readers may wish to review the complete list of documents referred to in this Post. here they are:

Response by NLESD to ATTIP Request (15-Oct-21-2015)

Second submission to Department of Transportation-and-Works under-ATTIP (COR-2015-03246)

Response by Department of Transportation and Works to 2nd ATTIP Submission