EDWARDSVILLE — An engineer with a regional search and rescue group who investigated last year’s deadly tornado at an Amazon warehouse said he saw “significant structural problems” that may have contributed to the building’s collapse, according to a report that was released on Tuesday by the law firm that represents one of the victims’ families.
Engineer Dan Bruno said he saw structural columns that did not appear to be anchored to the ground prior to the tornado. He said he didn’t see any welds or bolts at the base of the pillars, but “just a bead” of what appeared to be joint compound around the base at the floor line.
“I had identified what I believe to be one or more significant structural issues with the Amazon building that may have contributed to the failure of the structure,” Bruno said in the report.
He called his findings “advisory only” and said they require more analysis by other professionals.
The city of Edwardsville said in response that it was premature to make decisions about the building’s structural safety, adding that Amazon and the property owner, San Diego-based Realty Income Corp., are completing a “forensic investigation.”
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“At this time, the Occupational Health and Safety Organization is conducting the investigation of the building and no decision has been communicated to the city regarding its structural integrity,” Edwardsville officials said in a statement.
Bruno’s report was released Tuesday during an online press conference by Jack Casciato, an attorney with Chicago-based Clifford Law Offices, who is representing the family of Amazon worker Austin McEwen in their wrongful death lawsuit against Amazon, the developer and others. A spokesman for the law firm said the report was made available to Casciato at the request of public records by Bruno’s search and rescue group, St. Louis Regional Urban Area Security Initiative Strike Team 3.
The strike team is federally funded through the East-West Gateway Council of Governments.
McEwen, 26, was one of six people killed at an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville after a tornado hit the facility on the night of December 10.
Amazon leases the warehouse, which was developed in 2018 by Creve Coeur-based TriStar Properties and built by Edwardsville-based Contegra Construction Co. It expanded to 1.1 million square feet in July 2020. Realty Income Corp. has owned it since late 2020. TriStar declined to comment. Contegra said the company was not aware of any code violations at the facility.
“We are heartbroken by the devastation of the tornado to our community and those who have lost their lives or property, and we believe the allegations in this lawsuit against Contegra are unfounded,” the company said in a statement Tuesday. “Contegra will vigorously defend the work of our company and our reputation.”
The warehouse at 3077 Gateway Commerce Center Drive South was built using a construction method known as tilt-up, which experts say is faster and more economical than other approaches, but has some roofs at risk of cracking and the buildings are at risk of collapsing.
There are few regulations mandating tornado shelters and none mandating buildings to better withstand tornadoes.
City officials said Tuesday they are working with the state of Illinois to “investigate ways to secure building codes against future disasters.”
Casciato said Bruno, the engineer, reached out to him after the lawsuit was filed to share his experience, calling what he observed a “grave violation” of building codes. Casciato said the building was last inspected in 2018.
However, Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel has claimed that the warehouse was built in accordance with all applicable building codes and passed city inspections in 2020.
The city said officials are conducting visual inspections for general compliance with plans and code requirements.
In the report, Bruno said he was deployed to the Amazon warehouse on December 10 as a member of the response team, which consisted of hundreds of first responders trained in specialized rescue operations. Bruno, who did not respond to a request for comment, is a firefighter with the West County EMS & Fire Protection District in Manchester, St. Louis County.
Bruno said that as a professional engineer and “structural specialist,” he was hired to conduct a structural assessment of the facility. As he did so, he observed an unspecified number of columns being toppled or partially lifted from the ground. None, he said, showed signs of being properly attached to the ground. He said that Edwardsville building codes require columns to be secured against wind uplift.
Casciato likened the fallen pillars to backyard umbrellas that are blown away from their base if not anchored. But he said Bruno told him those fallen columns were “missing” when Bruno visited the warehouse the next day. Missing columns are not mentioned in the report.
According to the report, Bruno later shared his findings with OSHA, Edwardsville Fire Department Chief and West County Emergency Medical Services Chief Jeff Sadtler.
The Edwardsville Fire Department did not respond to a request for comment. OSHA did not respond to a request for comment, but its website indicated that its investigation into Amazon is still open. Sadtler confirmed Bruno’s report but declined to comment further.
Casciato said the McEwen family felt reassured by the evidence uncovered so far.
“It’s upsetting to learn that these incidents are happening and you’re the family that has to lose someone,” Casciato said. “But I think there’s a sense of confidence when someone sees that a lawsuit makes sense.”