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Memo questions if Edwardsville Amazon warehouse damaged in tornado was structurally sound

Published: Apr. 11, 2022 at 10:19 PM CDT
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EDWARDSVILLE (KMOV.com) - Nearly four months after a tornado tore through an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville killing six people, a memo obtained by News 4 Investigates questions if the warehouse was structurally safe.

The memo was written by Dan Bruno, the Fire Marshal for the West County EMS and Fire Protection District. Bruno is also a licensed engineer in Missouri and claims he is a FEMA-trained Structures Specialist. In the memo, Bruno says the night of the tornado on December 10, 2021, he responded to the damage as part of a mutual aid response team and claims he saw “significant structural issues.”

Bruno’s memo is four pages long and lays out his observations at the warehouse. Amazon maintains the building was up to code, a statement representatives for the company have made for months.

“We know that the building was constructed consistent with code,” said Kelly Nantel, during a press conference three days after the storm.

Bruno’s memo has a different take. The night of the storm, Bruno says he was asked to “perform a structural assessment of the damage.”

Bruno took pictures that News 4 Investigates also obtained.

READ: Survivors question safety after deadly Amazon warehouse tornado

In the memo, Bruno focuses on the steel support columns saying some “appeared to have been lifted out of the floor” like a “peg coming out of a hole.” Bruno goes on to explain, “I could find no weld or bolted connection at the base of any column.”

Edwardsville follows the 2006 International Building Code. News 4 Investigates found it requires “anchorage” of “columns to foundations.”

“We call it a smoking gun piece of evidence,” said Attorney Jack Casciato, referring to Bruno’s memo.

Casciato represents the family of Austin McEwen, one of the six workers killed in the building. The McEwens are suing Amazon, the construction company, and the developer for negligence. They just added two engineering companies and a design group to that lawsuit.

“The proper inspections should have been taken,” Casciato said.

In Edwardsville, city inspectors check buildings before, during, and after construction. Those records are public. News 4 investigates tried to find out what went on with the Amazon warehouse, however, the city hasn’t released all the records.

News 4 started requesting documents from the city in January. In one request, News 4 asked for all building permit applications. The city responded with several records but did not include ones for the actual construction permit for the building.

Recently News 4 asked for inspection records. Edwardsville city hall responded saying it needs to “extend the time to respond.”

News 4 Investigates went to the public works department, which oversees permits and inspections, and showed the memo to the employee at the front desk. The employee said she didn’t know about the memo. She said the city’s two inspectors were out, but she did check to see if the department director would talk. They chose to stay in their office. Tuesday, Edwardsville officials sent the following statement:

Edwardsville statement on Amazon warehouse collapse
Edwardsville statement on Amazon warehouse collapse(City of Edwardsville)

There is at least one city employee who knows something. In the memo, Bruno says he “discussed what was found” with Fire Chief James Whiteford.

News 4 Investigates called Whiteford, he said he had no comment.

Bruno claims he also went to a federal investigator with OSHA who, “stated that what [Bruno] was telling him was consistent with information he had from other sources.”

Amazon leased the warehouse after it was built.

News 4 Investigates asked Amazon how it knows the warehouse was up to code. Amazon wouldn’t do an interview and sent a statement saying it’s an ongoing investigation, “so it’s premature and misleading to suggest there were any structural issues.”

Statement from Kelly Nantel, Amazon Director of Media Relations:

“Our focus continues to be on supporting our team and all those affected by this tragic natural disaster. Investigators continue to conduct a comprehensive forensic examination of the building and debris — so it’s premature and misleading to suggest there were any structural issues. The original developer completed construction on this building in 2018 in compliance with all applicable building codes as documented by the city and the original owner. The building was re-inspected and passed city inspections in 2020 when Amazon leased the building.”

News 4 Investigates asked for clarification on who is performing the “comprehensive forensic examination” and if the results will be made public. An Amazon spokesman only said the investigation is being handled internally.

Questions around the design of the warehouse are growing.

Earlier this year, Illinois Governor J.B Pritzker called for change to building codes.

“With all the warehouses that are being built or have been built, should we be setting a state standard for that,” Pritzker said during an unrelated press conference.

A recent News 4 Investigation found the warehouse was built using a type of construction called tilt-up, which has a history of catastrophic failure during powerful tornados.

“Ordinary buildings are not designed for tornados,” explained Marc Levitan, a Lead Research Engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. “If the goal is to protect life safety, then that’s the most important thing to install a storm shelter.”

That has some lawmakers talking.

Illinois State Rep. Jay Hoffman, (D)-Swansea, is a co-sponsor of a proposed bill to create the “Warehouse Safety Standards Task Force.” The goal of the task force is to evaluate current standards and suggest policy changes.

“Ensuring that you have some type of FEMA-rated structure to protect the employees is something we really need to look at,” Hoffman said.

If passed, the task force would be required to submit its final report by January 1, 2025. When asked, Hoffman said he’d rather see changes put in place sooner.

“I think we need to look at one building code for these types of warehouses that are going to ensure the safety of the workers,” Hoffman said.

News 4 Investigates asked Hoffman about the memo and the claims in it.

“I have not seen that memo, but I’m sure it will be part of the information that is reviewed,” Hoffman said.

A review, Hoffman says, he wants to see includes what happened inside the warehouse before the tornado, when Amazon workers tried to take shelter not realizing the danger headed their way.

“Would you personally want to be in a warehouse like that if a tornado was hitting?” News 4 Investigates asked Hoffman.

Hoffman answered, “Well obviously, because of what happened and the devastating results, it makes people think twice about doing that.”

The construction company that built the warehouse, Contegra Construction, sent News 4 the following statement:

While we will not comment on the specifics of the lawsuit given the pending litigation, we stand behind our company’s record of quality construction. We are not aware of any code violations at the Amazon fulfillment center. We are heartbroken by the devastation of the tornado to our community and those who lost their lives or property, and we believe the allegations in this lawsuit against Contegra are without merit. Contegra will vigorously defend our company’s work and our reputation.

OSHA is investigating what happened at the warehouse, that report is due in June.