Records show Amazon warehouse hit by tornado consistently passed city inspection

Published: May. 16, 2022 at 10:14 PM CDT
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EDWARDSVILLE (KMOV) - Newly released inspection records are shedding more light on the Amazon Edwardsville tornado disaster amid a growing push for warehouse safety.

On December 10, 2021, an EF-3 tornado hit the warehouse causing it to collapse, killing six workers who were trying to take cover inside.

“All I know is that we were trying to not die,” said Deontae Yancey, an Amazon driver who survived the storm. “I could be dead and not talking to you at all. That reality kicked in that my life is more important than a huge company cause clearly our lives weren’t valued at all that night.”

Yancey believes Amazon should have done more to protect him and his coworkers, now he’s taking the company to court. Yancey is one of four employees suing Amazon for negligence. The lawsuit also names Contegra Construction, the developer, two engineering firms, and a design group. According to the lawsuit, all knew the warehouse didn’t have “a basement shelter, shelter or safe room” and “failed to provide a warehouse” that met international building codes.

Recent reporting by News 4 Investigates exposed how Dan Bruno, a first responder and engineer called to the warehouse the night of the storm, questioned the structural integrity of the warehouse. In a memo, Bruno claimed he saw several support columns that weren’t anchored to the foundation, which is a building code violation.

Amazon denies that, a stance it has maintained ever since the storm.

“We know that the building was constructed consistent with code,” said Amazon Director of Media Relations Kelly Nantel during a media briefing days after the tornado last December.

In Edwardsville, the city requires multiple inspections throughout construction. Ever since the storm, News 4 Investigates has been trying to get public records to see what was checked.

After News 4 Investigates made calls and emails, and trips to city offices, the city finally released 49 inspection reports. News 4 went through each report and learned every inspection at the Amazon warehouse was approved, nothing failed inspection.

The inspection reports have limited information. Each is a page long and inspectors checked a box to mark what they looked at.

Those records are a stark contrast to other inspection reports News 4 Investigates found, including one for the Edwardsville Township Offices, where city inspectors noted code concerns and snapped multiple pictures. News 4 Investigates asked the city why there are no notes or pictures with the Amazon inspection reports, but the city hasn’t answered.

Amazon rented the warehouse after it was built. Amazon sent the following statement to News 4:

“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.” - Amazon Director of Media Relations Kelly Nantel

The tornado has several Illinois lawmakers questioning warehouse safety.

“I think we need to look at one building code for these types of warehouses,” said Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea). “I think it’s important that we require that there be some type of a hazard shelter or safe area.”

Hoffman is co-sponsoring a bill to create a task force to look at warehouses. If passed, the task force would have three years before its recommendations are due, meaning it could be years before anything changes.

Some people aren’t waiting. About half an hour outside Edwardsville, Parrish Trucking just installed a storm shelter, something Safety Director Doug Parrish says was because of the Amazon tornado.

“When it happens 40 miles up the road, you think, ‘Wow this could be us,’ and what could we do to protect our people because we don’t want to lose anyone,” Parrish said. “This was a very cheap option to put into a building to save lives, it’s definitely worth doing.”

Parrish Trucking isn’t alone. Illinois-based Safe Sheds Inc. makes stand-alone shelters that can withstand winds up to 250 mph.

“We have seen a massive uptick in orders,” explained Safe Sheds Chief Operating Officer Michelle Barbee.

Barbee says in the three months after the Edwardsville tornado, Safe Sheds had as much business as the company would typically see in a year.

“We have heard from a lot of large employers, small employers who are thinking maybe we need to look at this, weather patterns are shifting, things are getting worse,” Barbee added.

Recently, Barbee says Safe Sheds got a call from Amazon for an out-of-state project.

“We got a solicitation to bid on a project for Amazon. They were looking for that particular facility for a large, combined use shelter,” Barbee said.

When asked if Edwardsville was ever mentioned, Barbee responded, “We couldn’t really go very far with them because they were looking for a shelter that could handle 50-100 people so we had to politely decline.”

Amazon hasn’t publicly said if it’s adding storm shelters to any new or existing buildings.

News 4 Investigates asked an Amazon rep if the company is adding storm shelters to any buildings or warehouses, they wouldn’t answer directly but said Amazon is “constantly looking to innovate and improve safety measures.”

Recently, OSHA investigators said Amazon didn’t break federal workplace rules in its response to the tornado but did send a letter recommending several safety changes and calling the storm a “wake up call.”

Another Amazon driver, Jamarco Hickman, who is also part of the lawsuit against Amazon, says he’s going to keep pushing the company to make safety changes.

“Amazon, you have to do better,” Hickman said. “This was preventable and please don’t let my fellow drivers die in vain.”

Contegra Construction, the company that built the Amazon warehouse denies any wrongdoing. Contegra sent the following statement to News 4:

“We previously issued a short statement on the ongoing lawsuit and investigation. Contegra believes this further statement is necessary in light of recent premature, and what we consider to be misleading and irresponsible commentary, generated about the tragic collapse of the Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois last December.

The in-depth investigation led by qualified structural engineering firms is ongoing. Our forensic investigation team includes licensed structural engineers. The recent focus on the EMS specialist’s narrative written shortly after the tornado is unsound. The EMS specialist did not observe the warehouse during construction. He is not an Illinois licensed structural engineer. He probably did not review the building plans nor did he understand how the columns had been welded to metal sleeves embedded in the concrete foundation per the engineering firm’s design detail.

Because of the destruction left by the tornado, the EMS specialist likely was severely hampered in observing conditions. While he noticed the caulk, the EMS specialist was apparently unaware that the caulk was applied on top of the welds as part of the finish work. To our understanding, engineering firms, including the firm that designed the warehouse structure, do not design structures to withstand EF-3 tornados.

In short, what the EMS specialist reported and what has been recently suggested to the media based on that narrative does not explain the cause of the warehouse collapse. The applicable building code adopted by the municipality where the warehouse is located requires the project’s design professional to design the building to withstand 90-mile-per-hour “straight-line” winds. The tornadic winds generated by the EF-3 tornado that directly hit the Amazon warehouse were determined to have reached a wind speed of at least 150 miles per hour. We are confident that the ongoing, in-depth forensic investigation led by qualified structural engineers, not emergency responders, will ultimately determine the cause for the collapse of the building’s structure was the result of the tornado that occurred in our community.”