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Could the Amazon warehouse have withstood a tornado? Here’s what the builder says

Workers attempt to clear debris as part of a search and rescue operation on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, at an Amazon Distribution Hub in Edwardsville, Illinois. Violent storms, some producing tornado activity, ripped through the Midwest on Friday night, killing at least two in the warehouse.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Workers attempt to clear debris as part of a search and rescue operation on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, at an Amazon Distribution Hub in Edwardsville, Illinois.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.

One of the construction firms that helped build the Amazon warehouse destroyed by a tornado in December said a lawyer’s comments made earlier this week about its structural integrity were “premature and amount to pure speculation.”

A report from a civil engineer questioned the security of columns supporting the warehouse roof. An attorney for the family of a 26-year-old Edwardsville man who died in the collapse held a news conference Tuesday discussing the engineer’s report.

St. Louis- and Edwardsville-based Contegra Construction helped build the warehouse on Gateway Commerce Drive along Interstate 255. Around 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 10, an EF-3 tornado with winds up to 150 miles per hour hit the 1.1-million-square-foot Amazon facility. It caused the concrete walls and roof to collapse, killing six people. The facility had no storm shelters built to withstand a tornado of that strength.

Edwardsville’s city code requires buildings be able to withstand 90-mile-per hour winds. The engineering firm that designed the warehouse does “not design structures to withstand EF-3” tornadoes, according to Contegra.

“What has been recently suggested to the media based on that narrative does not explain the cause of the warehouse collapse,” Contegra said in a statement released Friday by an attorney for the company.

Fire Marshal Dan Bruno of the West County EMS and Fire agency in St. Louis County responded that night as part of an emergency response team, though he is also a trained civil engineer. His job was to assess the building for safety as first responders attempted to rescue people.

Bruno noted in his report that columns used to support the roof were lifted like “a peg coming out of a hole” without any resistance, raising concerns that the columns were not properly secured as required by code. He also wrote, “Any statements made in this narrative concerning the design of the structure are advisory only and will require further analysis by other professionals before any conclusions could be reached.”

Contegra refuted claims by the attorney that Bruno’s report suggests the warehouse was not built to code. The family of 26-year-old Austin McEwen is suing Contegra, Amazon and another construction company, St. Louis-based TriStar Properties.

In its four-page statement, Contegra made the following points:

  • The columns were welded into metal sleeves embedded in concrete foundation. This design is “very commonly applied” in warehouse construction and “is an alternative to a bolted or welded baseplate connection.”
  • The columns were ripped from their sleeves “as the result of tremendous tornadic wind forces.” Columns from the collapsed area were preserved for analysis.
  • Contegra did not design the warehouse or install the columns. In a separate statement, the company’s attorney said St. Louis-based McNealy Engineering did the design. A “steel erector” firm, Cassidy Construction Services, installed the columns.
  • An internal forensic investigation led by Contegra includes structural engineers and was ongoing as of mid-April.
  • Bruno did not witness the construction of the warehouse and he is not a structural engineer licensed in Illinois.
  • The extent of damage to the building and insufficient lighting would have made it difficult to accurately observe the columns the night of the tornado.
  • Bruno observed caulking at the base of the column. The caulk is applied on top of the weld to finish the work, according to Contegra.

“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,” the statement said.

Illinois lawmakers have explored whether changing building codes for warehouses is the answer to preventing future tragedies. A bill to create a task force to study the issue was under consideration in the House as of mid-April.

Kelsey Landis is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Kelsey Landis is an Illinois state affairs and politics reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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