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.

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

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.) 

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

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

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

Even the few
politicians who commented climbed on board the wrong bandwagon.
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.”

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

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

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

“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. 

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

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

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 22
nd.   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. 

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

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. 

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.

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.

    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!

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.

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.

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.

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
“prepared by others”. He concludes the project is in “general
compliance” with the design documents ….. 

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?

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

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

Des Sullivan
Des Sullivan
St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada Uncle Gnarley is hosted by Des Sullivan, of St. John's. He is a businessman engaged over three decades in real estate management and development companies and in retail. He is currently a Director of Dorset Investments Limited and Donovan Holdings Limited. During his early career he served as Executive Assistant to Premier's Frank D. Moores (1975-1979) and Brian Peckford (1979-1985). He also served as a Part-Time Board Member on the Canada-Newfoundland Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB). Uncle Gnarley appears on the masthead representing serious and unambiguous positions on NL politics and public policy. Uncle Gnarley is a fiscal conservative possessing distinctly liberal values and a non-partisan persusasion. Those values and opinions underlie this writer's views on NL's politics, economy and society. Uncle Gnarley publishes Monday mornings and more often when events warrant.


Bill left public life shortly after the signing of the Atlantic Accord and became a member of the Court of Appeal until his retirement in 2003. During his time on the court he was involved in a number of successful appeals which overturned wrongful convictions, for which he was recognized by Innocence Canada. Bill had a special place in his heart for the underdog.

Churchill Falls Explainer (Coles Notes version)

If CFLCo is required to maximize its profit, then CFLCo should sell its electricity to the highest bidder(s) on the most advantageous terms available.


This is the most important set of negotiations we have engaged in since the Atlantic Accord and Hibernia. Despite being a small jurisdiction we proved to be smart and nimble enough to negotiate good deals on both. They have stood the test of time and have resulted in billions of dollars in royalties and created an industry which represents over a quarter of our economy. Will we prove to be smart and nimble enough to do the same with the Upper Churchill?


  1. Very disturbing. Nowhere is structural integrity more important than in an institutional setting where children must spend six hours a day. I look forward to a full engineering investigation to assure the safety of this entire structure. I assume that the professional society regulating professional engieers in this province has been informed of these revelations.

    John D Pippy B.Eng (Civil), MBA

  2. PEGNL to comment? Those guys should be involved. It would be interesting to know if they were even aware of the failure. In most jurisdictions there is a structural engineer of record who would be responsible for the construction as well. Not so in NL

  3. Unfortunately the provincial government of this province looks at engineering as a commodity, one that they want to spend the least possible amount of money on. Engineers and architects now are typically selected based on the lowest price and not experience or capability. When you hire a lawyer do you shop around for the lowest hourly rate – no, you choose the one with the best relevant experience (that you can afford of course). Furthermore government wants to limit the amount of money spent on engineers and architects during construction as they feel they can do much of this work themselves in house. In this case the structural consultant likely did not perform adequate inspections as they were not paid to do so. At one time engineering and architecture where honourable professional professions, but not so today. It is often looked upon as a necessary evil and waste of money by those who want to bypass their use all together or limit their involvement to the minimum they can get away with.