BURNABY, British Columbia -- The roof of a supermarket collapsed Saturday on its opening day, sending cars in a rooftop parking lot crashing down into the store only minutes after employees fled. At least 16 people were hurt, one critically.
The huge Save-On-Foods store, in one of suburban Vancouver's largest shopping malls, the Metrotown Center, was getting ready to open its doors for an opening-day sale, when officials discovered a burst water pipe in the roof and evacuated part of the building.
Staff Sgt. Gary Schauer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said the supermarket had not opened yet when 50 square yards of roof caved in and plunged 50 feet into the store. But he said 300 employees and a few dignitaries had been inside -- along with some senior citizens who had been invited in early -- had been inside shortly before the collapse.
Burnaby Mayor Bill Copeland, among the dignitaries, probably averted a disaster by having police clear the store after he spotted an overhead pipe that had burst, said Fire Chief Pete Shuster.
'Water was leaking through the roof and Mayor Copeland happened to be in here at the time,' Shuster said. 'He realized the situation and had them clear the area about five minutes prior to the roof collapsing.'
'One of the main supporting posts was quite badly distorted. We knew at that point that something disastrous was going to take place,' Copeland said.
'Everyone moved towards the entrance but it wasn't a stampede,' Copeland said. 'People were helping each other.'
However, one woman, who refused to be identified, said there was chaos when everyone inside attempted tried to flee the store at once.
'There were 80 people trying to go through a 12-foot door,' she said. 'It was scary.'
An elderly woman who identified herself only as Mrs. Rennie said she heard a loud noise, then people began screaming and running.
'There were cars coming down. There was pushing and shoving with everyone trying to get out,' she said. 'I'm still shaking. I've never heard such a thunderous noise. I've never been so scared.'
The company that built the supermarket, Amaco Ltd., issued a terse, unsigned statement saying company officials 'welcomed an investigation' and were sure Amaco 'would be cleared' of any fault in the disaster.
It was not known what caused the roof to collapse. Copeland called for an immediate investigation.
Schauer said 16 people were sent to Burnaby Hospital, all but one with minor injuries. He said one man suffered major chest injuries and was in critical condition in intensive car. None of the victims was immediately identified.
He said the collapse left a 150-by-150-foot hole in the ceiling.
'There are approximately 22 cars up there that are laying in the rubble and they fell approximately 40 or 50 feet down,' said police Cpl. Dave Muir. An unknown number of other cars remained on the uncollapsed part of the garage floor.
Although no one appeared to be missing, police and fire crews used dogs to sniff through the rubble checking the possiblity that somebody might have been trapped. A crane was summoned to lift the damaged cars, and as a safety measure all power lines in the store were cut.
Lyle Larose, an elderly man who was there, said, 'All I saw was part of the roof coming down and things were just flying all over the place and people running to the front (of the store). That's when I made a beeline for the exit.'
Beatrice Gibson, an elderly woman, said, 'As I ran out the exit door there was just like a strong gust of wind and stuff just came flying out the door with you.'
Jimmy Pattison, entrepreneur and owner of Save-On-Foods was in the store for opening day when it happened.
'We're a tenant in the center. Everyone will be looking for who's to blame. There will be an investigation.'
Controversy arose during the building of the center, including union walkouts and company lockouts. Halfway through construction, non-union workers were brought in.
Schauer said that 20 to 25 searchers were 'sorting through the concrete and pipes just in case someone's still there, but we're sure nobody will be there.'
'Just try to imagine what kind of stuff we're working with. With the huge cavity, and with the ceiling being several inches of cement and insulation and pipes and reinforcement beams, it's quite a mess. We won't leave until we're sure nobody's there.'