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Six months later, questions linger in construction deaths

Two concrete workers, John Martens, 21, of Langton, and Henry Harder, 26, of Tillsonburg, were killed.

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The rubble is long gone, and work has resumed, but many questions remain about a partial building collapse – one of London’s worst workplace disasters in memory – that killed two workers and injured five others two weeks before Christmas 2020. Six months later, a team of London Free Press reporters breaks down what’s known, and what’s still unanswered, about the deadly construction site cave-in at The Nest on Wonderland luxury apartment building and its fallout.

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Q: How has the building industry responded?

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Construction sites, with their large structures, heights, holes and heavy equipment, have long been among the most dangerous workplaces in Ontario, accounting for roughly one-third of all workplace deaths over the last decade. Safety is always paramount, but the London case has pushed London Home Builders’ Association members to re-evaluate their practices

and recommit to precautionary measures

, said group president Sue Wastell.

“When events like this happen, it reignites safety being top of mind for everyone,” she said. “You make sure that you’re doing absolutely everything you can.”

In the wake of the London case, many home builders are creating closer relationships with skilled trades brought in to work at their job sites to ensure they’re committed to safety, Wastell said.

“The tragedy at Teeple Terrace definitely forced the industry to take a hard look at their own internal safety cultures and focus on what could be done better,” said Brandon MacKinnon, business manager of Local 1059 of the Laborers’ International Union of North America.

“For many in the industry, it was a reminder of just how quickly things can go wrong and definitely brought a renewed focus and commitment to job-site and worker safety.”


Q: When will we know the cause?

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Provincial inspectors are still investigating

what happened at the site at 555 Teeple Terrace

, off Wonderland Road, on Dec. 11, but it’s an open question how much longer that will take.

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Two concrete workers,

John Martens, 21, of Langton, and Henry Harder, 26, of Tillsonburg,

the father of a newborn, were killed. One man’s body was briefly entombed in the rubble before it could be recovered. The deaths and injuries stunned the city and sent shock waves through nearby communities where the men lived.

How long the investigation takes will depend on the complexities of the case, a ministry spokesperson said. Ministry staff will review the final investigation report and, if charges are warranted under Ontario’s workplace safety law, the Occupational Health and Safety Act, they’ll be laid within a year of the partial collapse.


Q: What did witnesses report? 

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Workers at the site told The Free Press

they saw a section of freshly poured concrete on the fourth floor give way, crashing down through each floor below to the ground. Some workers fell and were trapped in the rubble, witnesses say. A section of an outer wall reportedly also came down.

Cellphone video footage taken moments later

showed a chaotic site, with workers rushing to remove rubble by hand on the ground floor as the sirens of arriving emergency vehicles blared.


Q: Will there be a coroner’s inquest?

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Yes,

but precisely when remains unclear.

Quasi-judicial hearings designed to prevent similar deaths, inquests are mandatory in workplace deaths in Ontario in the construction, mining and quarrying industries. A jury examines the circumstances of the death or deaths and makes non-binding recommendations to prevent similar ones in future. No date has been set for an inquest in the London case, a Solicitor General’s Ministry spokesperson said. Such inquests, however, are only held after all other investigations – including by police and the Ministry of Labour – are completed, along with any court prosecutions and appeals.

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Q: Who are the key players in the project? 

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Michelle Doornbosch

is listed as president of Nest on Wonderland Inc., and the group building it, Brock Development Group Inc., Ontario corporate records show.

• Shaun Stevens, a partner in the Nest,

was banned from building new homes to sell in Ontario

after losing his licence in October 2017 with Tarion Warranty Corp., which is an agency established by the Ontario government to administer the province’s new-home warranty program. The restriction does not prevent him building rental properties, a Tarion spokesperson has said.

• Sarah Stevens, wife of London builder Shaun Stevens, is listed as a director and officer of Nest on Wonderland Inc.


Q: What are they saying now?

Doornbosch declined comment on the status of the project and the results of an independent investigation she had said the company was launching. “I won’t be commenting on this. I have no comment,” she said.

Sarah Stevens could not be reached for comment.
When reached for comment by The Free Press Thursday evening, Shaun Stevens refused to speak by phone and insisted on an in-person meeting with a reporter in a restaurant parking lot, after business hours, on 30 minutes notice. The Free Press declined this request but offered alternative arrangements for the interview in follow-up texts and a voice message to Stevens. When given these options, including a conversation over a secure encrypted voice call and messaging app, Stevens did not respond.

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Q: Have any lawsuits been filed?

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Not, it appears, for the partial building collapse or its fallout. None of the people involved in the project or affected by the collapse turned up in a recent search of Ontario litigation records.

But Shaun Stevens, the builder who was dropped from the new-home warranty program, was involved in a court fight over allegedly unpaid loans owed to a group of London-area lenders who’d fronted him money for projects in the past, court filings show. Seeking compensation, the lenders eventually took aim at his alleged involvement in the Nest on Wonderland, a move the records suggest threatened to halt the project months before the collapse.

The lenders sued Stevens, his wife, Sarah, Doornbosch and other companies and people linked to Stevens for $1.7 million, plus interest, for money allegedly lent to Stevens to develop properties in west London in 2011, court documents show. The defendants filed statements of defence contesting the lawsuit.

The suit spurred a protracted legal fight involving a bankruptcy declaration by Stevens in 2018. Weeks before he declared bankruptcy, the Teeple Terrace property was bought for $1.2 million and Stevens personally guaranteed a $600,000 mortgage from Laurentian Bank with Doornbosch.

The creditors rejected Stevens’ consumer proposal in May 2018. Three weeks later, Stevens declared bankruptcy and the action was stayed, or set aside.

The creditors suspected Stevens was hiding assets and asked bankruptcy receiver BDO to investigate. BDO said Stevens was examined by the Office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy. In September 2018, BDO released a report saying there was no basis for an investigation.

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The lenders tried again in 2019. In a written decision that year, ordering the stay on the lawsuit lifted, Superior Court Justice Marc Garson found there was enough evidence from the Official Receiver (a government official who reviews bankruptcy documents) and the lenders of potentially moving assets beyond the reach of the creditors, to lift the stay on the proceedings. Stevens and the other defendants had argued the lenders hadn’t proven their allegations and the bid to lift the stay was an attempt to sidestep the bankruptcy process. The Official Receiver had wanted to know if Stevens was trying to “creditor-proof his financial position and that he placed his assets beyond his creditors reach and in trust with family and friends.”

The Official Receiver went back and found Stevens appeared to place assets under the names of various companies and associates, including the $2.1-million family home and a neighbouring $1-million property transferred to his wife’s name only. The lenders had advanced Stevens $675,000 for a development when he was building the house.

While bankrupt, Garson noted, Stevens was driving a Range Rover and a Lamborghini.

Neither Stevens nor his wife could be reached for comment.

Before the freeze was lifted, the lenders went to court and in June 2019 obtained what’s known as a certificate pending litigation against the Nest on Wonderland, along with a caution against the title to the property.

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The certificate caused the Nest’s financing to fall through. The company got the certificate and the caution lifted. Laurentian Bank then granted the company a $10.3-million construction loan and a $300,000 letter of credit, but wouldn’t front the money until all the litigation was settled.

The Nest on Wonderland countersued Stevens’ creditors for $15 million, alleging intentional interference with the project, and sought another $1 million in punitive damages, alleging they hadn’t proven Stevens’ involvement in the project.

Construction was underway, but there was allegedly no cash flow to pay contractors, causing delays and more costs. “The entire project is in jeopardy of falling apart,” the company contended in the statement of claim for its countersuit, and “will lead to personal exposure of the guarantors of Nest on Wonderland’s debt.”

On Jan. 30, 2020, about the same time the creditors’ action was discontinued, The Nest’s action against Stevens’ creditors also was discontinued.


A Teeple Terrace survivor reflects

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Six months after the heavy concrete fell on his legs, Jacob Hurl says he’s still taking things day by day.

“I feel a lot better compared to where I was, but I’m not there yet,” the Lucan man, 22, said after a recent physiotherapy session.

Hurl was on the ground level of the four-floor building when the collapse happened.

The list of his injuries is long. It includes a broken thighbone, broken hip, several compressed vertebrae and chemical burns on one leg. He had three major surgeries and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.

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“I definitely know I’m a lucky person,” he said. “I almost didn’t make it to my 22nd birthday . . . but, honestly, I do think about why was it me that isn’t dead. I think about that all the time.”

He said he won’t work in construction again, but would like to find a way to advocate for workers’ safety.

“If this hadn’t happened to me, perhaps I wouldn’t be talking about it,” he said. “But I know many workers still need a voice.”


THE BIG PICTURE: Answers can take years

The search for answers in workplace deaths often takes years and exacts a toll on victims’ families, friends and colleagues, said Patty Coates, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour.

Recommendations and action to prevent similar deaths are even slower, she said.

“Accountability and action often comes way too slowly,” Coates said. “We have to look at the processes in place and ensure that (workplace injuries and deaths) get looked at as quickly as possible. These families are looking for answers.”

Maximum penalties for violations of Ontario’s workplace safety law range, for individuals, to fines of up to $100,000, a year in jail or both. Companies can be fined as much as $1.5 million.

Employers must be held to the highest safety standards and should face stiffer penalties for violations, Coates said.

The federation encourages police to investigate workplace deaths or injuries and, if warranted, lay criminal charges, Coates said.

“I think all (workplace incidents) should be looked at through that lens. There may not be criminal negligence, it could be a true accident, but if there is . . . it needs to be investigated, no matter what.”

Reported by London Free Press journalists Jennifer Bieman, Norman De Bono, Jonathan Juha, Jane Sims and Megan Stacey.

TO CONTACT LFP ABOUT THIS OR OTHER STORIES, email jbieman@postmedia.com or send an encrypted message on Signal to 519-630-7167 or 226-268-6362.

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