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Durban - Durban businessman Jay Singh is adamant that he did not take any “shortcuts” in the construction of the ill-fated Tongaat Mall and is confident that the truth will be revealed.
Singh, who has planted the blame squarely at the door of the engineers, spoke briefly to the Daily News on Friday during a smoke break at the inquiry into the fatal collapse of part of the shopping mall.
He insisted the collapse was the result of an oversight by the engineers and that he could not be held accountable because he personally had no engineering expertise.
Cox Yeats attorney Richard Hoal, who represents the consulting engineer, had to consult with his client before replying to Singh’s comments.
The engineer is yet to table his report before the inquiry.
The mall collapsed in November, killing two workers and injuring 29.
The R208 million project was being developed by Rectangle Property Investment and the contractor was Gralio Precast. Both companies are linked to Singh. His son, Ravi Jagadasan, is the sole director of Rectangle Properties. Jagadasan and Singh’s former wife, Shireen Annamalay, are listed as Gralio’s directors.
The Department of Labour’s commission of inquiry, which will prepare a report on its findings and make recommendations to the labour minister and the director of public prosecutions, is adjourned until next Monday.
“When the inquiry resumes on the 21st more of the truth will come out. There was definitely a design problem - the columns and the piles were under-designed,” Singh said.
“The engineers have not done their job properly. I am not an engineer - that is the reason we hired qualified experts in the field (for) this job.”
It was inconceivable that he would risk a substantial investment by cutting corners.
“We invested (about) R100m on this aspect of the project. Our own money was spent. I wouldn’t dare think of taking any shortcuts with so much money being involved.”
Singh added that he was eagerly waiting for his independent engineer to testify when the inquiry resumed, as “a lot of things would transpire”.
When asked about a comment made by inquiry commissioner Phumudzo Maphaha - the department’s occupational health and safety manager - that the remaining structures looked hazardous and could collapse, Singh said he would give a media briefing at the end of the inquiry, once the findings were made.
e.tv carried a broadcast on Wednesday in which the commissioner, after going on a site visit, voiced his concerns that some of the structures were potentially hazardous.
However, department spokesman Nhlanhla Khumalo said the commissioner remained neutral and that there had been no formal decision on whether the structure needed to be demolished.
“The entire commission took a walkabout on Wednesday to collate more information as there are numerous issues they want to be satisfied with and they wanted to get a feel of the site,” he said.
“Their main focus is on the engineering and structural deficiencies that have arisen.
“All recommendations will be put forward only after the findings are concluded at the end of the inquiry. The issue of whether the structure remains will be determined then.
“There has never been a decision or suggestion from the commissioner thus far that the remaining parts of the building would have to be demolished,” Khumalo said.
Last week’s hearing focused on three areas of concern - and the possible “triggers” for the collapse - identified by various engineers as beam number 7 and columns 243 and 219.
One independent engineer, Ed Weakley, said that the beam had not been cast in a single pouring, and as there was a join, it could break at this point of weakness.
Another engineer, Gons Poonan, who was called in by the eThekwini Municipality in the wake of the disaster, said that while he had no criticism of the beam design, it had not been constructed in accordance with the construction drawing.
There were only seven reinforcing rods in the beam instead of the usual 19, he said, but as only six had been cast in concrete, the beam would not stand the construction load and would fail.
Column 319, which only had a single pile, would also fail, Poonan said.
He also felt that column 243, which was in the upper limits of “slender”, was inadequately designed for its purpose. He would have made it bigger, he said when asked what he would have done.
The inquiry heard that the only argument among the engineers, who had held several meetings in the run-up to the inquiry and also got together one afternoon last week, was whether the portion of the site under investigation was adequately braced.
Another engineer, Piet Pretorius, who is busy working on calculations, is expected to testify when the hearing resumes that in his opinion, the structure was braced.
The presiding officer also said that he wanted to trace the photographer who took an aerial picture of the partially collapsed mall as it contained several interesting clues about what happened that day.
He said that the investigation “will change how we do business in future for the better. All the stakeholders are learning… and this is part of our contribution in preventing a recurrence of this incident in the country”.
Additional reporting by Barbara Cole