Duluth Miller Hill Mall roof collapse spotlights potential statewide dangers

Piles of snow intruded on Duluth’s Miller Hill Mall, somewhere between Barnes & Noble and Applebee’s, just as a crew was trying to clear off the roof.

The city got more than a foot of snow over the weekend, adding to their near-record total this winter and the mall’s wasn’t the first roof to cave in.

Duluth Fire chief Shawn Krizaj says the snow crew got off the roof safely before it collapsed.

The mall wasn’t open yet, so only employees and mall walkers were inside and firefighters accounted for all of them.

The chief says they’ve had a few roof collapses in the area this winter while accumulating almost ten feet of snow.

"Snow load is a concern this year," said fire chief Shawn Krizaj. "Obviously, we’ve got record snowfall, you know approaching records. So any business or any private home, you should be clearing the snow off. It’s always a concern."

Homeowners have help from sloped roofs, but may need to scrape off drifts.

But most malls — like Eden Prairie Center here in the Twin Cities Metro - have flat roofs.

Civil engineering professor Dr. Brock Hedegaard says they’re not designed to be invincible.

"For something like that, it comes down a lot to just the structural design, making sure it’s robust and resilient enough," said University of Minnesota-Duluth civil engineering professor Dr. Brock Hedegaard.

He says estimating the weight can be tricky, but ballparks it at about 40 to 80 tons of snow that took out that portion of the roof and fell into the mall.

And the rest of the mall could still be dangerous.

"If you have a very large snow load, it might be something to continue worrying about if there are some other places in the mall that could have degradation," Dr. Hedegaard said.

City council members told us they’ll wait for completed investigations before taking action, but they’d like to make sure people can feel safe in the city’s buildings.

"I think everybody’s kind of in the same boat," said Duluth Council Member Hannah Alstead. "What happened? And how do we prevent it from ever happening again?"

The fire chief says engineers are working to stabilize the building and that’ll take at least a couple days.

The mall’s owners sent out a statement saying they’re glad nobody got hurt and they’ll send out a social media update when it reopens.