Steam from decades of canning tomatoes may have caused dry rot in roof timbers at a San Benito Foods cannery building last month, contributing to the catastrophic collapse, say city inspectors.
As many as 30 workers narrowly escaped injury in the Sept. 18 building failure at one of Hollister’s largest employers.
Bryan Swanson, director of the city’s Development Services and Engineering Department, said that other than the sounds heard by a security guard moments before the collapse, there may have been no warnings of the near disaster. Unless the city gets a request for a permit for new construction, renovations or repairs, he said, industrial and commercial buildings in Hollister are never routinely inspected for any structural defects, regardless of age.
In the case of San Benito Foods, only a dozen such permits for repairs and renovations to its aging buildings were requested over the past 35 years, according to city permit records.
City fire marshals inspect commercial buildings annually for potential fire hazards and the condition of fire retardant systems, but not structural issues.
City building inspector Greg Johnson said this week he saw evidence of dry rot in the roof that collapsed Sept. 18, adding that the canning process in the building produced a lot of steam, causing constant high humidity during the height of the harvest.
One month after the roof collapse, which occurred as the final summer harvest was winding down, crews this week from a Fresno demolition and “deconstruction” company were beginning the tedious process of hauling away tons of debris from inside the cannery building on Sally Street near downtown Hollister.
Swanson said the city signed off on a demolition permit submitted last week by San Benito Foods’ contractor, Central Valley Environmental Construction, allowing the cleanup work to begin.
He said a structural engineer hired by the vegetable packing company inspected the site and supervised the installation of wall braces to ensure the walls wouldn’t collapse during the debris removal. He also said an air quality engineer had to convince the regional air resources district there were no asbestos contamination issues associated with the removal of the roof debris.
A CVE Construction representative last week said his firm’s contract was only for removal of the roof debris and salvaging of equipment, not the demolition of the building or construction of a new roof.
“We met with the engineer and he explained what he was going to do, and we approved it,” Swanson said. “We inspected the walls to see that they were braced properly,” before giving final approval to the debris removal, he added.
Construction of a new roof will require detailed plans to be submitted to Swanson’s department, which will require more inspections before, during and after the construction.
San Benito Foods, which is owned by the Neil Jones Food Company of Washington, has not responded to requests for updates or interviews.
Swanson said his inspectors would take a complete look at the structural integrity of the entire building after the cannery is cleared of debris.
“What we’re concerned with right now is the part that fell, just the roof collapse,” said Swanson. “When we get all that taken care of, that one portion of the building, we are going to go back and evaluate everything done on that job” and take a look at the entire building.
However, Swanson said the city has no intention of systematically taking a look at every one of more than a dozen large manufacturing and warehouse structures in the four-block San Benito Foods campus, to check for any other roof problems or potentially dangerous structural defects, like the kind he saw in the shattered timbers and steel on the floor of the Sally Street cannery. Most of the buildings are decades old. The company has been canning tomatoes in Hollister since 1910.
Sally Street will remain closed to most traffic during the cleanup, Swanson said.