Shortly after 2 p.m. Thursday, staff members at Altru Health System’s main clinic heard a crack in the wall near the pharmacy.
They noticed the wall was sagging about 2 inches below the tile, saw a crack in the wall and water leakage.
By 2:35 p.m. the main clinic’s estimated 100 patients and just over 100 staffers were evacuated from the building as Grand Forks firefighters and structural engineers rushed in to build support frames to keep the building stable.
“We found that a structural joint had failed,” said Altru CEO Dave Molmen at a press conference Friday afternoon. “We’ve now secured that failure and are assessing the impacts to other surrounding joints in the rest of the building. For safety reasons, we will not be using that facility until it can be fully assessed.”
When that will be remains unclear.
A failure point occurred in the web of an I-beam between a column and a 16-inch beam in the pharmacy wing of the building on the fourth floor, according to Altru Administrative Director Ken Vein.
The failure could be seen and felt in that spot near the pharmacy on all four floors of the building, Vein said.
“The area where the damage took place is going to be a longer time to fully assess and correct,” Vein said. “Our engineers are working on that as we speak. ...That will be ongoing here through the end of this week into the beginning of next week.”
Structural engineers were in the main clinic working on stabilizing the failure until about 2:30 a.m. Friday. Altru officials said they do not believe the building is in danger of collapsing.
The cost to make repairs are currently unknown.
“We will look at both a short-term and a long-term fix,” Vein said. “Some areas are going to be impacted longer than others, but we think it’s going to last a month or two before we will have the long term-fix in place.”
Vein said there were no indications a failure was on the horizon and described the incident as “sudden.” He said the structural joint had been in place since the building’s construction in 1976.
Battalion Chief Chad Cutshaw said the Grand Forks Fire Department worked to construct a 6-foot-by-6-foot timber-shore around the joint failure to keep the area stable and prevent the damage from spreading.
He said firefighters had conducted a basic building safety inspection at the main clinic shortly before Christmas and found no problems.
A major building inspection from the city has not been done since the building had been completed, according to Grand Forks building and zoning administrator Bev Collins.
“We’re in the building on almost a continuous basis, but as far as a structural review, we wouldn’t do that,” Collins said.
She said that remodeling permits that have been issued for the building do not lead to a full examination of the building’s framing.
Collins said the building department has competent inspectors who work to keep city buildings safe.
“This type of failure that we’ve seen here is very unusual,” Vein said. “What we will do is we’ll go back and do a much more thorough inspection of almost all joints.”
Vein said Altru will bring in a third-party structural engineer to review the repairs.
It is believed the building was constructed by a Minneapolis contractor, but Altru and City Hall believe the exact records were lost in the 1997 flood.
All other parts of the Altru Health System Grand Forks campus, including the hospital and emergency room, remain open. Patients with appointments at the main clinic have been largely redirected. Patients with appointments for audiology, ENT, mammography, breast cancer and ophthalmology will have to reschedule. Molmen said those departments have large technology components that need to be relocated before services can resume next week.
“Our anticipation is that by Tuesday when we open, all services will be able to be provided,” Molmen said.
Altru has posted temporary locations of departments and other updates on the clinic at its website, altru.org.