Miller Hill Mall evacuated after roof collapse

Brock Hedegaard, an associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Minnesota Duluth, estimated the snow that had fallen into the mall weighed about 160,000 pounds.

Piles of snow fall through a hole in a mall roof, as seen from the inside.
The outdoors is visible through a hole left by a roof collapse at the Miller Hill Mall on Tuesday.
Contributed / Scott Skar

DULUTH — The Miller Hill Mall was evacuated Tuesday morning after a roof collapse. No injuries were immediately reported.

According to the Duluth Fire Department, the collapse was reported at 9 a.m. near Applebee's.

Scott Skar, manager of Barnes and Noble, told the News Tribune he was preparing to open the store when he heard a loud noise and felt the building shake at about 8:55 a.m. After looking through the gate at the mall entrance to the store, he saw snow in the courtyard hallway near Express.

Skar called out to see if anyone was hurt, but did not get a response. He then called 911 and the mall manager. Skar and his employees reported noticing a strong gas smell and left the mall. He said the gas smell was strong even outside the mall after they'd evacuated.

According to a news release from the Duluth Fire Department, there was an initial gas leak at the time of the collapse which was quickly contained by public works and utilities. The gas and water have been shut off to the building and it is currently unknown when they will be restored.


Duluth got 12.5 inches over the weekend. Its seasonal total of 116.4 inches is already the ninth-snowiest ever.

AW Kuettel & Sons, Inc. had a crew on the roof clearing snow Tuesday morning. Luke Kuettel said they were clearing a spot about 100 yards away from the portion that collapsed. As they prepared to move to that spot, a crew member and the mall's operation director went under the roof to check the area. They reported the roof area seemed unsafe, and it caved in shortly after, Kuettel said.

Fire department personnel stand and talk outside of a mall.
Duluth Fire Department personnel converse outside the Miller Hill Mall after a roof collapse Tuesday.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

Kelli Latuska, public information officer for the city of Duluth, said water and gas were turned off and everyone was accounted for.

The public is asked to stay away from the mall area. The mall remained closed for the remainder of the day Tuesday and will remain closed until further notice. Structural engineers are assessing damage to the building and will continue to monitor for secondary collapse.

Simon Property Group, which owns the mall, referred the News Tribune to a regional public relations firm for comments.

"We are grateful there were no injuries as result of a portion of the roof collapsing and for the swift response of first responders," said Weston Banker, public relations director for Milwaukee-based H.PR Strategies. "Miller Hill Mall is closed today and we will share an update on our website when the property is reopened."

Essentia Health has closed all of its facilities in the mall for the remainder of Tuesday: the Essentia Health-Miller Hill Pharmacy, Center for Personal Fitness, Therapy and Performance Center, Polinsky Medical Rehabilitation Center, Essentia Health Surgery Center-Miller Hill and the Essentia Health-Miller Hill Clinic (Duluth). Even though the collapse was not directly over any Essentia properties, Essentia said in a news release it is working with mall leadership to decide when the facilities will reopen. Patients affected by the closure will be contacted directly to reschedule appointments.

First responders are set-up outside a mall.
Duluth Fire Department and other first responders stationed outside the Miller Hill Mall.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

The Duluth International Airport reported 12.5 inches of snow fell over the weekend, and the city has tallied 116.4 inches for the entire winter season.

The Miller Hill Mall previously had to temporarily close some stores in February 2014 after the roof's structural integrity was questioned during another year of heavy snowfall. A crack and bowing were reported in the roof that winter, when Duluth had received about 84 inches of snow. The roof of the former JCPenney also had to be reinforced in December 1983, another year of unusually heavy snow and ice load.


The mall opened in 1973 and was expanded in 1987. In 2014, mall manager Katie Altrichter told the News Tribune the newer portions of the mall were built to more demanding standards.

A handful of stores were closed while crews assessed the structural integrity of a portion of the shopping center's roof.

A cubic foot of accumulated snow can weigh about 25 pounds, according to Brock Hedegaard, an associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Based on a photo Skar took shortly after the collapse and others circulating through social media, Hedegaard estimated the snow that had fallen into the mall weighed about 160,000 pounds.

Tuesday’s roof collapse, Hedegaard suspects, could be the net result of the weight of that snow, plus an aging roof that may not have been able to bear the weight of it any longer or wasn’t designed to handle it in the first place.

A “localized” collapse like that could also be the result of a snow drift, he noted.

“Even if you have a foot or two everywhere, sometimes just in this one spot, you’re going to get a couple extra feet,” Hedegaard said. “It’s pretty hard to predict exactly where that snow is going to land, especially when it's getting blown around, but once you start forming a drift, more snow and more snow is just going to keep piling up on it.”

Ambulance drives by while fire department and police department vehicles are positioned outside a mall.
A Mayo Clinic ambulance drives by as Duluth Fire Department and Duluth Police Department vehicles are stationed outside the Miller Hill Mall in response to a roof collapse.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

A closing reception for a Duluth Public Schools student art show was canceled Tuesday afternoon due to the collapse. According to Adelle Wellens, communication director for Duluth Public Schools, the show was typically placed near where the collapse occurred, but it was moved further away from the area this year, near the T-Mobile store. Limited damage to the artwork is expected. Wellens said school staff are attempting to make arrangements to collect the artwork. The closing reception will not be rescheduled.

This was last updated at 7:29 p.m. March 14 with comments from the Duluth Fire Department and Duluth Public Schools. It was originally posted at 9:47 a.m. March 14.

Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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