McGuinty promises ‘thorough review’ of mall collapse
Published Wednesday, June 27, 2012 6:15AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, June 28, 2012 12:39AM EDT
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty pledged “a thorough review” into concerns by residents in Elliot Lake, Ont., that a collapsed mall had been unsafe for years, after rescue crews retrieved two bodies from the rubble.
McGuinty made the commitment during a brief news conference Wednesday after arriving in the Ontario community, surveying the damage at the partially collapsed Algo Centre Mall and meeting with the town’s mayor.
When asked about concerns by local residents that the mall had long been unsafe, the premier replied: “That’s just something that we’re going to have to look into. We owe it to the people in this community to determine what was happening here, whether the appropriate standards were in place, whether -- if the standards were in fact appropriate -- whether they were in fact being upheld. Those are the kinds of questions that we are going to ask and that we have to answer.”
McGuinty pledged “a thorough review so that we can come up with those answers.”
McGuinty said any review would also include the province’s response to Saturday’s collapse, as well as actions of search-and-rescue agencies.
“Every disaster, anything that calls for an emergency response, is something where I’m sure we can tighten things up in one way or another,” he said.
McGuinty’s visit to the scene Wednesday evening followed a day of grim news, as rescue crews recovered two bodies from the wreckage. The victims have been identified as Lucie Aylwin and Doloris Perizzolo.
Aylwin’s body was pulled from the scene shortly after 8 a.m. Wednesday, and Perizzolo’s body was recovered a few hours later.
McGuinty said he had met with the victims’ families and offered his condolences.
Bill Neadles, a spokesperson for the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Team, told reporters Wednesday afternoon it was his assumption that there are no other victims within the wreckage of the Algo Centre Mall. Neadles said that assumption was based on the fact that two names had remained consistent on the otherwise fluctuating missing-persons list.
He also said that cadaver-sniffing dogs sent into the building did not indicate the presence of more than two bodies.
“It would be a very big surprise to me to find anybody further,” Neadles said.
According to Neadles, the heavy machinery brought in Tuesday to aid in clearing the rubble and securing the building for rescue crews worked off-and-on through the night to clear the way to the zone where officials had focused their search.
Neadles said crews still had a pile of rubble to search through that measured about five feet high and 40 feet long, “to ensure that we are in fact correct in my assumption that there’s only the two victims within that complex.
He said crews would check a couple of areas around the site and then declare their work complete. That was expected to take a few hours.
‘A deep, deep tragedy'
Earlier Wednesday, Elliot Lake Mayor Rick Hamilton said the discovery of the first body was “a deep, deep tragedy” that affected the entire community.
"It's with heavy hearts and the deepest condolences on behalf of every citizen in Elliot Lake that we offer our condolences to the families of the person who has been removed today," he said.
"It's indeed a tragic time for the citizens of Elliot Lake."
The search was briefly halted Monday when a part of the structure was deemed too unsafe for rescue crews to get near. Neadles said at the time that the building “could fall at any time without notice.”
After a public outcry, McGuinty instructed officials to explore other options for safely resuming rescue efforts. Heavy machinery with an articulated, 150-foot robotic arm was sent to the community to help rescue workers secure the building. It arrived in Elliot Lake on Tuesday night.
McGuinty said Wednesday that rather than order the search to continue, he asked officials if there were other options to move forward safely.
That is when agencies stepped up to offer the heavy equipment that allowed the search to continue, he said.
“My undertaking to you and to all Ontarians is that we will learn any lessons there are to be found here,” McGuinty said. “Ontarians are committed to having in place at all times a world-class emergency response system.”
Members of the community have criticized the decision to halt the search, and expressed their frustration at the Wednesday afternoon news conference.
Neadles said his team had not given up, but were prepared “to stay another four to five weeks if we had to.”
His emotional response received a standing ovation from residents.
He also defended his decision to stop the search despite the fact his crew heard tapping noises coming from the wreckage.
"We had an individual who is now trapped in a very serious amount of heavy concrete. We were in a precarious position. I have 37 men to bring home to their families. I hope you understand what I had to do,” he said, adding that given the chance he would make the same decision again.
Once the heavy machinery arrived Tuesday evening, the plan was for the crane to reach into the building and move the escalator, which had been partially separated from its support structure during the collapse.
That plan hit a snag, however, when crews realized the machine could not reach the area, which is about 45 feet from the mall's entrance.
Instead, workers used the crane to begin dismantling the building from the outside, methodically removing portions of the facade to clear a path.
On Wednesday, Neadles said when crews got close to the area near the escalator and stairways, they learned that the only thing keeping the ceiling from further collapse was a beam that had become jammed.
Once that area was secured on Wednesday, rescuers were able to get right to the area that collapsed, and locate the bodies.
The cause of the collapse has not yet been determined. The Ministry of Labour will conduct a full investigation, officials confirmed Wednesday.
During Wednesday afternoon’s news conference, members of the public were also able to ask questions about the incident, including long-standing safety concerns about the mall.
One local resident told CTV’s Ben Mercer that she was so concerned about the structure that there were times when she was too afraid to enter the building.
“If we have a heavy snow I don’t go to the mall. If we have a thaw and a freeze, I don’t go to the mall,” she said. “It’s been leaking all over the place. I’d like to know how it passed a structural inspection.”
Other residents criticized officials for releasing information about the rescue effort to the media while they waited at the site for news of their friends and neighbours.
“Very frustrated,” one man told Mercer. “A lot of people have been vigilant, staying out here days on end, hours in the rain, tormented trying to find out answers.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath issued a statement Wednesday, mourning the loss of life and commending rescue crews for their efforts. She also said efforts should be made to avoid a similar incident.
“As Ontarians we thank them for their selfless dedication and professionalism,” Horwath said of the rescuers.
“There will be questions to answer about what happened and how we responded, and we owe it to those affected by this tragedy to ensure this can never happen again,” she went on.
“Now is the time to mourn and to remember those who have been lost, and those who will live with that memory for the rest of their lives.”