As Ontario prepares for an independent public inquiry following the deaths of two women trapped for days inside a collapsed mall in Elliot Lake, one question remains especially baffling. When emergency-response leaders decided that it was too dangerous to continue search-and-rescue efforts under the rubble, why did it require Premier Dalton McGuinty to press for a Plan B before they came up with one?
By the account of the province’s Community Safety Commissioner, Dan Hefkey, he and Bill Neadles of the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Unit “look[ed] even harder for answers” because of their conference call with Mr. McGuinty, resulting in a specialized excavator being brought in to dismantle the collapsed structure. It is hard to fathom that, two days into search-and-rescue efforts and with at least one victim believed to still be alive, they weren’t looking as hard as possible for answers to begin with. Had someone come up with one sooner, precious hours would have been saved, giving a better chance of reaching survivors.
As some emergency-response experts have noted, political pressure should have no role in such decisions, because it could lead rescue workers to take ill-advised risks. The Ontario Premier can hardly be faulted for his intervention, which is what Ontarians would have expected at that point, but Mr. McGuinty should never have been put in a position in which that was necessary.
It’s perhaps unfair to place the blame on Staff Insp. Neadles, who has already withstood considerable criticism, given that his role is supposed to be more operational than strategic. But one way or another, there appears to have been a severe lack of leadership and initiative on the ground at a pivotal point in search-and-rescue efforts. The coming review will need to determine why that happened, and how to ensure it never happens again.