Officials in Elliot Lake, Ont., have confirmed that at least one person was killed when a roof collapsed at a local shopping mall.
Search and rescue officials say signs of life are coming from under massive chunks of concrete, raising hopes others believed to be trapped in the rubble may still be alive.
Rescue crews are working frantically to stabilize the accident site, which is still considered dangerous.
Some local residents have said they believed even before the roof caved in that the two-storey shopping centre that was built in the early ‘80s had been in need of repairs.
Earlier on Monday, the mayor of Elliot Lake, where the Algo Centre shopping mall collapsed on Saturday, emphasized that the situation in the small northern Ontario city remains a rescue operation, while praising the response of community members and emergency workers.
“This is still a rescue. Evidence has [been] uncovered that leads us to suspect that there may be a casualty, but we’re working in regards to a rescue at this point,” Rick Hamilton said.
“The citizens of Elliot Lake are supporting their emergency management team and the people assigned to this task are doing a fabulous job.”
Mr. Hamilton said Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath, NDP MPP Michael Mantha, and minister of community safety and correctional services Madeleine Meilleur had all reached out to offer assistance and support.
A post on Premier Dalton McGuinty’s Twitter feed indicates that the two men spoke yesterday.
While the situation on the ground remains fluid, recent reports indicate that nine people are unaccounted for and at least one may be dead. Rescue crews have reportedly heard tapping from underneath rubble.
Mr. Hamilton said he is spending much of his time in a city hall board room with representatives from the OPP, fire services, emergency medical services, and a Toronto rescue unit that travelled to northern Ontario to assist with the rescue effort.
Several Elliot Lake residents the Globe contacted, including mall employees, spoke about the mall’s persistently leaky ceilings and said they felt the building was dangerous long before Saturday’s collapse.
Mr. Hamilton declined to answer any questions about past maintenance issues at the mall, and whether any of these problems had ever been raised with local politicians.
Pressed for details on these issues, as well as any information about the mall’s owner, Mr. Hamilton repeatedly said, “We’re focusing on the rescue.”
A press conference is expected for noon today.
Despite the possible casualty, officials were expected to work through the night yesterday. But they didn’t expect to get to anyone trapped under the rubble until Monday because it will take up to 12 hours to stabilize the scene, officials said.
Mr. Hamilton declared a state of emergency Saturday after the roof, which serves as a parking lot, crashed through two floors of the shopping centre, exposing twisted metal and concrete supports and triggering a gas leak. The Ontario Provincial Police emergency team were deployed to the area, as were about 40 specialists who make up Toronto’s Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team.
Police say 22 people were injured in the collapse, but none of them seriously. Another nine people remain unaccounted for, but that number is fluctuating as community members account for those missing, police say.
Ontario Provincial Police Inspector Percy Jollymore insisted Sunday that number of people unaccounted for was fluctuating as some of those reported as missing had been located and others — who hadn’t been heard from — were added to the list.
“The problem with this is there’s no precise science, we don’t know who was in the mall when it collapsed,” said Insp. Jollymore. “We won’t stop until the list has been satisfied.”
For residents of Elliot Lake, it was a weekend of hope and frustration. The shopping centre houses the city library, various government offices and a grocery store. It is also a structure, some say, that has shown signs of disrepair over the years.
Residents, taking stock of the weekend incident, wondered if it could have been avoided. The local newspaper, The Standard, has reported on leaks and other deficiencies at the mall, saying that owners spent $1.1-million recently to plug roof leaks. But residents contacted by The Globe and Mail spoke about persistent leaks despite the infusion of cash.
“When we walked through the Algo Centre mall last summer, the library had buckets out to catch the ceiling leaks,” one person wrote on Twitter.
The owner of the mall, which was built in the early 1980s, was tight-lipped when reached Sunday. Bob Nazarian of Eastwood Mall Inc. was in Elliot Lake, and planned on visiting the site.
“I’d rather not [comment], because we have talked to our lawyers and we’re going to be in the City Hall to represent ourselves,” he said. “But nevertheless, we are very much concerned [about] this accident.”
Two kiosks were located in the area where the roof caved in and were open before the collapse, eyewitnesses said.
Heather Richer was serving a customer at her restaurant, Mum’s Place, when the ceiling nearby collapsed. “We heard a great big bang,” she said. “You look up and the mall’s gone. It caved in … water flowing everywhere, everything was down around us.”
She said there were maintenance issues and leaky ceilings, including in her restaurant.
“There [were] holes everywhere, especially over where the roof had fallen in,” she said.
Yves Bérubé, co-owner of a jewellery store, was on a cigarette break outside the mall when the roof gave way.
“The doors blew open and a big cloud of dust [came] flying out,” he said. “It was like something you see in a horror movie.”
Mr. Bérubé ran back inside to assist in getting people out, including an elderly woman and a man who had been cut.
“Once we had everybody, we got out of there,” he said. As for his store: “The front end of my store is gone, from what I’ve seen,” he said.
Politicians, including Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, thanked emergency workers and praised the residents of Elliot Lake for remaining strong and hopeful.
Sunday church services in Elliot Lake focused on the tragedy. Reverend Robert Gardner said Holy Trinity United Church had opened its doors to anyone affected by the accident, including the scores of workers involved in the search and rescue effort.
“It’s a town that bounces back from all kinds of things,” Mr. Gardner said. “It’s not a town that gives up.”
With reports from Chris Berube and The Canadian Press