Premier Dalton McGuinty is considering major changes to Ontario’s emergency response protocol as multiple investigations get under way in the wake of a fatal mall collapse.
But even as he promised full transparency for a grieving and frustrated community, the most basic information about who was checking to ensure Elliot Lake’s Algo Centre Mall was structurally sound, and when they last checked, remained elusive.
A coroner’s investigation into the deaths of two women pulled from the rubble began Thursday; so did a Labour Ministry investigation into workplace safety in a shopping centre dogged by maintenance complaints. Once these are finished, Mr. McGuinty said, he’ll take a close look at how to fix Ontario’s emergency response.
In Elliot Lake, the mall’s more than a shopping centre: It was built in 1980 as a mining town’s commercial focal point. After the mines closed down in the 1990s and Elliot Lake drew retirees, the mall retained a community resonance.
That focal point collapsed Saturday afternoon, sending huge slabs of concrete smashing through two storeys. The crash killed two women, injured more than 20 others and held the community in an agonized holding pattern as rescue crews spent days trying to reach those buried under the rubble. It ultimately took the help of a 90-tonne mechanical arm to reach the two victims.
By then, the rescue mission had become one of recovery.
“Maybe one of the lessons we can draw together from this is that, in future, we need to make sure that we have heavy equipment standing by, just in case the usual process for extracting people who are caught up in rubble doesn’t pay dividends,” Mr. McGuinty said.
As to the jarring announcement late Monday that the rescue was being called off altogether, Mr. McGuinty said this was an “unfortunate miscommunication,” and that he hadn’t forced rescue crews to change course when he phoned them that evening.
Mr. McGuinty pledged an “intense review” of the province’s emergency response protocol, as well as what actions were taken following Labour Ministry inspections of the premises – but only after the two other investigations wrap up. This will likely take several months.
In the meantime, it remains unclear who inspected the Algo Centre Mall last, and what they found.
Mall owner Bob Nazarian told The Globe and Mail that the mall was inspected last month, and that inspectors found no problems.
They weren’t Labour Ministry inspectors, which suggests they were from the city, which is responsible for making sure structures adhere to the building code.
But the city won’t say. “Generally speaking, information like that, we don’t provide it to the public at any time because it’s really not information we’re required to give out,” said Bruce Ewald, Elliot Lake’s chief building official. He said the information is available only through a freedom of information request, which normally takes several weeks, at minimum.
Reached at his home Thursday evening, Elliot Lake Mayor Rick Hamilton said he would not comment. “I’m not doing well,” Mr. Hamilton said. “Our community’s been through enough.”
The Algo Centre’s structural issues aren’t news to the Labour Ministry: Inspectors have been to the mall six times since October, 2009, in response to complaints. Five of those visits related to leaks, mould and plumbing concerns.
The ministry’s last inspection was in January regarding a leaky roof. The ministry says Mr. Nazarian “provided information regarding ongoing maintenance planned and permanent fix for spring/summer 2012.” Inspectors issued no orders under the Health and Safety Act. It isn’t clear whether the ministry planned to follow up.
Given the confusion surrounding both the emergency response and the mall’s state of repair, an independent inquiry is in order, local MPP Mike Mantha argues.
That review is coming, Mr. McGuinty said. Just not yet. “Once those preliminary investigations have been conducted, we’ll be in a better position to determine what kind of a review will be put in place to provide people with assurance that things that needed to be done were, in fact, done – or if they weren’t.”
With a report from Adrian Morrow in Toronto