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Local residents wait for news as rescue workers wait to access the wreckage of Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, Ont., on Wednesday, June 27, 2012, while cranes remove debris caused by the mall's roof collapsed last Saturday (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)
Local residents wait for news as rescue workers wait to access the wreckage of Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, Ont., on Wednesday, June 27, 2012, while cranes remove debris caused by the mall's roof collapsed last Saturday (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Premier faces questions about stop-and-start Elliot Lake rescue Add to ...

Ontario’s Premier acknowledges that confusion and delays in the effort to reach possible survivors of a shopping mall roof collapse have raised concerns about the province’s capacity to respond to serious emergencies.

“There will be a time for questions that need to be asked about what and when, and how and why not,” Premier Dalton McGuinty said Tuesday, after being asked how a race to reach potential survivors could be halted and then resumed only after his intervention.

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As heavy equipment began rumbling up the highway to the Algo Mall in Elliot Lake to undertake the task of prying apart heavy concrete slabs inside an unstable structure, questions also grew as to whether clearer lines of communication and stronger leadership on the ground could have saved precious time.

Saturday’s collapse sent concrete slabs crashing through two floors of the Algo Mall, killing at least one person and injuring more than 20. At least one person was still trapped under the rubble and alive on Monday. The number of missing has moved up and down in the days since, and stood at 12 on Tuesday.

Staff Inspector Bill Neadles, the man in charge of the Toronto-based Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team, appeared to indicate on Monday that the work stopped because of an edict from the provincial Labour Ministry. But provincial officials hinted Tuesday that mere safety concerns expressed by an onsite engineer from the ministry were misinterpreted as an edict.

Government sources also suggested that a combination of exhaustion, emotion and frustration may have impeded the provincial emergency workers and officials from considering a full range of options when it was deemed unsafe for efforts inside the collapsed structure to continue. Only after Mr. McGuinty asked whether anything else was possible did they shift to Plan B, which involves using heavy machinery operating from the mall’s exterior.

Mr. McGuinty’s intervention – which included calling Prime Minister Stephen Harper to ensure support from the Armed Forces – is credited for restarting the efforts. But the provincial New Democrats, who represent the riding in which the northern community is located, are asking whether the Premier was fully engaged quickly enough.

The rescue mission, newly equipped with a 90-tonne mechanical arm, was poised to reboot Tuesday evening, more than 24 hours after it was halted.

The abrupt decision to stop searching over fears the structure was too precarious for rescuers came directly from Staff Insp. Neadles of the HUSAR search and rescue team that was deployed to Elliot Lake shortly after Saturday’s collapse.

When Elliot Lake Mayor Rick Hamilton declared a state of emergency Saturday afternoon, that put the accident in the hands of Ontario’s emergency management office, which called in Staff Insp. Neadles’s team. The team of rescuers, technicians and engineers worked gingerly on the site through Monday afternoon, when Staff Insp. Neadles phoned Ontario’s Community Safety Commissioner Dan Hefkey, who is responsible for emergency preparedness. They had to stop their operation, Staff Insp. Neadles said.

“They’re there under the auspices of the province. But that’s what I call a tactical decision,” Mr. Hefkey said in an interview. “And I leave it to Staff Inspector Neadles to make that tactical decision.”

In press conferences Monday and Tuesday, Staff Insp. Neadles said the decision to stop the rescue was out of his hands. “Our authority did end when the building was deemed unsafe by the ministry and other structural engineers,” he said.

But Ontario’s Labour Ministry, which is responsible for workplace safety, issued no orders on Monday. A trio of orders issued Tuesday relating to on-site safety explicitly noted they don’t affect rescue efforts.

Hours after the rescue effort was halted, following a flood of entreaties and a call from Mr. McGuinty’s office, the situation had changed. By midnight, Mr. Hefkey says, they had a new plan in place. “With the enhanced authority given to me by Mr. Hepkey through the province of Ontario to then set the next plan in motion, I think you’re going to see some very serious machinery rolling through town,” Staff Insp. Neadles said after the call went out to Toronto-area Priestly Demolition for the biggest excavator in Ontario.

That 90-tonne mechanical arm, identified as a Komatsu PC 850, is key to navigating areas too perilous for crews to enter. Owner Victor Priestly has worked with HUSAR before and his son is with the operating crew at Elliot Lake. The plan is to reach into the recesses of the collapsed mall and use the machine’s arm to push aside a listing escalator. Once that’s down, crews hope, they’ll be able to shear off a wall of the mall structure and get inside.

The chances of finding life beneath the debris are shrinking fast. A team doctor said there’s a “slim, very slim possibility for that person to remain alive.”

That small chance hits home hardest for Rejean Aylwin, who believes his daughter Lucie Aylwin is inside. The decision to halt the search was unthinkable for him.

“They just gave up,” he said on Monday. “It doesn’t make sense. You can’t give up. You’ve got to keep going until you find them.”

Many are wondering whether the heartache of Monday’s halted search could have been avoided altogether.

“We’re going to have to really look at what has happened over the last few days to see what we can improve,” said local MPP Mike Mantha. “We’re going to be talking to the mayor, council, OPP, everyone involved to see if there’s something in this process that could improve or expedite things.”

Officials in the Premier’s office defended Mr. McGuinty’s handling of the situation, including his decision not to personally visit the site – despite the fact that his Liberals were meeting this past weekend in nearby Sudbury. To do so, they said, would have offered little help and caused needless distraction.

The Liberals say that Mr. McGuinty was regularly briefed from Sunday morning onward, and in touch with Elliot Lake’s Mayor that day. An official noted that “there are lots of potential emergencies flagged for a government,” and that some time needed to pass for the Premier to be fully briefed on what was happening on the ground.

Now, the official said, Mr. McGuinty is continuing to press for answers about how efforts are proceeding – including how rescue equipment works, and whether doctors are on site to help any survivors. He is also said to have given “clear instructions that all of these efforts should be communicated to the families and to everyone who is concerned through the media.”

 

With a report from Gloria Galloway in Ottawa, files from The Canadian Press

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