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Canada Relatives of Elliot Lake victims criticize rescuers' efforts at inquiry into mall collapse

Rubble from the Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, Ont., is seen on Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012. The mall has been off-limits since part of its rooftop garage collapsed June 23, killing two people.

Colin Perkel/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Relatives of the two women killed in the collapse of a northern Ontario mall lashed out at the rescue effort they said failed to save at least one of them.

In emotional testimony Wednesday, they described how they heard rescuers had detected signs of life in the rubble, only to call off the search because it was too dangerous.

"They basically said it was over and the only way to get my mother's body out was to demolish the mall," a sobbing Teresa Perizzolo said. "As far as we're concerned, one was still alive, so they wanted to kill them, and then take them out."

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Ms. Perizzolo, daughter of Doloris Perizzolo, and her husband Darrin Latulippe described hours and days of agonized waiting for any news of her fate after the Algo Centre Mall's rooftop garage caved in last summer.

They received little official information, Mr. Latulippe told the inquiry into the tragedy, and got most of their news from the radio.

Inspector Bill Neadles, who headed up the rescue effort, abruptly told Ms. Perizzolo the search for her mother was done.

"The sad part is when you look at places like Bangladesh, where a building collapses, 17 days later they pulled people out who were still alive," Mr. Latulippe said. "This is Canada. This is not a Third World nation. This is to the point of stupidity."

Ms. Perizzolo has nightmares in which she calls out: "Mom, I'm going to get you out," Mr. Latulippe testified.

It took four days to recover the bodies of Ms. Perizzolo, 74, and Lucie Aylwin, 37.

"They told us they were leaving because it wasn't safe," said Ms. Aylwin's father, Rejean Aylwin.

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"My daughter is there. You cannot stop. So, I left screaming," his wife Rachelle Aylwin testified.

She also slammed those who had allowed the mall to deteriorate to the point at which it collapsed: "I will never forgive them. I heard them. They laugh in our face. They lie. I've never called it an accident; I call it a murder. They knew what was going on, but they did nothing."

Earlier, eyewitnesses described the concrete and debris that crashed down without warning.

As with Mr. Latulippe and Ms. Perizzolo, they spoke of the nightmares that still haunt their sleep.

"Everything happened so fast. It sounded like a bunch of pipes falling. Then everything was gone," said Adam Amyotte, who was in the mall that day. "One thing I remember: Somebody yelling, 'Help!'"

As the relatives of Ms. Aylwin and Ms. Perizzolo looked on, Mr. Amyotte talked about the desolation felt when the search for survivors was suspended. "The whole community was told there were signs of life and they were giving up," he said. "It still hurts."

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The second phase of the inquiry, which began Wednesday, is probing the emergency response to the collapse on June 23, 2012.

It started with screening of surveillance video – some of it showing Ms. Perizzolo at a nearly deserted lottery kiosk where Ms. Aylwin worked one day a month – seconds before the roof fell on them.

Commissioner Paul Belanger warned that watching the video and listening to 911 calls that were played could be difficult. Some chose to leave the hearing room.

Yves Berube, 50, who co-owned a store in the mall, said business was particularly slow that day because of the fine weather.

He had just stepped outside for a cigarette when the collapse occurred. "Behind me was a large boom," he said. "Doors blew open, clouds of dust came flying out." He rushed back in. It was "just pure reaction," he said.

"Dust clouds and water blasting everywhere."

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Inside, he came across Jean-Marie Marceau, 80, covered in blood.

Mr. Marceau had been knocked out by falling debris for about 15 to 20 minutes. He came to less than a metre from a gaping hole.

"I try my best to forget it," Mr. Marceau said. "It's the best way."

Mr. Berube found an elderly woman in a chair surrounded by concrete and debris but miraculously unscathed.

Another young women was crawling over rubble looking for survivors. He warned her to leave in case the rest of the mall crashed down.

Mr. Berube's store was all but destroyed. He salvaged nothing.

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Surveillance video caught Jason Morrissey, 34, and his wife walking across the rooftop parking deck into the mall just before it collapsed.

"Bang, bang, bang, bang. The whole thing came down," Mr. Morrissey said.

He yanked his wife back by the collar. She was grazed by falling concrete but not seriously injured.

The first part of the inquiry – which looked into what led to the collapse – formally ended Tuesday, with the last of about 70 witnesses testifying.

Evidence heard since March was how the mall, badly designed and built, leaked from the start. Successive owners never addressed the problem in a substantive way.

Ultimately, rust due to decades of salt and water penetration weakened a weld, leading a steel support to give way.

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Ms. Aylwin's fiancé Gary Gendron testifies when the inquiry resumes Thursday.

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