Two bodies have been pulled from the rubble of a collapsed mall in Northern Ontario, and rescue workers are confident nobody else is trapped inside.
Lucie Aylwin was the first victim to be removed early Wednesday from the Elliot Lake site. Hours later, Doloris Perizzolo was recovered from the debris.
“We need some time,” said a woman who identified herself as a close family friend. “The family’s in quite a state of shock right now. We need some time here, before we can talk to people.”
The family friend said Ms. Perizzolo was in her early 70s.
The fiancée of Ms. Aylwin, Gary Gendron, told the CBC Wednesday morning that officials said there were "good signs." Later he appeared to be on the verge of tears as he sat in a fold-out chair with family and friends across the street from the site.
Staff-Inspector Bill Neadles, who is heading up the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue operation, told an early afternoon briefing in Elliot Lake that “it’s a very big miracle [the collapse] wasn’t more devastating. ... There were 26 people in the food court. There was people who had just left the lottery terminal, three seconds [earlier].”
Although there had been a large and fluctuating list of missing people, police stressed from the outset that some of them could have been nowhere near the Algo Centre Mall when it collapsed Saturday. On Wednesday, a senior Ontario Provincial Police officer noted that two names remained constant every time the list changed.
“I believe there is no one else in there,” Staff-Inspector Neadles said.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, who publicly urged every last effort after the search ground to a halt, travelled to the grieving community Wednesday. After touring the disaster site and meeting with emergency responders, he spoke to residents and members of the media late in the day.
"My thoughts have been with you," he told residents of Elliot Lake, adding that he met with the families of the victims before arriving at the scene. “I conveyed to those families that they’ve been in the thoughts and prayers of Ontarians since this tragedy struck your community.”
Mr. McGuinty thanked local Mayor Rick Hamilton for his leadership in the recovery effort. Earlier in the day, following the discovery of Ms. Perizollo, the Mayor said “this is a time for us to mourn.”
Mr. McGuinty also thanked the team working under the direction of Mr. Neadles, garnering loud applause.
“You fought for this community and those families as if they were your own,” said Mr. McGuinty. “We owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude.”
He said a “thorough review” of the response to the tragedy was required to learn what could be done differently in the future. He also said it would be important to look into whether appropriate standards were in place and being followed at the mall.
Unknown at this point is whether either victim could have survived if the rescue operation had gone differently.
The HUSAR team was “less than 10 feet away” from the victims Monday, Staff-Inspector Neadles said. “We were very, very close to being able to reach them when the escalator began to fall.”
Searchers pulled back Monday in the face of dangerous conditions on the site, a move that was hotly criticized within the community. Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath expressed frustration Wednesday with how events unfolded, asking: “How do we make sure that there’s not red tape when it comes to saving people’s lives?”
But the HUSAR chief, arguing he can’t expose his team to undue risk, said Wednesday he would make the same decision again.
Crews had worked through the night with “surgical precision” to access the spot where people were believed to be have been trapped.
A local funeral home confirmed they had been hired in relation to the recovery operation but would give no further details.
Reached Tuesday night as the building was being dismantled, the mall’s owner, Bob Nazarian, declined any substantial comment, but said “I’m feeling horrible.”
Asked early Wednesday about persistent local allegations that the mall was unsafe, OPP Commissioner Chris Lewis called it premature to talk about culpability.
“If there was something done wrong here, we’ll deal with that,” he said. "That'll all be examined. ... The priority isn't that piece right now."
The Mayor and other rescue officials spoke to the media and the public during an emotional briefing at the local civic centre early Wednesday afternoon. Residents, many of whom had criticized the pace of recovery, applauded repeatedly. They gave a standing ovation after Staff-Inspector Neadles, who on television appeared to tear up, defended his team’s efforts.
“It’s devastating to us that [rescue crews] think that you think that they wanted to go home,” the HUSAR chief said. “We’d stay for another four or five weeks if we have to.”
The public mood earlier Wednesday was generally subdued, with some residents curled in folding chairs under blankets, and others standing and chatting, their eyes fixed on the machinery.
Doris Briffett said she stayed through the night “to see about the poor people and [to] give support to my friends.”
At around 5:30 a.m. Wednesday, a group of about 40 Elliot Lake residents stood at the corner of Ontario Avenue and Saskatchewan Drive, watching as two large excavators continued shovelling debris from the site of the Algo Centre Mall, which collapsed last Saturday.
Speaking from the other side of a police barricade set up in front of the mall, Dan Hefkey, commissioner of public safety for the province, provided residents with a bare bones early-morning update on the mission’s progress. Some were critical of his brevity.
Work was halted briefly just after 8 a.m. as Mr. Hefkey went to brief the friends and family of those missing.
A woman clad in a black sweatshirt and pajama pants, who declined to give her name to reporters, said of the recovery effort “this is where we should have been Monday morning.”
With reports from The Globe and Mail’s Adam Radwanski at Queen’s Park, Matthew Robinson and Kim MackraelReport Typo/Error
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