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Finger-pointing marks start of inquiry into Elliot Lake mall collapse

Crowds gathered to watch as a specialized crane begins to tear down the exterior of the Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, Ont. June 26, 2012.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Many people had the opportunity to prevent the deadly collapse of a mall in northern Ontario last summer but failed to do so, an inquiry into the disaster has heard.

In his opening comments as the hearing kicked off, lawyer Doug Elliott said on Monday that the collapse had several causes, but should never have occurred.

"A shopping centre mall should not just fall down," said Mr. Elliott, who represents local citizens. "We thought someone would do something before it was too late."

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The judicial inquiry under Commissioner Paul Belanger formally began hearings on Monday into the collapse of the Algo Centre Mall last June 23.

The probe will also be looking at whether the emergency response to the disaster was adequate.

Lucie Aylwin, 37, and Doloris Perizzolo, 74, were killed when part of the rooftop garage caved in at the mall, which was a crucial hub for the one-time uranium boom town of about 13,000.

"It was the heartbeat of the community," said Roland Aube, a long-time town lawyer and Mr. Elliott's co-counsel.

The roof-deck collapse and deaths of Ms. Aylwin and Ms. Perizzolo, Mr. Aube said, were "a serious blow to the citizens of Elliot Lake, and one many believe could have been prevented."

As relatives of the victims and a few members of the community looked on, Mr. Belanger stressed in his opening statement that the aim of the probe is to find out why the rooftop garage caved in, not to find blame or legal fault.

"This is not a trial," Mr. Belanger said.

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That didn't stop Mr. Elliott from pointing out that the mall had a history of problems no one seemed to address properly. Nor did anyone pick up on the crucial structural problems – likely caused by road-salt compounded corrosion – until it was too late.

"This tragedy represents a failure of the engineering profession of Ontario," Mr. Elliott said.

In fact, Mr. Elliott said, many people had the opportunity to prevent the tragedy but "failed to do so."

The lawyer, also a long-time resident of Elliot Lake, said everyone appeared to miss an obvious solution to the problem: Close the garage to traffic.

Instead, he said, a series of Band-Aid solutions was tried, but "none of them ever worked."

Mr. Elliott also said maintenance of the leaky roof declined under the last of the mall's three sets of owners, Bob Nazarian, who has insisted he was blameless.

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He also criticized the "long delay" on coming up with an alternative rescue strategy when the initial approach was deemed unsafe.

The rescue effort drew widespread criticism when rescuers said they were giving up shortly after announcing they had detected signs of life in the rubble.

Doug Kearns, who represents a local group that owned the mall before Mr. Nazarian bought it, expressed concern the inquiry could further traumatize the community if not handled properly.

"I realize that, come September, the rest of you will all be gone and we'll be left here," Mr. Kearns said, looking around the room. "I hope that you will keep mindful of the fact that Elliot Lake does need to be a better place when you leave."

For those who continue to experience pain from the events of last June 23, Mr. Belanger said a quiet room had been set up on the third floor of the newly renovated office building in which the hearings are being held.

The inquiry is expected to hear from as many as 75 witnesses over the next several months, with the expectation Mr. Belanger will deliver his report and recommendations by January, 2014.

Commission counsel Peter Doody filed 1,884 numbered exhibits on Monday, many with hundreds of attachments.

The first witness – an engineer who will offer an overview of the designing and constructing of a building – testifies on Tuesday.

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