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Owner believed Elliot Lake mall was 'structurally sound'

Lawyers for a public inquiry into the collapse of the Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, Ont., lower left, visit the site on Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012. The mall has been off-limits since part of it collapsed in June, killing two people.

Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press

A lawyer representing the owner of the Elliot Lake mall that collapsed on June 23, killing two women, says his client was unaware of any structural issues at the building, which was notorious in the small Northern Ontario community for leaking ceilings.

Speaking of behalf of Eastwood Mall Inc., the mall's owner, lawyer Derrick Fulton denied that his client had any knowledge to suggest the building was in danger of collapsing.

"We are completely convinced that when my client tells you that he was never put on notice of any structural issues concerning that mall, that is … correct, given the engineering reports that we have," Mr. Fulton said.

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Mr. Fulton also said that his firm has "a fairly thick production brief of engineering reports that support that position," but would not offer specifics on who conducted inspections on the mall, other than to say their findings were always satisfactory.

In July, Global News reported that M.R. Wright & Associates, a Sault Ste. Marie-based engineering firm, had visited the mall as recently as April, 2012. In a May letter to the building's manager, M.R. Wright noted rust on the building's beams, but declared the Algo Centre to be structurally sound.

The two men whose names appeared on that letter, Robert Wood and Gregory Saunders, had been reprimanded for by an engineering regulatory body for professional misconduct in 2010. Mr. Wood's licence was suspended.

M.R. Wright & Associates has declined to comment on matters related to the Algo Centre.

Mr. Fulton said his client was aware of maintenance issues of the mall, but that there was no evidence to suggest a connection between persistent leaks and serious structural damage.

Meanwhile, Justice Paul Belanger, who is heading up the public inquiry into the mall's collapse, is in Elliot Lake this morning to speak with residents.

He expressed his condolences as residents attended an informal session with the commissioner.

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In opening remarks, Mr. Belanger said the tragedy "shook all Ontarians as well as the people of Canada."

Mr. Belanger says he and his counsel wanted to hear from residents what impact the June 23 disaster had on them.

The commissioner says the stories would help the commission focus its work.

He also notes the inquiry's task is not to assign blame, but to find out what happened.

"This distinction can be frustrating for members of the public who want to see the perceived wrongdoers penalized," Mr. Belanger said.

"Punishment or penalty may follow but not as part of the public inquiry itself."

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Michael Mantha, the New Democrat MPP for the area, said the burning question for most people is whether the tragedy that claimed two lives was preventable.

However, residents will have to wait at least a year for those answers – once the inquiry has reported its findings.

Commission lawyers have spent the past few days getting to know the town.

Among other things, they paid a visit Tuesday to the collapsed Algo Centre Mall, peering at the rubble through the emergency fencing.

Mr. Mantha said people have questions about the inquiry process, and wonder if they should get involved. He said he has been encouraging them to talk to the commission.

"Now that they're over the trauma of the tragedy and those raw emotions that were there, people are starting to remember particular situations or incidents," Mr. Mantha said.

"People are remembering there was a crack, there was some leaking."

Joyce Cyr, president of the local chamber of commerce, said the closure of the mall has hit the community hard – socially and economically.

"We've lost 60 per cent of our retail space," Ms. Cyr said.

Only a handful of the affected businesses have managed to relocate so far, given the limited space elsewhere in the town of about 13,500, Ms. Cyr said.

The collapse has prompted attempts to speed up the construction of a new mall, with hopes that it could be ready by the end of next year.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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