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Residents of Elliot Lake hold tight in embrace of grief

Stress and exhaustion were evident on the faces of residents waiting for news.or news as rescue workers wait to access the wreckage of the 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

After a long-leaking mall in the small northern city of Elliot Lake collapsed on Saturday, local residents formed a circle around the victims' families and sealed it tight – journalists wanted details on the reported victims, but local residents were most concerned with protecting their own.

Elliot Lakers held an impromptu vigil at the corner of Ontario Avenue and Saskatchewan Road. It was a scene that suggested a city in the early stages of grief: a mixture of anger being expressed over the building's dangerous state and confusion about how a community hub had been allowed to deteriorate into disaster.

Young families, senior citizens and teenagers all gathered at the scene. A few spent the night, huddling under blankets and keeping watch over the string of tea lights and notes from well-wishers at the curbside candlelight vigil.

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Asked for details about the building, residents spoke about the water that dripped from the mall's ceilings, or the black liquid that reportedly rained down inside the Foodland when the roof finally gave way.

At other times, the scene resembled a community centre that had spilled into the streets in a small town's time of need. Residents handed out bottles of water and food; porta-potties were set up; women formed a drum circle and played into the night.

On Tuesday, residents worn down by waiting and the high-20s heat sought shade wherever they could find it. But by night, the seemingly accelerated rescue effort was enough to bring a crowd of at least 250 to their feet.

When heavy machines began tearing the building apart, cheers went up from the crowd – a combination of relief that the effort was progressing, and excitement that the building was finally coming down. Large clouds of dust puffed into the sky amid the falling debris, illuminated by floodlights that painted the area like a football field.

When news came, it came from government officials and members of the Ontario Provincial Police. By Wednesday, when it finally became clear that two women had died in the collapse, it was raining off and on. Residents shared umbrellas and huddled in doorways. Rescue workers were reportedly eating at a nearby church.

A sign posted outside the Shoppers Drug Mart had switched from an earlier message of optimism to one of gratitude toward, among others, Toronto's Heavy Urban Search and Rescue: "THANK YOU HUSAR AND EMS TEAMS."

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