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  (Curtis Lantinga)


(Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

The Elliot Lake situation is a national embarrassment Add to ...

Well, I guess we can be thankful it was just a roof collapse and not an earthquake or a bombing. The leaders of the crack disaster team dispatched to Elliot Lake from Toronto – formed after 9/11 to handle major calamities – called it quits less than 36 hours after they arrived at the scene on Sunday morning. Sorry. Nothing more we can do. Time to pack up and go home.

No wonder the residents of Elliot Lake were furious. People were trapped in the rubble and some might still be alive. Couldn’t the crack disaster team have kept on going?

Good question. No one is demanding reckless heroics here. No one thinks emergency responders should put their lives at risk for nothing. And clearly the members of the rescue team gave it everything they had. But their leaders might have shown a little more persistence. They might have had a Plan B ready in case Plan A didn’t work out. They might have had a plan to switch from “rescue” to “recovery,” if matters came to that.

They did not. Instead, they declared their work done after an engineer from the Ministry of Labour pronounced the site “unsafe.” Their spokesman, Staff Inspector Bill Neadles, explained that as there was nothing more they could do, it would now be up to the mall owner to hire a demolition team and recover the dead.

It didn’t help that nobody in authority seemed to have a grip on how many dead or dying people there might be in the ruins. Estimates bounced around from 36 to 12 to 20, or maybe only two. Thankfully, there were only two.

It’s no surprise that the building turned out to be too unsafe to enter. The surprise is nobody seemed to anticipate this entirely likely possibility from the start. Plan B did not emerge until Monday evening, after the rescue had been called off and Dalton McGuinty, the Premier, spoke to the authorities and suggested they try harder. Only then did someone decide to phone a demolition company with a large crane that could start to dismantle the building from the outside. As Staff Insp. Neadles helplessly explained Wednesday, “When the final decision was made to leave the building [by whom, he didn’t say], I didn’t have the equipment to continue.” He also explained that he had to seek permission from the provincial safety commission before he could call in heavy equipment. By the time it arrived, it was Tuesday afternoon.

I have no idea what difference that equipment made. But it seems fair to assume that if matters had been left in the hands of the rescue team and bureaucrats, those two bodies would still be lying in the rubble.

Toronto is awfully proud of its HUSAR team, which stands for Heavy Urban Search and Rescue. HUSAR has been trained to handle all manner of emergencies, according to its website, and is supposed to “demonstrate to our taxpayers and to the world that Toronto is indeed a world class city.” HUSAR has performed in countless demonstration projects, and even won awards in competitions, but the truth is that it hasn’t seen much action. Only days ago, the federal government announced it is going to cut its portion of HUSAR’s funding. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, since the people who sent HUSAR into action in recent days don’t seem to know what they’re doing.

Who was in charge at Elliot Lake? I’d love to know. The whole effort smacks of confusion, timidity, lack of foresight and reluctance to take any risk at all. Absent a clear chain of command, people were more focused on process than on getting the job done.

Not that this would be the first time. Last fall, an 82-year-old woman fell down and broke her hip in the entrance of a hospital in the Niagara Region (She had been visiting her dying husband.) Instead of carting the poor old lady to Emergency, hospital workers told her family they’d have to phone an ambulance to come get her. People stepped over her in the entrance as she lay waiting.

Then there was the man who fell out of a boat into a lake in England. The lake was three feet deep. Emergency crews were summoned to the scene, but refused to rescue him because they were not trained to enter water that was more than “ankle deep.” By the time the specialist water team arrived, the man was dead.

As I said, emergencies don’t necessarily require heroes. What they do require is common sense and initiative – as well as leaders who have the skills and smarts to get the job done.

Editor's note: An elderly woman had to wait for an ambulance after falling in a Niagara Region hospital entrance last year. An incorrect location was used in an article Thursday.

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