Elliot Lake, ON mayor Rick Hamilton declared a state of local emergency after part of a rooftop parking garage collapsed at the Algo Centre Mall Saturday, June 23.
Credits: QMI AGENCY
ELLIOT LAKE, ON -- Emergency workers sifting through the concrete rubble of the collapsed roof at the Algo Centre Mall believe there are at least two victims buried in the debris -- one still alive -- after rescuers heard "taps" on Sunday.
"Some of our search members this morning heard a couple of taps," Bill Neadles, incident commander with heavy urban search and rescue team from Toronto, said. "They called for quick silence on the site and there was a couple more taps. That was an indication to us that we were dealing with a rescue.
"We then turned our whole effort to try and locate this individual."
Their sole communication was through tapping and they do not know if the person is male or female.
He said it is a challenge to get closer to that area because of the structural instability.
However, they suspect that a second person buried under the chunks of concrete is dead.
East Algoma Ontario Provincial Police Insp. Percy Jollymore said Sunday they have had a visual of a hand and a foot, adding that they cannot confirm the identity of the person.
"The location is such that we cannot approach it at this time," Jollymore said. "We have to do a very slow and tedious, but safe entry."
Rescuers tried again to get the person to tap, but got no response and have not heard it since.
"They might be too weak or unconscious," Neadles said. "There is no reason for us to believe that they passed away. We're believing that they are still alive."
Jollymore said earlier Sunday that they were operating a rescue mission, assuming there are people trapped in the debris of Saturday's roof collapse.
The urban rescue unit from Bolton, ON, which arrived at about 10:30 p.m. Saturday worked to shore up sections of the mall.
Jollymore said they have a missing-persons list which has been fluctuating in numbers and dropped to as low as nine names.
"It keeps going up and down, so it's very difficult," he said.
Jollymore added they had to locate and account for all staff working in the mall as well as patrons.
Some were verified by the licence plates on vehicles in the mall's parking areas.
They are also dealing with calls from those seeking information on family and friends who could have been in the mall at the time.
"And as we locate them, we take them off of the list," Jollymore said.
"Right now, we have no confirmed deceased."
Anyone wanting to report a missing person or believe someone might be missing can call 1-888-310-1122.
Henry Alamenciak of Algoma EMS said 22 people were treated at the St. Joseph's General Hospital emergency ward, all for minor injuries.
He added that five had been transported to the hospital by ambulance while the rest arrived on their own. All were treated and released.
On Sunday afternoon, about 100 people attended a vigil at a local park to recognize those hurt in the collapse.
Residents and visitors were offering hugs and prayers to one another as lit candles lined a small walk leading to a staircase.
Elliot Lakers Caitlyn Wilson and Catherine Timleck-Shaw were among those gathered in the park, just down the street from the damaged mall.
Like many others, when Wilson learned of the collapse she was surprised and then not surprised at the same time.
"It was shock at first, but then I think, almost like every other citizen that'll you ask in this town, the second thought in my mind it was bound to happen sooner or later."
Over the years the mall has had issues with water leaks and undergone many repairs. It was common to see yellow tarps catching dripping water that had come down from the mall's roof into stores such as Zellers and into the Elliot Lake Public Library.
"When we saw the pictures we knew there had to be people that unfortunately weren't going to make it out of there. Where it collapsed it was the busiest part of the mall," Timleck-Shaw said. "There are four entrances to the mall but that is the busiest one."
Elliot Lake Fire Chief Paul Officer said they got the call at 2:19 p.m. Saturday and the fire department was on the scene within six minutes.
The roof parking section that collapsed measures about 40 feet by 80 feet, he said.
The section collapsed onto the second floor and part of that crashed down onto the first floor, affecting hydro and natural gas lines.
Firefighters at the scene were removing some of the debris in their search for people who may still be inside the mall.
They also used an imaging camera in their search.
"At approximately 4 p.m. (Saturday), the crews were pulled back because the scene was quite hazardous," Officer said.
One person remained inside with the imaging camera to continue the search but was pulled back at 6 p.m.
"At that point we had exhausted all of our efforts," Officer said, adding that the debris inside the mall includes an SUV, which had been parked on the roof parking area.
Officer said that rain was making the work more hazardous as it makes the site more slippery for the rescue crew.
He estimated it might well into Sunday evening before rescuers, who number more than 40, will begin removing large debris and continue the search for anyone who might be trapped.
"Shoring operations are going to take a better part of the day," Officer said.
Canine units were also called in to help in the search.
Officer said some of the concrete slabs to be removed are about six feet by 12 feet.
Premier Dalton McGuinty, meanwhile, issued a statement Sunday, praising emergency workers at the scene
"I want to thank our emergency crews in Elliot Lake as well as those that have come from southern Ontario to help with the rescue effort for their good work around the clock," he said, adding he had talked to Elliot Lake Mayor Rick Hamilton on Sunday morning .
"As we anxiously wait to learn more about anyone thought to be missing in Elliot Lake, our thoughts and prayers are with their families, and also with those who have been injured and indeed with the entire community," McGuinty said. "During a crisis like this, I am reminded of the strength and resilience of Northern Ontarians, and how by pulling together with our friends, families and neighbours, we can get through these difficult times."
Elliot Lake is about halfway between Sudbury, ON, and Sault Ste. Marie, ON.
-- With files from Shannon Quesnel