Elliot Lake residents hug outside the Algo Centre Mall on Wednesday June 27, 2012 afternoon.
Credits: Gino Donato/QMI AGENCY
ELLIOT LAKE, Ont. - Hundreds of residents of this former mining town turned
retirement community have kept vigil day and night since Saturday, hoping
survivors would be found beneath the rubble of a collapsed shopping centre.
But their agonizing wait is over now that rescue crews have called off
their search, convinced there is nothing more to be done.
Sadly, the bodies of two women were recovered from the carnage. But the
death toll could have been much higher.
"It's very unfortunate," Bill Neadles, of the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue
team, said Wednesday. "But it's a miracle it wasn't worse."
Residents were upset when officials updated reporters at the scene earlier
in the day without addressing the crowd, so both media and citizens gathered
in the community centre in the afternoon for what turned into a three-hour
It was there that Neadles explained he watched mall security video and
counted 26 people in the food court when the roof of the Algo Centre Mall
caved in Saturday afternoon.
Although 20 people suffered minor injuries, all but two escaped certain
"We were extremely fortunate," Sandra Kelterboran said of her narrow escape.
"It seemed like an explosion at first," she said of the concrete crashing
down through the two-storey mall. "And then we thought it was an
Lucie Aylwin, 37, who was working in a lotto booth, and Doloris Perizzolo, a
senior who had just bought lottery tickets, weren't among the lucky ones.
Their bodies were found Wednesday, one at around 9 a.m. and the other
shortly before 1 p.m., about 15 feet apart near the mall's escalator after a specialized crane shifted a slab of concrete.
Crews removed their hard hats as the stretchers carrying the victims passed by.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said the province will conduct a review of the rescue efforts at the collapsed mall.
"We need to carefully review how we responded to this tragedy," McGuinty said at a news conference in the northern Ontario city.
"My undertaking to you all, and to all Ontarians, is that we will learn any lessons there are to be found here. Ontarians are committed to having in place, at all times, a world-class emergency response system," he said.
McGuinty said he met with the victims' families and expressed his condolences.
"I've met with the families of Doloris and Lucie in their times of grief. I conveyed to those families that they've been in the thoughts and prayers of Ontarians since this tragedy struck your community."
While a dozen people had been unaccounted for, Neadles said only the two
women are believed to have been killed.
"There are only two victims in that complex," he said. "There is nobody else
Decision-makers have been sharply criticized for calling off the search
effort Monday, less than 48 hours after it began, delaying the effort and
possibly costing lives.
"It's devastating to us," Neadles said, "That you think we would go home. We came here. We'd stay another four or five weeks if we had to."
After applause from the community, and then a standing ovation at the conference, Neadles pressed on.
"We haven't shaved or showered for a couple of days. And that's OK. (Rescue crews) are here because they volunteer to do this," he said. "It's been a roller-coaster ride."
Earlier Monday, workers heard someone knocking under the debris. Gary
Gendron was convinced it was his fiancée Lucie.
New details were revealed about that moment at the press conference.
Rescuers apparently tried in vain for two hours to reach the victim they
thought might still be alive. And one firefighter had to be physically
removed from the scene because he refused to give up.
Neadles said crews located both women pinned under concrete, but they
couldn't quite reach them. He said an escalator dangled precariously in
That's when officials made the decision to pull back.
At the scene Wednesday morning, Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Chris Lewis said there was never any thought of giving up, even though that was the impression left among townspeople, hundreds of whom were champing at the bit to take over the search themselves.
"We were trying to assess at that time, where else can we go, what else can
we do?" Lewis said.
A call from McGuinty got the rescue effort back on track, but a full day was lost as they waited for a massive, $2 million robotic arm to arrive from Toronto.
Operators of the robotic arm and two other pieces of heavy machinery worked
through the night Tuesday, removing the escalator and meticulously pulling
apart the wall around the mall entrance until they finally uncovered the
area where the women were trapped.
Lewis said there will be an investigation into the collapse to determine if
there was any negligence.
Meanwhile, some residents are having difficulty accepting the news that only
two people were killed.
"There had to be more than two people," one woman, who wouldn't give her
name, said after the press conference.
Wiping tears from her eyes, she explained one of the victims was her
"On a Saturday afternoon in June, in a retirement community?" the woman said
in disbelief. "There had to be way more people in there."
-- With files from Rita Poliakov