Elliot Lake mall victims identified 0
Hundreds of residents of this former mining town turnedretirement community have kept vigil day and night since Saturday, hopingsurvivors 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 press conference.
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 death.
“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 earthquake.”
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 in there.”
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 their way. 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 cousin’s mother-in-law.
“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
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