ELLIOT LAKE, Ont. – Search and rescue workers doffed their hats and bowed their heads in sorrow on Wednesday after efforts to find survivors in the wreckage of a partially collapsed shopping mall concluded in the removal of two bodies.
Both bodies was removed from the partially-collapsed Algo Centre Mall on Wednesday, after rescue crews were able to clear chunks of rubble from the mall’s escalator area.
Four days after the collapse, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty arrived at Elliot Lake to meet with officials and the families of the victims.
“I met with the families of Dolores and Lucie in their time of grief. I conveyed to those families that they’d been in the thoughts and prayers of Ontarians since this tragedy struck your community,” he said Wednesday evening.
McGuinty added that the strength shown by these families has been an inspiration. He also thanked the mayor of Elliot Lake for his leadership during this time of tragedy.
Police have not officially released the names of the two people recovered from the mall earlier in the day.
McGuinty said that in the coming days the province plans to review what happened to see if any lessons can be learned.
“We need to carefully review how we responded to this tragedy,” said McGuinty. “Ontarians are committed to having in place, at all times, a world class emergency response system.”
Although they are optimistic, rescue officials say the chance of finding a survivor is steadily dropping.
Despite several people still being unaccounted for, officials believe there are no more bodies to be found in the complex surrounding the escalator.
“From here, our efforts will be concentrated to finish that rubble pile, which is about five-feet high, and about forty-feet long, to ensure that we are in fact correct in (our) assumption that there’s only two victims inside that complex,” said an official with the heavy-rescue team.
“We came here for, what you probably thought was to help you, then you thought we were just going to pack up and go home, that was the understanding. We’d stay for another four-or-five weeks if we had to,” the official added, drawing a spattering of applause.
With an estimated 26 people in the mall food court at the time of the collapse, officials said it was miracle that the results were not more devastating.
Earlier in the day, Elliot Lake Mayor Rick Hamilton looked shaken as he made the announcement that a victim had been found to a group of reporters and family members.
“It’s with heavy hearts and the deepest condolences on behalf of every citizen of Elliot Lake that we offer our condolences to the families of the person(s) that has been removed today,” Hamilton said.
Television footage showed some of the rescue workers removing their hats in respect as the stretcher was carried out.
Speaking after the first body was found, Dan Hefkey, the Ontario Commissioner of Community Safety, said rescue workers are still inside the mall.
“I just want to take this opportunity at this time to say that right now, as I speak, our technicians are back in, and they are likely to find more (bodies),” Hefkey said.
One of the more controversial issues surrounding the rescue work to this point was the temporary suspension of efforts. The work was briefly suspended earlier this week when engineers deemed the scene to dangerous for rescue workers.
OPP Commissioner Chris Lewis, speaking to the media, addressed this issue.
“When it got to the point that the engineers and the experts were saying, you’re going to all die if you stay in there, potentially, that’s when they pulled out. They didn’t leave, they only suspended the search until they could sort out what other resources they needed and where they could go from there,” Lewis said.
“We’re not going to leave this community, leave people and bodies potentially in that pile, not in a million years. It was a very difficult decision for the commanders to do that, to pause it and to try and re-group,” Lewis added.
Earlier Wednesday, Ontario’s Commissioner of Community Safety Dan Hefkey said the escalator has been removed from the collapsed Algo Centre mall.
He said the operation is being carried out with surgical-like precision, with pieces taken off one at a time.
“The three huge cranes have been working all night to clear the debris. The mission was to remove that massive debris, the escalator stair area — that has successfully been done,” Hefkey said. “The operation has been able to clear an area approximately 10 metres by 25 metres.”
Officials said this is a time-consuming operation and they’re moving as quickly as possible. No other debris fell as a result of this work.
Meanwhile, residents of Elliot Lake are tensely waiting while a risky rescue operation continues.
Dozens of people camped out in front of the Algo Centre mall late into the night and clung to hope despite predictions from officials late Tuesday that the chances that anyone is alive inside are slim.
In a statement released Tuesday night, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty thanked Dan Hefkey for his very thorough and professional explanation of how the next steps of the rescue operations will unfold.
“I know all Ontarians will join with me tonight in putting their faith in this rescue mission as, together, we continue to hope that those who are missing can be found and reunited with their loved ones,” said McGuinty. “In the meantime, we will continue to watch, and pray, and hold all the people of Elliot Lake in our thoughts.”
McGuinty said the plan is to dismantle the building from the outside.
“There is real risk associated with this because of the collapsed building and the structural stresses. It’s not unlike a house of cards, and it might be that if you pull away at this wall in an effort to get access to somebody who is trapped in there, it may cause other things to move and other things to tumble and crumble,” McGuinty said.
On Monday evening, emergency crews had called off the search after the site was deemed too dangerous for crews to go in. However, McGuinty urged them to consider options that would not endanger rescue crews.
Following the press conference Monday, the premier tweeted:
Directed rescuers to look for new ways to save victims in #ElliotLake. Let’s keep victims, families, & community in our thoughts and prayers
— Dalton McGuinty (@Dalton_McGuinty) June 26, 2012
McGuinty told reporters if it were a member of his family or a close friend caught inside, he would want “no stone left unturned,” and rescue crews owe it to the families and community of Elliot Lake to give it their best shot.
McGuinty said that Prime Minister Stephen Harper had offered the help of the military but the search and rescue team has not yet asked for assistance but is putting together a list of exactly what it needs.
“The prime minister seemed willing and now our officials are working together,”‘ the source said.
Rescuers and the premier have been criticized for not acting sooner but McGuinty says now is not the time to point the finger of blame.
“There will be a time for questions that need to be asked about what and when and how and why not but I think right now what we owe the people of Elliot Lake, and particularly the families involved, is to work as hard as we can to provide the necessary help,” he said.
“The problem with this is there’s no precise science, we don’t know who was in the mall when it collapsed,” said Jollymore. “We won’t stop until the list has been satisfied.”
Family and friends of the missing have been waiting anxiously near the mall for news. Residents of the former mining hub say abandoning trapped comrades would be unthinkable in miners’ culture, speculating that perhaps volunteer mine workers would take up the rescue effort themselves Monday evening.
Two kiosks selling lottery tickets, cigarettes and magazines were located in the area where the roof caved in and were open before the incident, eyewitnesses said.
Richer, who was particularly concerned about an acquaintance who was unaccounted for, described Saturday’s thunderous collapse as a nightmare.
“It was almost like a little mini earthquake, like a big bang, and then gone,” she said. “There was nothing there. Everything started to cave in, water was pouring out of the pipes.”
The two-storey centre, which was built in the early ’80s, underwent a structural study in May and received a passing grade, said a source with Eastwood Mall Inc., which owns the mall.
Work was being done on the roof before the collapse to prevent leaks, but no “substantial renovations” were underway, the source said.
Work to re-seal the surface of the roof was, however, planned for the near future.
As emergency crews continued to scrutinize the scene on Sunday, some irate residents in the city, which in recent years has become a popular retirement destination, said the mall, while a bustling community hub, was an older building much in need of repairs.
The owners of the mall travelled to Elliot Lake soon after the incident to offer support to the community.
“To those who have been injured, to those families of missing individuals, we offer our deepest sympathies,” said Levon Nazarian, whose father, Richard Nazarian, owns the mall.
“We are, and will be co-operating with the authorities to provide them with any helpful resources that are at our disposal.”
Police continued to urge anyone worried about missing loved ones to check in at an information centre where police are tracking those who are unaccounted for. Vicars and crisis councillors were on hand.
Concern for the community poured in Sunday, with political leaders pledging their support.
Premier Dalton McGuinty said he was in touch with Elliot Lake’s mayor and thanked emergency crews in the city for their efforts.
“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 in a statement.
“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.”
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she was inspired to see the community of roughly 11,000 pull together during the crisis.
“There will be time soon to examine what happened and why, but right now our priority has to be protecting people’s lives and health and ensuring the immediate disaster relief this community needs,” she said in a statement.
The mall houses a grocery store, restaurants, a number of retail outlets and the constituency office for NDP legislature member Michael Mantha. A hotel is also attached to the centre, which is the largest mall in Elliot Lake.
The city — once an Ontario mining hub — is located about 160 kilometres west of Sudbury.