Elliot Lake: The first rescuers inside the mall share their harrowing account - Macleans.ca

Elliot Lake: The first rescuers inside the mall share their harrowing account

Plus, what the tragedy in Elliot Lake says about our country’s readiness to deal with catastrophes

Disaster ‘none of us wanted to leave…it was heartbreaking.’

Nathan Denette/CP

In places like Elliot Lake (population 11,300), the locals like to say that everyone knows everyone. It’s not true, of course. Even the smallest of towns have strangers. But in this pocket of northern Ontario—where Lucie Aylwin was proudly born and raised—it’s hard to find someone who didn’t know her. An employment counsellor stationed at the Algo Centre Mall, the 37-year-old helped countless residents fine-tune their resumés and land a job. “She would help anybody,” says her fiancé, Gary Gendron. “If she wasn’t capable of doing it, she would find a way of doing it. She would never give up.”

On that Saturday afternoon, June 23, Aylwin was at work—not in her usual office, but at the lottery kiosk on the mall’s second floor, right across from the food court. With a wedding to plan, she took the weekend job to help pay the bills. “We had breakfast together,” Gendron recalls. “She gave me another big hug and a kiss and said: ‘I’ll see you at 6:30.’ ”

It was a few minutes past 2 o’clock when Doloris Perizzolo walked toward the lottery counter. The 74-year-old widow was a food-court regular, another familiar face among so many. Just days earlier, Perizzolo had won $1,000 on a “Money Multiplier” scratch ticket. She was back again to test her luck.

At a table nearby, John Marceau was sitting with three friends and a hot cup of coffee (one cream, one sugar) from Mum’s Place. “I didn’t even have time to drink nothing out of it,” says the 79-year-old. “Right in front of me, a big cement beam fell down. I was thrown about eight feet.” Jean-Marc Hayward was halfway through his own coffee when the room started to shake. “I heard a loud noise that got louder and louder,” he recalls. “I looked left and part of the roof came down. It seemed like it happened in slow motion.”

It didn’t. Before anyone could even react, a giant slab of concrete—12 m by 24 m—plummeted from the parking lot above, smashed into the lottery kiosk, and sliced through the second floor. “It felt like an earthquake,” says Josh Marshall, another shopper who narrowly survived. “Like someone smacked you in the ears.”

The first 911 call came in at 2:19 p.m.

Capt. John Thomas, a 16-year veteran of the Elliot Lake Fire Department, was among the initial rescue workers to rush inside. Red helmet on his head, an oxygen tank on his back, Thomas ran up a set of exterior stairs to what was left of the second floor. Looking up from the food court, he could see the sun shining through the roof. Down below, on the main level, was a pile of cement and other debris nearly 10 feet high. A silver Ford Explorer was among the rubble. “It was like a dream,” he says now. “But we had a job to do, and I went in mode.”

They pounced on the rubble—police, medics, firefighters (full-time and volunteer)—scouring for survivors. Is anybody here? Tell us where you are. It was Thomas who first heard the voice. “It was like a mumble, and it was really hard to distinguish the direction,” says Capt. Darren Connors, another firefighter who climbed the pile. “I was looking down a small triangular hole, trying to stuff my head in. The adrenalin is running through you so hard that you think you can move all that concrete—and you do your damndest to try.”

At one point, the team did manage to pick up a table-sized piece of cement, convinced that the voice was directly underneath. All they found was more debris.

The crew had no idea at the time, but the voice belonged to Lucie Aylwin. Amazingly, she had survived the collapse. Her customer, though, was not so fortunate. One of the firefighters found Doloris Perizzolo near the top of the pile, covered in concrete. Only a hand and a foot were visible. “I slid her watch up and tried to feel if I could get a pulse,” Thomas recalls. “She was cold to the touch.”

The men focused their attention back on the voice, moving anything that was light enough to lift. Bricks. Railings. Benches. Flowerpots. Using a sewer camera from the city’s public works department, firefighter Adam Vance tried to pinpoint their survivor. “I stuck that camera down every hole we could find,” he says. “There are pieces of rock falling, and you can hear little chunks of concrete hit and tang off some pipes. Things are moving and shifting, but we just kept going.”

Metal beams and cement slabs dangled from the roof. “Widow-makers,” as rescue workers call them. The second-floor escalator—the one that used to go up from the lottery kiosk to the roof parking lot—was still in place, but it was covered in chunks of concrete. Like a slide to a swimming pool, that escalator hovered over the pile, threatening to let go at any moment.

Paul Officer, Elliot Lake’s fire chief, was left with a painful decision. “We had to pull back,” he says. “There was absolutely nothing else we could have done. All we were doing at that point was risking lives.” He watched with pride as Thomas tried to move one last slab, to no avail.

“There was somebody there,” Thomas says, tearing up at the memory. “I could have kept digging. I could have tried harder. I failed.”

He didn’t fail. None of those men did. They sprinted into a disaster zone hoping to save lives, oblivious to the danger. Unfortunately, bravery alone is not enough to lift thousands of pounds of concrete. Their only choice was to wait for specially trained reinforcements: a team from the Toronto-based HUSAR (Heavy Urban Search and Rescue). “None of us wanted to leave; that is not our job,” Vance says. “It was heartbreaking.”

In the months to come, a public inquiry will examine exactly what happened at the Algo Mall and, although the courage of those first responders was never in doubt, so many other questions linger. The building itself was such a leaky, saggy mess—tarps in the ceiling, buckets on the floor—that tragedy seemed to be a matter of when, not if. This week, police launched a criminal investigation into the roof collapse.

For Canadians who watched the drama unfold on television, what happened in Elliot Lake raises much larger questions about the state of our country’s emergency preparedness. From a distance, the rescue mission that unfolded over the next four days was itself an utter disaster, beset by miscommunication, misjudgment, and even accusations of cowardice. Did the HUSAR team have the proper equipment? Did they underestimate just how rickety the building was? Why, after the search was abruptly halted, did it seem to take a phone call from Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to put the mission back on track? And why wasn’t that massive robotic crane—the tool that finally did the trick—not dispatched north in the first place?

The public, and the grieving families, deserve a thorough explanation. But as the inquiry will discover, those answers are never as simple as they seem. The men who came to Elliot Lake to search for survivors were as devastated as anyone that nobody came out alive. Their plan of attack was working right up until the final moments, when that teetering escalator forced them to flee.

Should their original plan have been different? The public inquiry will examine that question, and many more. But if anything, the process will also challenge our most basic assumptions about the people who are trained to respond to such catastrophes.

How much risk do we expect them to take? How many lives should be jeopardized in the hope, however faint, of saving one?

Bill Neadles was doing some afternoon gardening when his cellphone rang, just two hours after the mall collapsed. A staff inspector with the Toronto police, the 56-year-old is also one of the commanders of the city’s HUSAR unit, a joint municipal-provincial-federal task force of cops, medics, firefighters, engineers and doctors who are specially trained to fish people out of toppled buildings. (There are five such teams in Canada and, although it’s often reported otherwise, they existed before 9/11.)

June was Neadles’s month to be on call, so when the request from Elliot Lake reached the provincial fire marshal’s office, he was the point man. He left his lawn mower in the middle of the backyard and drove to the unit’s rendezvous point.

At that moment, his team officially belonged to the Ontario government.

By 9 p.m., 37 members of the HUSAR squad were barrelling along the highway, a convoy of vans, a bus and a row of tractor-trailers carrying everything from industrial power saws to skids of lumber. Anything they might need to slice open concrete or shore up a ceiling. On the ride north, Neadles and his crew pored over blueprints of the mall and examined some of the early photos hitting the news. But it wasn’t until 4:25 Sunday morning, when the team rolled into the parking lot, that they fully grasped the damage. “This was a magnitude way beyond what we’d ever seen,” says Michael McCallion, a senior Toronto medic and Neadles’s second-in-command. “We knew that it was going to take us a long time to get to any of the victims, and it was going to have to be slow and methodical.”

When people think of search and rescue, slow and methodical are not the words that spring to mind. They think of blind courage. Split-second reaction. Firefighters running into the Twin Towers. Chris Rowland understands that better than most. A Toronto firefighter and a HUSAR member, he wears both hats: the first responder, and the second. “We push that all the time: we are no longer first responders when we show up,” he says. “Everything is slow and under control. Everything we do is calculated. It has to be.” For the safety of the victims—and the rescue workers trying to reach them.

Neadles split his team into two shifts and the reconnaissance began. The main entrance to the mall—the one right underneath that dangling escalator—was deemed off-limits. Instead, the team entered through a first-floor service door on the other side of the building. Yet even then, just to reach the rubble pile, the crew had to secure what was left of the first-floor ceiling—the chunk that didn’t come down with the lottery kiosk. At that point, they essentially became a construction crew, hammering together large wooden support posts to hold up the roof.

Lucie Aylwin was literally steps away, buried somewhere in that pile. But to reach her, the path had to be secure. “People don’t understand this: they’re actually working in a crumble zone,” McCallion says. “At any time, this stuff could all come down on us.”

At 9:30 a.m.—more than 19 hours after the collapse—they heard the tapping.

“We looked at each other and said: ‘Okay, did we really hear that?’ ” says Sgt. Jim Lawson. “We called for silence and we could hear a distinctive tap.” Lawson yelled toward the pile, asking for another one. He got it. “You get that rush: ‘Let’s go, let’s go!’ Then you get the realization that you can’t get in there.” Not yet, at least. It took almost three more hours just to find a relatively safe route for Ranger, the team’s German shepherd, who is trained to sniff out signs of life. “I stood back from a distance and sent him in,” says his handler, Sgt. Scott Fowlds. “He climbed up to the top of the pile and he’s working it, circling around an area, sticking his head inside a void. Then he started barking.” Whoever was tapping was still alive.

The plan—though frustratingly slow to people watching from the road—appeared to be on track. Crews continued to stabilize the ceiling near the rear entrance, while local police and firefighters carted out some of the debris leading to the pile. “We’re like tunnel rats,” Neadles says. “But you don’t know what is connected to what. You could pull out a small piece of concrete, it creates a void, and boom, the whole thing comes down.”

Outside, a large crane worked overhead, hauling out some of the larger pieces of rubble through the hole in the roof. As Sunday night turned into Monday morning, the crane lowered down something else: an Ontario Provincial Police officer, equipped with an electronic device that works a lot like Ranger’s nose. “It shows a black square for movement and red circles for breathing,” Vance says. “He’s down there and he says: ‘Holy s–t, guys.’ There was a big red dot in the middle.” Lucie Aylwin was still breathing.

It was 4 o’clock Monday morning. Nearly 38 hours had passed since the roof caved in.

As the sun rose that morning, the team continued to tunnel its way toward their one confirmed survivor. There was still hope.

But as they cut and cleared, inch by agonizing inch, the escalator above had other plans. The metal beams holding it in place (one on the bottom, one on the top) were slowly buckling, severely overstressed by the concrete slabs resting on top. Again, the bottom of the escalator was pointing directly into the rubble pile, on the opposite side of where the men were approaching. If it fell, everyone underneath, including Aylwin, would be crushed.

Structural engineers working for HUSAR and the provincial ministry of labour conducted frantic calculations, but each time the answer was the same: the escalator, and the staircase beside it, were certain to fail. At 3 p.m., Neadles ordered everyone out.

“It weighs very heavily on me to have to turn around and leave that individual in a position so helpless and defenceless,” he says. “But that’s a decision I had to make, and I will tell you very straight-up: I would make it again today, tomorrow and next week. I just couldn’t put those men in a perilous position of that escalator coming down.”

When Neadles broke the news to his men, some volunteered to go back inside anyway. “They had tears in their eyes,” McCallion says. “We had a lot of guys say: ‘Screw it. We’ll do it. Don’t worry about it.’ But how would the spin on this be different if we had stayed in and it collapsed, and now we’re talking about three dead rescuers?”

Even the locals, who lined the street praying for a miracle, may have understood that logic. But what they couldn’t understand were the words that came out of Bill Neadles’s mouth. At a 5 o’clock press conference—just 13 hours after an officer detected signs of life—Neadles told reporters that his team had reached its “end,” and it was now up to the mall’s owner to hire a demolition crew to remove the “two bodies.” Paul Officer, the fire chief, was sitting beside Neadles at the conference. “If you look at me in those tapes, I’m not overly happy,” he says. “Obviously, it wasn’t an acceptable solution.”

Outside the mall, Elliot Lakers were furious. Chanting protesters, many of them former miners, threatened to storm the site and continue the search themselves. Aylwin’s fiancé was sobbing. “I want her out of there, and they’re giving up,” he said. “They can’t f—ing give up.”

Local officials had no intention of doing that. The fire chief, the mayor and other senior staff met behind closed doors to consider the next step—without Neadles. “I wasn’t upset with Bill,” Officer says. “I knew he had reached the end of what he could do with his team, no different than I did with my team at the start. I was more upset with the fact that this can’t be.”

Technically—and this will certainly be a focus of the public inquiry—Neadles did not have any authority once engineers declared the mall unsafe. The scene was now in the hands of local officials and the Ministry of Labour. But he was the province’s point man on the ground for the rescue operation, and before he had a chance to speak to his superiors, he essentially told the country that his guys were packing up and heading home.

“I sure wish I had chosen my words a little bit differently,” Neadles admits now. “We weren’t going anywhere. The word ‘ended’ was misused by me. Our function at that point in time had ended, but there are other functions for us to do. And that’s where we needed to get the authority to do more.”

That authority came from Dan Hefkey, a former police officer who is now Ontario’s commissioner of community safety. The two had a phone conversation shortly after the press conference, and Neadles suggested the idea that would eventually come to fruition: a custom-made robotic crane, from Priestly Demolition near Toronto, that could reach through the roof and dismantle the escalator. One of Neadles’s crew members had already reached out to the company to see if the equipment was available. “Bill was saying: ‘Dan, do I have permission to go beyond my mandate and seek out these things?’ ” Hefkey says. “That’s what happened. We were already talking about options.”

By then, though, the damage was done. People outside the mall were jeering at the search-and-rescue team, including local firefighters. Cowards. You should all be fired. “One lady told me: ‘You guys come and you don’t care,’ ” says Fowlds, the dog handler. “I took my sunglasses off and I told her: ‘Look in my eyes.’ I was crying.” By 8 p.m., the outrage had reached such a pitch that Premier McGuinty wanted to personally speak to Hefkey and Neadles.

“He said we have to do everything we can to help these families and help these two people,” Neadles says. “Mr. Hefkey and I put it forward that we had a plan that we’d been roughing out, and the premier said: ‘By all means, continue.’ There was no direction. It was just: ‘Put your plan together.’ ”

Local officials were still meeting, tossing out potential solutions, when Neadles walked in and announced Plan B. “It was jubilation, giving you that extra energy again,” Officer recalls. “Bill is not a quitter, by any means.”

That night, McGuinty’s office issued a press release, saying the premier had “instructed” the rescue crews “to leave no stone unturned.” The inference was clear: McGuinty personally ordered the crew back inside the danger zone. But in the days to come, he went out of his way to clarify the confusion. “I think it’s very important to have this on the record,” he said. “They never quit . . . They wanted to do what I began to urge them to do.”

A crowd of hundreds broke into applause as the Priestly crane, with its giant lobster claw, rolled toward the mall. It was Tuesday night, a few minutes before 9 p.m.—a full 28 hours since Bill Neadles’s press conference.

Operators worked through the night, ripping apart the exterior wall until the shears could finally grab that escalator. (The original Plan B, to reach through the roof, proved impossible.) By early Wednesday morning, the HUSAR team was back inside, carving its final steps toward the victims.

Doloris Perizzolo was removed first, carried out in a yellow gurney. Lucie Aylwin—who managed to survive for so long—could not hang on long enough. She was buried for more than 90 hours.

If that robotic crane was ordered on day one, would Aylwin still be alive? The answer seems obvious, even to McGuinty. “Maybe one of the lessons that we can draw together from this is that in the future we need to make sure that we have heavy equipment standing by, just in case the usual process for extracting people who are caught up in rubble doesn’t pay dividends,” the premier conceded.

Hindsight, of course, is a wonderful thing. “We were less than 10 feet away from those two victims,” Neadles says. “We were confident we were going to reach them and be able to do what we needed to do through our normal means of operation. So at that point, I wasn’t thinking of heavy equipment.”

Maybe next time he will. Maybe next time that Priestly crane will be standard operating procedure. Maybe next time the escalator won’t loom like the sword of Damocles.

And maybe next time, despite our romantic preconceptions, Canadians will understand what HUSAR really does. “Everybody can armchair-quarterback this thing, and that’s human nature,” McCallion says. “We have a saying: ‘If we do an exercise and we come out, it’s a good day. If we can go down and bring somebody out alive, it’s a great day.’ We know there are people injured, but we have to be safe.”

Back at the Elliot Lake fire hall, the men who sprinted up the pile have learned their own difficult lessons. “I’m not so tough,” Thomas says. “I couldn’t make things any better. It’s an awful feeling to be helpless.”

Additional photos by photographer Cole Garside:

The Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake

The Toronto search and rescue team prepares to disembark after concluding operations at the Algo Centre Mall

A vigil constructed in front of the collapsed mall

Patrick Schumph pays his respects

A signed note at the vigil


Elliot Lake: The first rescuers inside the mall share their harrowing account

  1. Thanks for the insight this story provides. My sympathies to the grieving families.

  2. I am an Elliot Laker, and I thank you for the clarity this article will bring to the people that may not have followed everything to its fullest.

  3. I think Elliot Lakers need to read this story……,So very imformative and though pervoking!!

  4. Thank you for a few unanswered questions

  5. Thank you for a most informative article

  6. Well written, well explained. Thank you to the entire HUSAR team. Your work will never be in vain.
    Much love and respect to both you and your families.
    My deepest sympathies to the victims families and friends..

  7. Shame on those who called our Fire Fighters cowards. I for one knew there was more to then story.

  8. The HUSAR need to be given a Very Big Thank You. Your article was very informative and a few questions were answered.My sympathies to the grieving families.

  9. Thank you. I’ve been waiting for a fuller explanation of what happened and was distressed by the Monday-morning quarterbacking of newspaper columnists. As always, things are more complicated than they seem. And it’s sad that so much good work was undone by a few unfortunate words and a PR misstep.

  10. I am also from Elliot Lake and I want to point out that while a few people shouted out ‘coward’ and other such rude behaviour, that most of us knew that everyone who came to help was doing the best they could and that if something was being done wrong it certainly wasn’t by these men. many people here are embarrassed by the way our community’s attitude has been portrayed as ignorant and ungrateful. we are in fact quite grateful for everything that has been done to help our community, from the hussar team, the priestly company for bringing trucks, people doing fundraising, the gov for their help, the equipment operators, the firemen and opp officers and all the others who did what they could.

    • thankyou for sharing this with us and I also am from Elliot Lake and I totally agree..They did the best they could and they were far really far from being cowards!

      • The words ignorant or ungrateful never came to my mind in considering how the people of your community handled this horrible tragedy. You are strong, full of integrity, and shining examples to anyone who might experience a tragedy of this magnitude. The way you stood together through this event speaks volumes about the strong character of your community. The rest of us feel so proud of you all! I hear where you’re coming from but just know how amazed we all were with the way this situation has been handled by the people of Elliot Lake. You’ve been incredible!

    • Perhaps the people reading this article and those who lived through this tragedy should be asking our Federal Government “who is going to respond after March 2013 when the powers that be cuts off their funding?”! The 5 Canadian HUSAR teams like the one from Toronto will no longer have federal funding as this has been deemed a “Provincial responsibility”. This despite the majority of the manpower for most of these teams being voluntary. Good luck to those provinces that don’t have a team or the rest of our Country if the BC, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia governments decide not to fund the teams. Perhaps we can rely on the US FEMA teams to come to our rescue!

  11. Iam so glad that this articale was written, because it needed to be more clariied to everyone. Yes a big thankyou goes out to all the men that put there lives at risk, to try and do there JOB to save the two victims that laid below the rubble Thankyou again for all that you did.God bless you all.

  12. you forgot the ironworkers local 786 that went there and did not leave–the 4 brave men that risked thier lives to save others–they did not eat or sleep–but the people of elliot lake clapped for thier bravery

  13. I appreciate the clarification this article has provided. I am just sorry that more people won’t be reading it. In a perfect world all disasters would happen where HUSAR teams were stationed so that they wouldn’t have to drive so many hours to the rescue site. Also in a perfect world HUSAR teams would have access to every kind of specialized heavy duty equipment and bring ALL of it to a rescue on the off chance it would be needed. In a really perfect world buildings wouldn’t collapse on innocent people going about their business on a Saturday and finally the media would try to be exact in their reporting instead of looking to make a name for themselves by creating the next big scandal that never was.

  14. As I read this story, it brought tears to my eyes, reliving the Oklahoma City bombing and the rescues afterwards. My heart goes out to the people of Elliott Lake. From Joann in Oklahoma, USA.

  15. Every disaster requires specific crisis communications protocols and trainied expert spokesperson. If the Incident Commander is to speak he/she must also become an expert spokesperson. The evidence is that Neadles admits that one word (ended) resulted in misunderstanding and confusion. Ontario has yet to completely implement the Incident Management System and many local fire chiefs and their staff are not fully trained or experienced. Ontario like many other Canadian jusrisdictions including the feds pay lip service at best to preparedness and emergency capability. When budgets are cut, the emergency management function takes a disproportionate hit. That is the root cause of our inabilty to respond to major disasters.

  16. I’m from Elliot Lake, and I went out and shook the hands of the rescue workers once they were finished removing the bodies. To have called them cowards is beyond pure ignorance, and whoever did so should be ashamed. Personally, I think the only real problem was the distribution of authority, which is what caused the huge delay on Plan B.

  17. Thank you for telling the whole story, Macleans, without bias.

  18. Such an excellent article. First off, anything to do with first aid, rescue, never risk your own life to save another. If deemed unsafe, halt. This concept is ingrained into the brain of any training course having to do with lifesaving. I think a spokesperson should have been appointed to observe, analyse, and carefully choose the proper words to relay to the public. The whole process chain of command, resources have to be tweaked also. All resources should have been available at a second’s notice to expediently get at any of the possible victims. Hopefully this will reflect in the inquiry’s recommendations after all this is said and done. Hard price to pay when one victim could still be alive today. In closing, this should have never happened in the first place. If safety adherence, inspections, complaints had been set out to do what they were supposed to do in the the fist place, the place would have been shut down. I have lived in Elliot Lake for many years, and it was always in the back of my mind–when?

  19. I am so proud of this community’s people and emergency services. You didn’t fail.
    People were diverting traffic and securing the area and dealing with gas dangers. The hospital was locked down immediately and a road cleared for the ambulances arriving with victims with broken bones, cuts and concussions. The plan in action. Even among the injured there was so much concern about those coming in behind them. In the shock and concern of finding family and friends I remember thinking just how amazing our emergency teams were, and so many other people too in such an impossible situation. People helping people. And firemen desperately digging through rubble.

    There were heroes that day.
    And then we waited and waited and finally we were told it was over! Of course frustration grew. And of course it ignited into anger.

    I think time must be a priority consideration in this inquiry. How long do we allow plan “A” to continue if it’s losing so much precious time? And why was plan “B” not already on it’s way on Saturday? Even Sunday. There is no doubt that the HUSAR team did all they could with what they had. And I know they wanted to rescue Lucie.

    Also, there should always be a spokesperson on the rescue teams who deals with leadership, the people and the press and that is all they should do. We shouldn’t expect an expert in rescue to also have to be an expert in handling all the questions and information demands. Let them focus on their job.

    A big thank you to HUSAR, to Priestly, the emergency personnel from areas around, our neighboring towns and a huge thank you to our Elliot Lake heroes.
    I’m proud of you all.

    • As to why plan “B” wasn’t already on its way on Saturday or Sunday…was the construction site in Toronto that had the robotic arm even open? It isn’t easy to track down and secure these things on a weekend. Plus they had to have an operator from the construction company come along to operate the arm on the crane. Before you start judging people, you have to realize that there are sometime insurmountable obstacles in their way.

      • Good questions. I do agree there were obstacles and certainly some were insurmountable. It wasn’t meant in judgement and I’m sorry if it was taken that way. But its something to look at in the following inquiry. If we’re truly to look at what went wrong and what went right, we’ll have to do it openly and honestly. We’ll have to know if those were the reasons that plan “B” was not on it’s way or if it’s procedure to work plan “A” to it’s fullest before calling in plan “B”.

  20. Shame on all of those in Elliot Lake who called the rescuers cowards.
    Shame on the premier for even briefly taking credit for re-activating the rescue efforts.
    Shame on the media for making this into something that it wasn’t.
    And shame on anyone else who, even briefly, thought that they could have done better.

    The men and women who were out there are heroes and deserve our thanks and respect. Under the circumstances, they performed very well. Each disaster is a time to mourn, but also an opportunity to learn and improve. They will do that, and the next time (hopefully a long time away), they will be able to do even better.

  21. As a nearby community resident, my heart goes out to the Elliot Lake families. We all know people from our neighbouring towns and can feel the rippling pain as the events unfolded.
    I for one, along with several other sault and area families had loved ones dispatched to the horrific scene to aid in the initial rescue with the cranes and associated equipment. I thank the OPP personnel for safely clearing the highway for our men to reach their destination.
    Our men worked relentlessly night and day, carefully unvailing the tonage of debris to safely get closer to the victims. Listening to their experiences of this tragedy, has made me appreciate that our local people can be highly skilled and qualified to be put in such devastating situations.
    The article depicts some stories/accounts, but there are many other rescue personnel stories untold.
    Nevertheless, I thank the residents of Elliot Lake for giving our men the standing ovation and applause for their committment to their community neighbours.

  22. The article reads like Brian Burke’s apologia for the Leafs–earnest, at times eloquent, and ultimately irrelevant. Let’s not forget that the gents in the elaborate uniforms and shiny trucks didn’t get the job done–that fell to some scruffy demolition guys from TO (to busy working, I presume, to get their pictures taken). And just like Burke’s Leafs the blame doesn’t lie with the guys on the ground–they tried their best and then some. Instead, and as usual, a heavily regimented system grinds to a halt on questions of “authority” and “mandate”. Before we the taxpayers go investing in new equipment, new protocols, and systems, let’s not forget that the whole operation stumbled for want of some creative thinking and a quarter for a phone call.

    • Mike, the issue is the “taxpayers didn’t invest in any equipment’. Those “scruffy guys from TO” had to be located along with the equipment on a private construction site. That took time: #1 To realize the equipment existed and who owned it #2 To reach them and secure use of the equipment and the operators #3 To transport them from Toronto to Elliott Lake. The system may have ground to halt as you say for the time it took to reach McGuinty by cell phone and get authorization to hire the equipment and operators but my guess is it took quite awhile to track down the equipment in the first place and arrange for it to be delivered. If you want miracles, then you need to outfit the HUSAR teams to perform miracles. Had they owned that equipment and brought it with them, they wouldn’t have had to get any further authorization, they would not have halted their work because no one would have been in danger and they could possibly have gotten a woman out alive. There was creative thinking but they didn’t have what they needed at their fingertips.

      • There is a lot of BS damage control here. If you watch the video of that Monday night press conference (if you can find it anywhere, Canada looked like a backwards country).
        Are the media and politicians try to sweep this under the rug???That press conference looked like a mob lynching!!!

        • There is a lot of BS damage control here.
          If you watch the video of the Monday evening press conference (if you can find it anywhere), Canada looked like a backwards country.
          At that conference, Neadles said that the mall owners need to do a “controlled demolition” on the section of the mall where the people are still buried (presumably) alive.
          I thought to myself, he just incriminated himself…
          Also what is more disturbing is that none of the Elliot Lake officials on the panel objected to the comments, none thought that this was inappropriate.
          This is a complete disrespect for human life by Neadles and by all Elliot Lake officials.
          They should all be charged with disrespecting human life.
          That press conference looked like a mob lynching!!!
          Neadles is funded millions of dollars by the Canadian government (that is us taxpayers) and all he could come up with after 2 days while refusing the collaboration from other rescue teams is to bury people alive…
          Comments like “stunning decision to abandon the rescue” by Peter Mansbridge and “think of the people as if they are a member of your family” by Dalton McGuinty says it all.
          Neadles is a disgrace to the Canadian flag that he wears on his shirt.

          • during this whole ordeal a questionaire kept popping up about are afraid of malls collapsing and before this happened were you afraid? My answer was no I am not afraid of malls collapsing, I am more afraid of a mall collapsing and being buried alive and no one rescuing me….that is a scarey though

        • Don’t blame the whole of Canada because Elliot Lake can’t manage itself. Just go to Elliot lake inquiry.ca and watch the vids, no one can remember anything, it is a joke, if Elliot lake doesn’t clean itself up real fast they will be bull dozing the place over. Just one last mention now they want to bury nuclear waste in rock that has sat untouched for billions of years and they want to pollute it with nuclear waste. This is some of the worlds oldest rock but the Elliot lake officials will destroy this land forever for a few bucks, and not one of them knows anything about the possible affects. What a shame.

  23. The police chief, Mr. Needles, and mayor Hamilton stood in front of us at 3:00 that afternoon and said they couldn’t do anything else and extended their condolences… this isn’t just about communication, clearly the city officials and the rescuers were out of ideas at the point. What we need to know if when was plan B brought forward and by whom. Sorting this out 2 days after the collpase isn’t in anyone’s best interest. I applaued the hard work and risks taken by all rescuers throughout this process, but am disgusted by poor management on so many levels to prevent them from succeeding.

    • Obviously someone knew that a robotic arm existed but maybe they weren’t sure they could get their hands on one. They did get it off of a private Toronto construction site and they had to have an operator come along to operate it. Would it have been right for them to give false hope that they had a plan B if they weren’t sure they could obtain a robotic arm and operator and transport them to Elliott Lake?

  24. Who owned the Mall?

  25. Good article, however your reporter and many others should learn that firefighter do not carry OXYGEN..it tends to burn when exposed to fire, sparks etc.

  26. I too am from Elliot Lake, and yes the percentage of people who were not happy with the HUSAR team is very very small, in comparison to the majority of Elliot Lakers who couldn’t be more grateful for all the hard work they did trying to save the lives of our community. I knew Lucy personally for many years, (although we had not much contact over the last 8 yrs) It is extremely heartbreaking knowing she hung on for so long, and no matter the search and rescue’s efforts they could not make it to her in time. So I can’t imagine what those workers must live with now. How they felt knowing what they did and feeling so helpless. I thank you all who had a hand in the rescue efforts here. It is a job most of us could never do, and I thank you for going towards the danger when most of us run away!

  27. John Thomas is my uncle, and I can tell any doubters out there that the guy has a great heart, lots of courage and spirit. He puts his life on the line a lot in that job. I remember him being on call, having to dash out a few times even when we were having family reunions and dinners, and I always knew what was going on. He had a job to do. I can attest to every word of this article. I know for a fact that he would have done anything he could to get to the survivors. I was 12 or 13 when John came into the family, and I’m 33 now. You get to know a person’s character during that time. I don’t know the other fellas too well, but I’m sure they were just as dedicated to dealing with this. That being said, it’s easy to be an expert when you’re doing it from the sidelines, or leaning on your armchair, so to those who were hurling out those insults, they should have kept their mouths shut and zipped. I wouldn’t walk into a doctor’s office and tell him that I’m more qualified to do knee surgery. Same principle applies here.