Search of collapsed mall called off because too dangerous, inquiry told

ELLIOT LAKE, Ont. – The head of the disaster team responding to last year’s deadly mall collapse admitted Wednesday to calling off the search for survivors without any discussion of options for proceeding.

Toronto police Staff Insp. Bill Neadles testified he made the decision, which came just hours after signs of life were detected in the debris and which infuriated the community, for fear the rescue had become too dangerous.

In a discussion that lasted a few minutes two days after part of the rooftop garage caved in killing two women, the head of rescue operations told Neadles further collapse of the Algo Centre Mall was imminent.

“The recommendation to me was that we remove all of the workers from the building,” Neadles testified.

“They’d already been pulled out but then I went one step further to say we would not at this point in time be going back in.”

He called it “regrettable” he did not ask for advice on whether there might be some way to continue the search.

The decision came after Neadles had reported publicly that a “life detector” had picked up breathing in the inaccessible rubble early that morning.

“They had a positive result from that machine,” he said.

However, he did not mention being told the finding was in fact unreliable, and the detected breathing may have been from other rescuers.

Neadles testified the search had forged ahead until he called it off, despite the opinion of a team doctor that the likelihood of finding anyone alive would be a “miracle.”

“I knew in my head that this was going to be a very difficult situation for anyone to survive,” Neadles said.

“But my heart was telling me that I still need to go forward with continuing this.”

Neadles said the Ministry of Labour played no role in calling off the rescue — which was restarted later that day after a phone call with then-premier Dalton McGuinty — as was reported at that time.

The mall collapse on June 23, 2012, killed Doloris Perizzolo, 74, and Lucie Aylwin, 37, whose bodies were recovered four days later.

While the coroner has testified both women died quickly, the inquiry heard Wednesday that police heard tapping in the rubble about 20 hours after the cave-in.

However, rescuers were unable to get to the source of the sound because of the debris and precarious state of the building.

Neadles, who commanded the Toronto-based Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team, admitted to lapses in communications as various plans to get to the area were devised.

At times, he appeared to operate in a strange vacuum.

For example, he announced a plan to remove a steel beam and concrete slab without speaking to his engineer or operations manager.

On another occasion, he reported a crane would be deployed but the person in charge of operations did not know about it.

“It’s really quite astounding that your operations’ chief didn’t know there were going to be crane operations,” commission lawyer Mark Wallace said.

Neadles was frequently unable to recall who gave him various pieces of information and was often hazy about what he said to others.

On Tuesday, a crane company owner who also responded to the mall collapse testified he thought the Toronto search team was essentially clueless and useless.