'This is not a trial': getting to the truth in Elliot Lake

Michael Friscolanti reports on the first day of the inquiry into the collapsed Algo Centre mall

On the northbound side of Highway 108, the windy road that leads to Elliot Lake, Ont., there is still a large wooden sign directing motorists to the Algo Centre mall. “The centre of it all,” it says. Unlike the ad, the mall itself is nearly gone, ripped apart by a demolition crew. By the time the snow melts, there will be nothing left of the place but memories and questions. Many, many questions.

Nine months after a chunk of the mall’s roof crashed to the ground—killing two women and injuring 20 others—the “centre of it all” is now a second-floor hearing room a short drive away, where a public inquiry will try to uncover what everyone in Elliot Lake is desperate to know: the truth. Why did a portion of the rooftop parking lot crash to the ground? Why were the warning signs—incessant leaking, crumbling ceiling tiles, rusty structural beams—seemingly ignored for so many years? Why did Lucie Aylwin and Doloris Perizzolo have to die?

If the first day of proceedings were any indication, the truth will be neither simple nor pretty. The hearing was barely a few minutes old when commission counsel Peter K. Doody filed thousands of pages of exhibits, from architectural plans to engineering reports to a list of every business that ever opened shop in the mall. All told, inquiry lawyers have identified more than 40,000 relevant documents. “Our duty is to determine the truth,” Doody said, “whatever that may be.”

In his opening remarks, Commissioner Paul Bélanger stressed that his job is not to assign blame. “This is not a trial,” said the retired Ontario judge. “We are here to determine why this tragedy happened, how the emergency response and management was carried out, and how things might be improved.” But as lawyer after lawyer issued their own opening statements, the blame game had already begun.

“The fact that such an extraordinary tragedy could occur in such ordinary circumstances is shocking,” said Douglas Elliott, who represents a long list of locals, including mall employees and shoppers who were inside the building when it collapsed. “What is even more troubling is that the eventual failure of this roof, in our view, was predictable and preventable.”

Elliot said the leaking problems were repeatedly addressed “on a Band-Aid basis,” and that the evidence will show the mall’s last owner, Bob Nazarian, neglected to do necessary maintenance because of “his unwillingness to spend the money required to do the job properly.” He also said some of his clients repeatedly complained to the city and the province about the dire state of the building, to no avail. “The Commission will have to examine the activities of many persons to arrive at the truth of the matter,” Elliott continued. “The Commission will have to answer key questions about who knew what when and what they did about it—or didn’t do about it.”

Elliott, who grew up in Elliot Lake, saved his harshest words for one group in particular. “This tragedy represents a failure of the engineering profession of Ontario,” he said, “a profession on whom all of our lives depend every day.”

Paul Cassan, who represents the city, said the inquiry provides a welcome chance for the public to hear the complete story. (Many in Elliot Lake have been critical of the municipality, saying it should have done more to ensure the mall was safe.) “The city looks forward to this inquiry to allow the full and fair analysis of all the evidence before reaching your conclusions,” Cassan told the commissioner. “This is a process that has not been available to date, so our residents have not been able to obtain a full understanding of the event and the rescue efforts.”

Bélanger expects to hear from at least 75 witnesses, and although testimony is scheduled to finish by the end of the summer, he has until January 2014 to submit his findings. More than a dozen individuals and organizations have been granted standing, including relatives of the dead, past and present mall owners, and the engineers who last inspected the building. Lawyers for each party will be allowed to cross-examine every witness.

On Tuesday morning, the inquiry will hear from its first witness: Dale Craig, an expert engineer who will testify about general construction practices and the roofing options that were available in the late 1970s, when the Algo Centre was built.

Now available on ebook: Michael Friscolanti’s stunning investigation of the Elliot Lake tragedy, Doomed: The Untold Story Behind the Collapse of the Elliot Lake Mall