Rescuers rebooting Elliot Lake recovery efforts

Chris Young/Canadian Press

Tuesday, June 26, 2012 – Globe and Mail


With fading hopes of finding anyone alive in the rubble of a collapsed mall in Elliot Lake, Ont., rescuers announced they would work through the night on Tuesday using a newly-delivered mechanical arm to remove debris and search for survivors.

The Komatsu PC 850 long-arm – believed to be the largest of its kind in Ontario – arrived at the site at 6:30 p.m., followed by a police safety unit vehicle and two dump trucks. The mechanical arm weighs 90 tonnes and had to be delivered to Elliot Lake in three separate trucks.

Planners hope the arm will be able to reach down into the collapsed mall and push aside escalators that are now shifting dangerously under slabs of fallen concrete.

Dan Hefkey, commissioner of community safety for the province of Ontario, said a crane operator and team of about 50 technicians would take turns working on the operation through the night.

The crane took between two and three hours to put together and move to the area adjacent to the collapsed parking garage roof, he said.

The crane, which was donated by a Toronto area construction company, has an articulated arm designed for its flexible reach. A separate robotic arm, equipped with floor lights and a camera, will help guide workers through the debris inside the mall.

Mr. Hefkey said workers would aim to move debris away from the victims trapped inside. At that point, he said, the crews will assess the situation and determine whether the mission is aimed at rescue or recovery.

Mr. Hefkey said he couldn’t estimate how long the effort would take, as “there is no cookie cutter” approach to debris removal in a condemned building. He added that the situation at the mall was unique, and that the crew was focused on getting the crane into position.

“That’s what I’m focused on–let’s get this done,” he said.

The Algo Centre Mall collapsed Saturday afternoon when a rooftop parking lot crashed through two floors, killing at least one person and trapping at least one more. As many as 12 others are considered missing, revised down from 30.

Sitting in lawn chairs and standing beneath umbrellas, residents watched Tuesday as governments and private companies sent truckloads of machinery to the small northern Ontario town in an effort to aid the stalled rescue operations. The loud scrape of metal against concrete could be heard throughout the afternoon.

Near the scene, people spoke in hushed tones about the ongoing rescue efforts, but few were willing to share the names of people they feared might still be trapped in the rubble.

About 250 people near the site cheered as the massive crane lurched toward the mall at 9 p.m. and later, when large chunks of siding fell to the ground.

Lynn Landriault stood on Ontario Avenue, watching the machine tear through the building.

Though residents have frequently commented on the building poor’s state of repair, often heaping blame on its owner, Ms. Landriault was reflective.

“I’m beyond being angry now, I’m beyond pointing fingers,” she said. “ I turn the finger around and point it at myself.”

Like many others, Ms. Landriault said she’d known for years about the mall’s poor state of repair, blamed by locals for Saturday’s fatal collapse.

“We all knew,” she said. “The whole town knew,” said Ms. Landriault, adding that she and others might have been reluctant to speak out, knowing how many residents depended on the mall for employment.

The somewhat more celebratory atmosphere late Tuesday was a change from Monday evening, when, following a previous announcement that the rescue effort could be called off, volunteers began speaking of entering the site themselves.

On Tuesday night, one volunteer asked people to write messages on cardboard hearts and hang them in a tree, in an effort to cultivate a more positive atmosphere.

Building owner Bob Nazarian has visited Elliot Lake since the accident. Reached by phone on Tuesday, he declined to say where he was, adding his lawyer had advised him not to comment. “I’m feeling horrible,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Elliot Lake resident Rosario Capillo handed out bottled water to people near the site. Mr. Capillo said he bought a lottery ticket last Saturday from a woman named Lucie (Aylwin) who is now feared to be dead in the rubble. He said they joked about the ticket being a winner before he left the mall around 11 a.m.

Another resident, 17-year-old Patrick McDonald, stayed near the mall until 3 a.m. on Monday night, saying “people inside and outside need support.”

Elliot Lake Deputy Mayor Al Collett visited the scene Tuesday morning, removing his baseball cap and observing a moment of silence beside the candles and notes spread out along the mall’s perimeter.

Joanne Graham said she has visited the site of the mall every day since the collapse. Stopping by Tuesday afternoon with her two young children, she says the town’s only mall was the “community hub” for people like her 84-year-old grandfather, who was at the centre last Saturday but left before the rooftop parking garage caved in.

“For a lot of seniors and teenagers, it was the only place to go,” she says.

With reports from Karen Howlett in Toronto, Gloria Galloway in Ottawa, and The Canadian Press

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