Premier faces questions over stop-and-start rescue at Elliot Lake

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Wednesday, June 27, 2012 – Globe and Mail
ADAM RADWANSKI, ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY, STEPHEN SPENCER DAVIS and JANE SWITZER

TORONTO and ELLIOT LAKE, ONT. — Ontario’s Premier acknowledges that confusion and delays in the effort to reach possible survivors of a shopping mall roof collapse have raised concerns about the province’s capacity to respond to serious emergencies.

“There will be a time for questions that need to be asked about what and when and how and why not,” Premier Dalton McGuinty said Tuesday, after being asked how a race to reach potential survivors could be halted and then resumed only after his intervention.

As heavy equipment began rumbling up the highway to the Algo Mall in Elliot Lake to undertake the task of prying apart heavy concrete slabs inside an unstable structure, questions also grew as to whether clearer lines of communication and stronger leadership on the ground could have saved precious time.

Saturday’s collapse sent concrete slabs crashing through two floors of the Algo Mall, killing at least one person and injuring more than 20. At least one person was still trapped under the rubble and alive on Monday. The number of missing has moved up and down in the days since, and stood at 12 on Tuesday.

Staff Inspector Bill Neadles, the man in charge of the Toronto-based Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team, appeared to indicate on Monday that the work stopped because of an edict from the provincial Labour Ministry. But provincial officials hinted Tuesday that mere safety concerns expressed by an onsite engineer from the ministry were misinterpreted as an edict.

Government sources also suggested that a combination of exhaustion, emotion and frustration may have impeded the provincial emergency workers and officials from considering a full range of options when it was deemed unsafe for efforts inside the collapsed structure to continue. Only after Mr. McGuinty asked whether anything else was possible did they shift to Plan B, which involves using heavy machinery operating from the mall’s exterior.

Mr. McGuinty’s intervention – which included calling Prime Minister Stephen Harper to ensure support from the Armed Forces – is credited for restarting the efforts. But the provincial New Democrats, who represent the riding in which the northern community is located, are asking whether the Premier was fully engaged quickly enough.

The rescue mission, newly equipped with a 90-tonne mechanical arm, was poised to reboot Tuesday evening, more than 24 hours after it was halted.

The abrupt decision to stop searching over fears the structure was too precarious for rescuers came directly from Staff Insp. Neadles of the HUSAR search and rescue team that was deployed to Elliot Lake shortly after Saturday’s collapse.

When Elliot Lake Mayor Rick Hamilton declared a state of emergency Saturday afternoon, that put the accident in the hands of Ontario’s emergency management office, which called in Staff Insp. Neadles’s team. The team of rescuers, technicians and engineers worked gingerly on the site through Monday afternoon, when Staff Insp. Neadles phoned Ontario’s Community Safety Commissioner Dan Hefkey, who is responsible for emergency preparedness. They had to stop their operation, Staff Insp. Neadles said.

“They’re there under the auspices of the province. But that’s what I call a tactical decision,” Mr. Hefkey said in an interview. “And I leave it to Staff Inspector Neadles to make that tactical decision.”

In press conferences Monday and Tuesday, Staff Insp. Neadles said the decision to stop the rescue was out of his hands. “Our authority did end when the building was deemed unsafe by the ministry and other structural engineers,” he said.

But Ontario’s Labour Ministry, which is responsible for workplace safety, issued no orders on Monday. A trio of orders issued Tuesday relating to on-site safety explicitly noted they don’t affect rescue efforts.

Hours after the rescue effort was halted, following a flood of entreaties and a call from Mr. McGuinty’s office, the situation had changed. By midnight, Mr. Hefkey says, they had a new plan in place. “With the enhanced authority given to me by Mr. Hepkey through the province of Ontario to then set the next plan in motion, I think you’re going to see some very serious machinery rolling through town,” Staff Insp. Neadles said after the call went out to Toronto-area Priestly Demolition for an excavator.

With a report from Gloria Galloway in Ottawa

 

Chronology

(some times approximate)

Saturday

2:20 p.m.: Roof at Algo Centre Mall partially collapses

3:55 p.m.: Elliot Lake Mayor Rick Hamilton declares a state of local emergency.

5:45 p.m.: Gas leak reported as a result of incident

9 p.m.: Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Team (HUSAR) deployed from Toronto

Sunday

Overnight: Emergency crews work to stabilize structure for rescuers, hear tapping from under debris

All day: Emergency crew scrutinize the scene

Monday

4 a.m.: More tapping heard from within the wreckage

Afternoon: OPP sends in “life detector” device, similar to x-ray, which picks up signs of survivor(s)

Afternoon: Rescuer made their way about 100 metres into the crumbled wall, about 25 to 30 metres from one trapped survivor

5 p.m.: HUSAR spokesman Bill Needles announced at press conference that Minister of Labour had deemed the site unsafe, forcing a halt to rescue operations

10 p.m.: Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty publicly urges every last effort

10 p.m.: Elliot Lake fire chief Paul Officer says operation will resume, though rescuers will not enter the unsafe building

10:30 p.m.: McGuinty contacts Prime Minister’s Office

Evening: Victor Priestly, head of Toronto-area Priestly Demolition, gets call from HUSAR seeking assistance

Tuesday

6 a.m.: Ottawa-based charity P.R.E.P International Rescue arrives and offers help but turned away by OPP, says managing director John Green

9 a.m.: Spokesman for Stephen Harper said the prime minister has offered federal resources, including the military, to assist with the rescue efforts.

12:45 p.m.: First of two Priestly Demolition excavators dispatched from Sudbury arrives at the mall

6:30 p.m.: Komatsu PC 850 long-arm crane is at southeast entrance to the site, with police safety unit vehicle and two dump trucks

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