Stephen Spencer Davis and Anna Mehler Paperny, Global News
As emergency crews searched for survivors buried beneath the rubble of a collapsed mall last summer, both the rescue teams and government staffers struggled to rein in a muddled message in the glare of media coverage and a distraught community.
Reams of records obtained by Global News from rescuers and Ontario Labour Ministry staffers shed new light on days of strained scrambling and an ultimately fruitless rescue operation. Ontario Labour Ministry staffers felt “thrown under the bus” when they were held responsible for a halted rescue; rescue crews bemoaned a media “frenzy” and “ugly” press conferences.
And even as the Premier ordered a rescue mission restarted amid intense public pressure, those on the ground appear doubtful there would be anyone there for them to save.
Neither the Ministry of Labour nor Toronto’s Heavy Urban Search and Rescue unit would comment for this article, citing an ongoing inquiry into the mall and its collapse.
In depth: Elliot Lake mall collapse
In the predawn hours of Sunday morning, June 24, 2012, a 33-person Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team arrived in Elliot Lake after driving from Toronto. They were briefed and got rooms at Elliot Lake’s Hampton Inn (double occupancy, sleeping in shifts).
It had just started to rain – hard.
In those first hours, emails indicate, they didn’t yet know what they were getting into.
“Looks like it will just be a readiness exercise to me,” Division Commander Andrew Costiuk said in an email at 4:25 p.m. Saturday, June 23. “Partial collapse of a mall roof no deaths, no serious injuries.”
“We will need to consider the call back routine if [the rescue] lasts past Sunday (I would doubt it will),” another HUSAR member wrote that evening.
That prognosis changed by Sunday morning.
“The anticipated length of this deployment may be several days,” team leader Staff Inspector Bill Neadles said in an email at 8:48 am Sunday.
“There will be Media all over this today as we passed some Media trucks on the way up. At this time the Media plan has not been created,” he added.
“We are really just getting under way.”
Neadles also appears to have been frustrated by a lack of public disclosure from other authorities.
“The media frenzy is increasing as the [Ontario Provincial Police] seems not to want to release any info on victims,” Neadles noted in a Sunday afternoon email. “No numbers, survivors or not. … The next media event is set for 1700 hours. Not sure if I will be part of it at this point.”
The Labour ministry, for its part, had its hands full fielding questions about the mall’s state of repair.
“Any orders made against the mall recently,” a legislative assistant to Labour Minister Linda Jeffrey asked in an email Sunday evening. “We need this information as soon as possible.”
By Monday morning, it became clear to those on-site that the pile of rubble was too risky even for those trained to deal with treacherous terrain. Handwritten notes from a HUSAR staffer detail concerns raised by engineers and rescue team members.
A huge slab of concrete pressing down on overstressed escalator beams “proved to be the game changer,” Neadles wrote in an email the next morning.
“The integrity of the structure was now at risk of further collapse and on advice from our Team and Ministry of Labour I removed the team for safety reasons. This as could be expected changed the community’s emotions.”
Part of mall restaurateur Heather Richer knew, as she saw the slabs of concrete fall, that there were no survivors under that rubble. “There’s no way.”
But she still couldn’t countenance the idea of calling off the search that Monday.
“Oh my god, I was so mad. … I already knew that they were dead, cause I watched it happen and there was no way. But I was so mad,” she said.
“You’re going to go home tonight and sleep knowing full well there are two people in that rubble that may be alive?”
Ontario Provincial Police went to “advise the family and this was not well received news,” Neadles wrote. “A press conference followed which started out very ugly but at the end they appreciated the efforts of the team.”
Community consternation grew heated that evening. Many suggested they’d head into the teetering rubble themselves.
Then came a call from then-Premier Dalton McGuinty.
“I was given direction by the Premier to continue to plan to continue efforts to rescue the victim as we owe them and their family every opportunity,” Neadles wrote. “I explained our Team’s capabilities and limitations of ‘Rescue’ in this situation and was to compile a plan and any equipment required.”
So the search resumed, despite all evidence indicating it was a futile risk for emergency responders.
“I think HUSAR is fairly confident that no one is alive,” a Labour Ministry staffer wrote just before 10 p.m. Monday. “What a morbid place….”
The next day, as crews waited for a massive articulated arm to come in and help clear a path for rescuers, those in the Labour ministry were trying to figure out why they were being blamed for calling off the search.
A ministry summary of a press conference that afternoon noted Neadles said the ministry “certified the building unsafe,” so rescuers “lost the authority to enter the building.”
“Needles [sic] continues to say we stop rescue efforts, but we didn’t,” a ministry staffer wrote to co-workers .
“Someone needs to correct this guy.”
The ministry’s communications director eventually became so frustrated he contacted the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services.
“I was quite blunt in saying we didn’t appreciate being thrown under the bus two days in a row and to correct the misinformation immediately,” he wrote to colleagues.
But he stopped short of publicly correcting Mr. Neadles: McGuinty and Community Safety Comissioner Dan Hefkey should be the ones to set the record straight, he wrote June 27.
“Calling the media to ask for a correction will put us in a defensive position and internal finger-pointing which the media will jump all over it.”
The confusion persisted. “It just won’t end,” reads a Wednesday email referencing a story that held the province responsible.
HUSAR, it appears, had media worries of its own. “”The media spin is now out of control with misinformation and quick efforts are underway to release the info asap,” Neadles wrote. (Neadles declined to be interviewed and HUSAR wouldn’t say what inaccuracies he was worried about.)
Efforts to get its message across persisted well after rescue crews packed up and went home.
On June 28, a staffer from the labour minister’s office encouraged colleagues to continue raising the rescue-hiatus issue with reporters – but to do so delicately. “As in: ‘Oh, by the way…just want to make sure you know that at no time did the MOL order the recovery mission abandoned.’”
“It’s now too late to nip this in the bud,” the bureaucrat said. “But let’s keep setting the record straight.”
A year later, that strategy appears not to have worked as hoped.
In his opening statement at the inquiry on March 4, Elliot Lake lawyer Paul Cassan said the Ministry of Labour ordered rescue workers out of the mall on June 25.
This prompted Heather Mackay, a lawyer for the province, to attempt once more to correct the record. The ministry’s involvement in the decision to suspend the rescue, she said, had “been inaccurately described in a number of forums, including in some of the opening statements today.”
With files from Jennifer Tryon and Patrick Cain