ELLIOT LAKE, Ont. – An array of accusations from local residents, death threats against a mall owner and the prospect of a class action lawsuit all collided in the aftermath of a deadly roof collapse in this northern Ontario city Thursday, even as the province promised to scrutinize every angle of the tragedy.
Those closest to the victims, however, said their many unanswered questions could wait while they mourned.
“We need to focus on grieving with our loved ones and saying thank you,” said an emotional Gary Gendron, whose fiance Lucie Aylwin was killed in Saturday’s collapse at the Algo Centre Mall.
“Frankly I myself have a lot of unanswered questions. Now is not the time to be asking those questions or trying to get answers.”
Gendron did add, however, that he hadn’t considered his fiancee’s place of work a safe one.
“I think myself, that mall should have been closed long time ago,” he said, drawing cheers from a group of local residents. “People made a lot of complaints about the mall but nothing changed.”
After an arduous five-day rescue mission which ended with the retrieval of two bodies, Premier Dalton McGuinty promised Thursday that his province will “carefully review” how it responded to the collapse.
The regional coroner’s office, with the assistance of provincial police, is already probing the deaths of two women who died when an avalanche of concrete and metal crashed through a part of the mall.
The Ministry of Labour, which visited the shopping centre six times in the last three years, is also investigating.
To add to those efforts, McGuinty said the province would be examining the incident in its entirety, which would include placing the history of the mall under “intense review.”
“Once those preliminary investigations have been conducted, we’ll be in a better position to determine what kind of review we need to put in place to provide people with assurance that things that need to be done, were in fact done,” McGuinty said.
“Or if they weren’t done, keep our minds open to this possibility to draw what lessons we can from that.”
McGuinty’s comments came as some members of the tight-knit community of Elliot Lake demanded a public inquiry.
Among those pushing for answers to the collapse was Ontario New Democrat MPP Mike Mantha, whose constituency office was in the mall.
“The basic question is: why did this happen and why was this permitted to happen?” he said, adding that there had been numerous complaints from local residents about the mall’s condition in the past.
“It’s not only what has happened over the course of this weekend that has really frustrated individuals, it’s many years of development for a long time leading to this.”
The Ministry of Labour said officials paid six visits to mall over the last three years, most of which related to complaints about reported leaky pipes, a leaky roof, mould, and an unsafe escalator. But no orders related to those complaints were issued.
A lawyer representing the mall’s owner said Thursday that the shopping centre was inspected on a regular basis.
Antoine-Rene Fabris said the company had spent more than $1 million in renovations. He said the collapse “will undoubtedly lead to litigation,” adding the owners have received notice of a class action lawsuit, but declined to provide further details.
Fabris’ comments drew a vicious verbal assault from one member of the community, who said residents had been placing bets on when the mall would come down.
The visibly irate woman said the community had been hoping any possible cave-in would happen at night so nobody would be hurt.
An emotional Fabris replied that he had family in the mall when it collapsed and would not have put them in jeopardy if he thought it was dangerous.
He also said mall owner Bob Nazarian, who was not present at the news conference in Elliot Lake, has received threats.
“There have been some threats against Mr. Nazarian,” Fabris said of the mall owner, adding those threats kept him from making a personal appearance at an afternoon press conference.
Fabris declined to outline the nature of those threats.
The owners are waiting to take possession of the mall from the Ministry of Labour that is currently preparing a structural stability report, Fabris said.
Questions have also been swirling about the effectiveness of the rescue missions, and whether anything more could have been done to save lives.
Crews called off the search on Monday saying the structure was too dangerous for anyone to enter. The rescue efforts resumed after community members protested and McGuinty intervened.
Officials insist the suspension was never meant to be permanent, adding dangerous conditions within the building would have endangered the 37 crew members tasked with saving any survivors.
Rescuers spent two days sifting through the debris and using sophisticated equipment to try to clear a path to anyone who may have survived after a roof came crashing down through the two-storey building, killing Aylwin and another woman identified as Doloris Perizzolo, 70.
Generally search and rescue teams are reluctant to use heavy equipment because it’s less easy to manipulate and therefore more risk is involved in moving heavy pieces of the structure, McGuinty has said.
“Maybe one of lesson that we can draw together from this is that in future we need to make sure that we have heavy equipment standing by,” he said. “Just in case the usual process for extracting people who are caught up in rubble doesn’t pay dividends and we’ve got to turn to heavy equipment.”
For Gendron, learning that the woman he’d been with for three years had been pulled lifeless from the rubble was an experience he fought back tears to relate.
“When I found out my legs went jello. I fell right down to the ground. Laid flat,” he recalled. “I couldn’t move, I couldn’t breath.”
He described Aylwin as someone who would go to all lengths to help a person in need.
“She was big-hearted, helpful, she’ll help anybody. Like, she was willing to do anything,” he said, his words punctuated by occasional sobs.
After all inquires into the collapse have been concluded, Gendron thinks the mall where his wife-to-be lost her life should be demolished and could be turned into a park dedicated to the memories of the victims.
“I’d like to have Lucie here with me today,” he said. “There’s no one that could replace her.”
As Gendron and others cope with their loss, the province is also offering financial help to the devastated community to help relocate businesses and social services, and offer support to those who’ve lost their jobs.
— By Maria Babbage and Diana Mehta in Toronto.