June 27, 2012, Elliot Lake, Ont. - Search and rescue workers doffed their hats and bowed their heads in sorrow on Wednesday after efforts to find survivors in the wreckage of a partially collapsed shopping mall concluded in the removal of two bodies.
Crews who had spent the past two days sifting through the rubble of the Algo Centre Mall in this northern Ontario city used sophisticated equipment to try and clear a path to anyone who may have survived when a roof came crashing down through the two-storey building.
In the end, however, the rescue mission became a recovery operation.
Officials said crew members have only to search one 12-metre-long pile of rubble before wrapping up the operation later in the day.
“Our efforts will be concentrated to finish that rubble pile ... to ensure that we are in fact correct in my assumption that there's only the two victims within that complex,'' Bill Neadles of the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team told a news conference.
Ontario Provincial Police Insp. Percy Jollymore said officers still have a list of people who remain unaccounted for, but stressed those names may not be tied to the mall collapse.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty arrived for a late-afternoon visit to the bereaved community.
During his address to a small crowd of rescue workers and local officials, McGuinty said his thoughts were with the family of the two female victims, whom he identified as Dolores and Lucie.
Police have not officially released the names of the two people recovered from the mall, but retired miner Rejean Aylwin has previously said he feared his daughter Lucie was trapped inside.
McGuinty offered praise and support for the local residents who kept round-the-clock vigils at the accident site while rescue efforts were underway.
“Your community was tested. You not only rose to the occasion, you represented the best of Ontarians,'' McGuinty said. “You showed strength an kindness, patience and perseverance, good will and a stealy determination.''
Condolences also came from Elliot Lake Mayor Rick Hamilton, who called Wednesday's discovery “a deep, deep tragedy,'' one that affects not just the victims and their families but the entire community.
“It's with heavy hearts and the deepest condolences on behalf of every citizen in Elliot Lake that we offer our condolences to the families,'' he said.
Despite calls to focus on mourning the victims, questions were quick to start swirling around the effectiveness of the rescue missions.
The search had been called off on Monday, only to be reinstated after community members took to the streets in protest and McGuinty intervened directly.
Residents decried the move, which came hours after would-be rescuers had detected signs of life amid the rubble.
Officials said 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.
A visibly emotional Neadles said the rescue team shared the community's concerns that it was unthinkable to leave victims high and dry.
“We came here on what you thought was to help you,'' he said. “That you thought we would just kind of pack up and go home, that was devastating. We'd stay here for another four or five weeks if we had to.''
The operation required crews to orchestrate the collapse of a precariously balanced escalator and remove slabs of concrete from the scene. The effort was hampered when the robotic arm brought in especially for the purpose was unable to reach inside the building as planned. The effected part of the structure was slowly dismantled from the outside.
McGuinty said the collapse and its aftermath highlighted the need to review emergency procedures in the province, but declined to expand on what that might entail.
“We need to carefully review how we responded to this tragedy,'' he said. “Ontarians are committed to having in place at all times a world-class emergency response system.''
Even before word of the two deaths had been confirmed, residents were struggling to come to terms with what had happened.
“We've been standing on pins and needles for three days,'' said Dominique Hould. "We've cried and we've laughed in this mall for many years. For us, this is our mall.''