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Comment: November 2014

There’s a brief story on page 8 about the Heroes are Human PTSD tour, and a photo of Elliot Lake Fire Chief Paul Officer, smiling, with the tour vehicle.

As we were putting this apparatus issue of the magazine to bed on the Friday before Thanksgiving, I was multi-tasking, writing about trucks and green technology (see page 10), but also making sure I had my files in order to head to Elliot Lake after the long weekend, a day in advance of the release of the report from the inquiry into the mall collapse in that northern Ontario city and the emergency response to it.

The Algo Centre mall collapsed on June 23, 2012. The inquiry ran for seven months in 2013, from March 4 through Oct. 9. A two-day roundtable with stakeholders followed in Ottawa. The report was released Oct. 15 – this year. That’s 844 days.

Eight-hundred and forty-four days – many of them spent of waiting and wondering and stressed, particularly Chief Officer, who had been a building inspector in Elliot Lake before he became fire chief, and captains John Thomas and Darren Connors, who were among the first on the scene of the incident that killed two women and weighed heavily on a community in which everyone knows everyone else.

All three testified at the inquiry – Officer twice, once about his dealings with the mall and its owners in his former job, and again, over several days (due to interruptions ranging from his own much-needed vacation time to Ontario Provincial Police schedules), as the fire chief and incident commander.

Capt. Thomas is a fellow Cape Bretoner; we’ve kept in touch through Facebook since we met at the inquiry in August 2013; his motorcycle ride around the spectacular Cabot Trail in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park over the summer was, no doubt, therapeutic. (Going around the trail – as we say, counter-clockwise, of course, for the best views of the green hills, blue sky and boisterous Atlantic Ocean – is perhaps world’s best therapy for all that ails us!)

I remember approaching Thomas at the end of his second day of testimony on Aug. 20, 2013. He was in uniform, standing hand-in-hand with his wife. As I walked toward him, his wife stepped protectively in front of him, trying to shield him from yet another aggressive reporter.

“It’s OK,” he said. And extended his hand to shake mine, smiling under his trademark handlebar moustache.

Thomas was plain-spoken on the stand – none of the acronym-laden gobbledygook that came from the bureaucrats and managers. And he was thoroughly professional.

I don’t know if Thomas or Capt. Connors were at the Heroes are Human PTSD tour stop in Elliot Lake in June; that decision is personal and I would never ask.

I know Paul Officer was there.

Let’s hope that by the time you read this in November there will have been some closure to the tragedy that was caused by greed and negligence, not by the emergency response.

November 3, 2014  By Laura King

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