By Laura King
June 26, 2012 - I don’t know that I’ve ever been so frustrated by coverage of a news story as I was after watching CBC’s The National last night.
The search for missing shoppers and employees in the collapsed Algo Centre shopping mall in Elliot Lake, Ont., had been called off yesterday afternoon, the structure deemed too unstable and unsafe for rescuers to continue working.
HUSAR Incident Commander Bill Neadles, who spoke at a news conference, was clearly upset by the call. His CAN-TF3 team came to Elliot Lake to try to save lives and its members were being publicly – nationally – ridiculed for stopping the search, a decision that wasn’t theirs but was based on the advice of engineers who said they can’t understand why the building hadn’t already collapsed further. Indeed, Neadles said the building could fail unexpectedly at any time and beams and concrete slabs had been falling.
Then came the emotions, tears and swearing (the F-bomb on The National is a rare occurrence but it was offered up last night by the fiancé of a woman believed still alive and under the rubble). Angry Elliot Lake residents screamed at cameras, accused the HUSAR team of giving up and said they’d continue the rescue themselves – a ridiculous statement made in the heat of frustration and anger. It all made for good TV; what it lacked in context it made up for in sensationalism. The words RESCUE FAILURE were splashed over the screen in the introduction to the story. Peter Mansbridge said calling off the search had “potentially condemned survivors to death”.
Who made the decision to stop the search (the Ministry of Labour is on site but it’s not clear from reports which agency made the call)? How do those in charge weigh the risk – in this case an enormous risk – to potentially dozens of rescuers against the potential benefit of saving a life or lives, or recovering those with little or no chance of survival? How does the rescue operation work and how risky is it?
And now it’s political: Premier Dalton McGuinty, under pressure from angry residents in a mining town where the culture dictates that no one is ever left under ground, has asked Emergency Management Ontario that rescuers find other ways to try to extricate those who may still be alive, and the operation has resumed.
Elliot Lake Fire Chief Paul Officer, in the toughest position of his life, said rescuers will use more extreme measures – we’ll be watching today to see exactly what that means.
Meantime, the Toronto HUSAR team, or CAN-TF3, which was deployed to Godderich, Ont., after a tornado in 2011, and the four other teams in Vancouver, Calgary, Manitoba and Halifax, will be disbanded at the end of the year when JEPP funding runs out (see Peter Sells June Flashpoint column). Will there be a hue and cry now that CAN-TF3 has been called into action? Or will the legacy be Elliot Lake, where the highly trained but not-often-deployed team was ridiculed for agonizingly heeding a risk/benefit analysis that may have saved their own lives?