By Laura King
Nov. 11, 2014, Toronto – There’s still so much to say about the report into what happened in Elliot Lake in June 2012, when the roof of the Algo Centre mall collapsed. But I’ll stick to what I find most frustrating.
First, it seems, after reading and re-reading sections of the report by commissioner Paul Belanger, that blame is cast upon responders for the flaws in the province’s emergency management system, rather than agencies or, ultimately, government.
And secondly, what seems to me to be the perpetuation of misinformation in Belanger’s declaration that Lucie Aylwin, who was hit in the back by a chunk of the collapsing mall ceiling and crushed to death, may have lived up for a day and a half under the rubble.
In the media lock-up before the report was released on Oct. 15 in Elliot Lake, reporters were, thankfully, given an executive summary of the two-volume, 1,394-page document. The first words that stuck with me when I flipped through the summary were about Aylwin, one of two women who died in the collapse.
Belanger, a well-respected, retired judge, says several times in the report that it’s possible Aylwin survived for up to 39 hours after the collapse and, had the response been quicker, well, maybe things would have been different.
This bugged me, for two reasons. First, coroner Marc Bradford testified during the seven-month inquiry that the other woman who died, Doloris Perizzolo, did so “near instantaneously.” And although firefighters and OPP rescuers testified that they heard tapping and muffled grunts in response to hollered-out questions, forensic pathologist Dr. Martin Queen said in his notes that Aylwin died “very rapidly” after the collapse, of asphyxia due to chest compression, and had severe injuries; there was no chemical evidence, he said, that Aylwin survived the initial collapse.
“Death was most likely near-immediate,” Queen said, “and inevitable after the crushing forces were applied.”
Bradford was equally blunt in his testimony.
“Despite the media reports of possible signs of life up to 48 hours after the collapse, I am highly skeptical and believe that this victim also died very quickly,” he said.
What’s more, it was made clear at the inquiry that had rescuers – with equipment they don’t own, have the money to buy or the resources to co-ordinate in advance of such a low-frequency type of incident – been able to extricate Aylwin, her injuries – described as “massive trauma” – were so severe she would have succumbed to them. What’s more, both the coroner and the pathologist noted that there was no evidence that Aylwin tried to claw at the debris on top of her.
Dr. Queen later testified that it was “inconceivable” that Aylwin could have survived more than 24 hours and highly unlikely that she lived for up to 20 hours. Later, under cross examination by Paul Cassan, the lawyer for the City of Elliot Lake, Queen said that any signs of life picked up by dogs or machines were incorrect.
“They would have to be, by definition,” he said, referring to the weight of scientific evidence of a quick death.
From my perspective then, having sat through several days of testimony in Elliot Lake, watched more online and read the rest of it, the commissioner’s assertion that Aylwin might have lived if rescuers could have gotten to her sooner seems out of sync with much of what was said.
Certainly those who knew Aylwin wanted to find her alive; Fire Chief Paul Officer testified that he had to pull one of his captains out of the building by the collar because the man was so determined to get her out he had stopped considering his own safety. And those who testified that they heard tapping and muffled replies firmly believe that they did. Even though the coroner’s testimony contradicts that likelihood.
To me, it seems, Belanger’s statements about Aylwin are a slap in the face to the members of the Elliot Lake Fire Department, the OPP’s UCRT team, Toronto’s HUSAR team and others – some knew Lucie personally – who did what they could with the resources they had, resources limited by funding, or lack thereof, and by protocols. How can teams that operate using different incident command systems, different communications systems and that never once trained together work effectively in an emergency?
We all know that small-town fire departments don’t have the expertise or equipment to deal with a roof collapse; neither do most big ones, for that matter. We all know that Public Safety Canada purports to have a co-ordinated strategy for emergency management – maybe it does, if a collapse-like emergency happens in Toronto or Calgary or Winnipeg or Vancouver where the cash-starved HUSAR teams still exist on borrowed time. Not to mention that many of those at the scene in Elliot Lake – it was a sunny Saturday in late June, remember – half of the UCRT team, some of the volunteer HUSAR team, all of the members of the Elliot Lake volunteer department, and its mutual-aid partners from other volunteer departments . . . you get the picture.
On the drive home from Elliot Lake, and in the weeks since then, I thought about the reaction of the 100 or so Elliot Lake residents – many of them seniors, many of them knew Aylwin and Perizzolo – when Belanger said that Aylwin could have lived up to 39 hours and maybe, had the response been more swift, she could have survived.
There was a collective intake of breath in the room; the audience, of course, hadn’t yet seen the report (only reporters and groups with standing at the inquiry got advance copies). And there it was, palpable anger over the fact that rescuers couldn’t do the job – a job that given the funding, resources and protocols afforded to the agencies for which they work (OPP) or volunteer (fire, HUSAR), was impossible.
Even more frustrating was the fact that Belanger noted that Toronto’s HUSAR team took six hours to deploy – to leave home base for the 540-kilometre trek north to Elliot Lake (which took another six hours). It was not noted in the report that six hours is the normal deployment time for the volunteer team members who sprinted into town from their homes in the suburbs or from cottage country, packed their gear, loaded trucks (which had to be rented because the team does not have the money to buy them), and set out.
It seems, from reading the report, as if the tortured HUSAR souls, who were forced out of the too-dangerous building despite desperately wanting to find Aylwin and Perizzolo, then were cast by naive reporters as ill-equipped and selfishly unwilling to risk personal safety, were the targets for all that is wrong with emergency management in Ontario, when, in fact, the HUSAR team did exactly as it is mandated to do, with the ever-shrinking resources at its disposal.
So it was interesting, then, when during the Q and A after the report was released, – after Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur and Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi told reporters and Elliot Lake residents that the province would examine incident command and clarify the role of the Ministry of Labour in a rescue (as it said in its submission to the inquiry 11 months earlier it would do, so not exactly a news flash) – a young woman asked the politicians why there couldn’t be a HUSAR team just for northern Ontario, so rescuers could get there faster.
Thought bubbles over reporters’ heads flashed dollar signs but the ministers simply nodded and the moderator thanked everyone for their questions and observations.
No one explained to the young woman how much it costs to build, train and equip a rescue team, that the fate of the teams in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and the Province of Manitoba is iffy, at best, because Ottawa cancelled federal funding, or that the next time there’s an Elliot Lake the HUSAR team as a national – even provincial – response entity may not exist.