By Laura King
Nov. 28, 2014, Toronto – It was, perhaps, a bit of much-needed closure for Paul Officer when Elliot Lake inquiry commissioner Paul Belanger said on Oct. 15 that the chief’s submission to the Ontario Awards for Firefighter Bravery should proceed.
“These awards should wait no longer,” Belanger said. “Those commendations are richly deserved.”
If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, there was some scrambling in the last five weeks to ensure that the three Elliot Lake Fire Department members who went back into the collapsed Algo Centre mall on June 23, 2012, to search for anyone trapped in the rubble, received their medals last night at Queen’s Park.
Chief Officer’s long-ago submission had been put on hold until after Belanger completed his report from the inquiry into the collapsed mall and the emergency response to it.
Belanger’s words, written in his lengthy report and also spoken solemnly and clearly in the auditorium at the Lester B. Pearson Civic Centre in Elliot Lake, were applauded – the only applause, and certainly one of the only pleasant moments, during the hour-long news conference after the document was released.
Captains John Thomas and Ken Barnes, and firefighter Adam Vance were honoured at the legislature last evening for their willingness to do everything they could to extend the search for anyone trapped in the mall, for their courage and compassion. (You can read more about the ceremony and the recipients here, and browse a gallery of photos from the event here.)
Thirteen other firefighters, from Mississauga, Kenora, and Shebandowan, and six police officers from Niagara, Toronto and the OPP, also received medals from Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell and Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi.
The ceremony was formal and elegant and by invitation only. For whatever reason, the government chose to keep the names of the recipients quiet until 6 p.m. last night, so I smiled when I saw on Facebook shortly after 7 a.m. yesterday that the proud sister of Elliot Lake Capt. Thomas, had posted congratulations, hours before Queen’s Park did so.
For the firefighters from Mississauga and Kenora and Shebandowan, the remarkable acts of bravery for which they were honoured – rescuing trapped and injured colleagues from a burning warehouse (“Your son helped to save my life,” I overheard one Mississauga firefighter, still on crutches from the April 23 incident, tell the dad of one of the honourees last night), rescuing a woman from a house fire, and rescuing a couple from Shebandowan Lake – will likely stick with them as tests of character, strength and teamwork and memories of high-risk and terrifying jobs well done, of positive outcomes.
John Thomas, Ken Barnes and Adam Vance had no idea on the afternoon of Saturday, June 23, 2012, while they were doing their jobs and attempting the impossible – to find and save anyone who had been trapped – the same way any one of you would have, that they would later endure a media circus, public derision in the community in which they work and live, and a seven-month inquiry.
I was at the ceremony, thanks to some good people who did some good things to secure me a place at Chief Officer’s table, with Vance and his family, and next to Barnes and Thomas and his Cape Breton contingent. As Chief Officer said to me last week, “It will be nice that you can see the guys get over the finish line with a smile.”
Indeed it was.