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Neadles called off search for victims, inquiry hears

laura-kingSept. 11, 2013, Elliot Lake, Ont. – HUSAR team leader Bill Neadles said Wednesday that he made the decision to pull his rescue team out of the collapsed Algo Centre mall in Elliot Lake.

September 11, 2013
By Laura King

Sept. 11, 2013, Elliot Lake, Ont. – HUSAR team leader Bill Neadles said Wednesday that he made the decision to pull his rescue team out of the collapsed Algo Centre mall in Elliot Lake.

Neadles told the inquiry into the rescue portion of the incident that, based on a conversation with engineers and his HUSAR colleagues Tony Comella and Mike McCallion, he opted to suspend the rescue operation.

There has been confusion during the inquiry about who or what agency called off the rescue operation. Neadles said the Ontario Ministry of Labour had no part in the decision.

Neadles said he was advised on Monday, June 25, 2012, that there was a risk of further collapse inside the building – that a beam was over stressed.

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“With [a] recommendation from Tony and Mike,” Neadles said, “I made the decision that the building was an unsafe work zone for our members to be conducting our operation, and ordered that all members be withdrawn from the building.”

Neadles said workers had already been pulled out of the mall, “but at that time I went one step further to say we will not be going back in.”

Commission counsel Mark Wallace asked Neadles whether the decision to stop the search for victims of the collapse meant the operation had changed to a recovery from a rescue.

Neadles said the word recovery was never used in the conversation with Comella and McCallion; the operation was a rescue when it was suspended, he said.

Wallace pressed further.

“The decision was made to stop the rescue,” Wallace said. “The clear consequence of that would be that it would become a recovery.”

Neadles disagreed.

“There was still some slim chance that person was still alive,” he said.

Commissioner Paul Belanger intervened.

“Is the rescue over or is the rescue stopped/interrupted?” he asked. “I think in fairness to Mr. Neadles that distinction needs to be explored.”

Neadles said there was no further indication from Comella or the engineers that there was a viable option for proceeding with the rescue operation at that point.

“I was more or less making my way back to the [community] control group; I assume – and I only found about this later – that they were trying to come up with some other viable option,” Neadles said.

“At that point I have no authority to continue – if it has gone from rescue to recovery – I don’t have the equipment available to do that, nor is my understanding that I would have the authority to do that without having further consultation with others.”

Wallace again asked Neadles to answer the commissioner’s question.

“You’ve had this input from three people,” he said. “You made the decision to stop the rescue. When you made that decision, was it the decision that the rescue is over, or was the decision that the rescue is suspended?

“It was the rescue would be suspended,” Neadles said, “because I did not have the understanding how to go forward from there, but we weren’t giving up hope.”

Wallace then wanted to know if Neadles had explored options for proceeding or asked others about ways to move forward.

Neadles said he hadn’t reached that point yet, that he was dealing with the stoppage and hadn’t yet progressed to next steps.

“I had been explaining the issues with the staircase and the slab [of concrete] being of significant impact to our workers, and those kinds of explanations. We couldn’t be in the building because this was going to fall down.”

Wallace asked Neadles again if he had a plan to move forward after the rescue was suspended.

“[The rescue] was over for that period of time,” Wallace said. “But without any viable options to go forward, and I am not saying that it would never be reinstated, no. But up until 3 p.m. you haven’t even asked to see if you have any options.”

“I would disagree,” Neadles said. “You’re asking me if I neglectfully never asked any questions about it; my time was taken up with discussion about where we were. I hadn’t had an opportunity to discuss where we were going.”

Wallace re-worded the question.

“When you articulated the situation, you were articulating it as the rescue was over. Yes?

“At no time did you articulate that, ‘Listen, we’ve hit a snag here and we don’t know if we can deal with it but we’re going to hold back and see if we can come up with a solution and we’ll let you know.’ You at no point in time articulated that either to the community control group, the families or in the 5 o’clock press conference, correct?”

“Correct,” Neadles said.

“And you clearly articulated not this position, but rather the rescue is over – not suspended – the rescue is over. Correct?”

“Correct,” Neadles said. “But as I indicated in the press conference the next morning, those are the words I used and I wished I had chosen other words.”

“I’m not asking you what you said the next day,” Wallace said.

Neadles said his choice of words was based on not being able – regrettably, he said – to speak to others before he had to talk to the families and the media, “and being of the position that my authority may have ceased.”

“I was speaking to some of my people . . .,” he said. “But it never came to the point of speaking about what our next steps may be, which is regrettable.”

“So you did not solicit opinions about options, you told me, correct? Prior to the 3 o’clock [community control group meeting] . . .”

“Regrettably,” Neadles said, “I did not have that opportunity.”

Wallace pressed further Wednesday’s afternoon, saying that Neadles could very well have told the community control group that the operation had been suspended and asked them about options.

“I didn’t want to come there and give them any false hope,” Neadles said. “I was there to give and receive information.”

Neadles said that once the decision was made to pull workers out of the collapse zone, the operation reverts to someone else’s jurisdiction and he was trying to iron out those procedural details.

“I didn’t have anything at that point to necessarily bring forward,” Neadles said. “But I couldn’t put myself in a box here to say I had nothing more to give.”