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Editor’s blog


August 7, 2013
By Laura King


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Aug. 7, 2013, Ben Eoin, N.S. – Part II of the Elliot Lake inquiry – Rescue, as it has been named by the commission – begins today after numerous delays.

Aug. 7, 2013, Ben Eoin, N.S. – Part II of the Elliot Lake inquiry – Rescue, as it has been named by the commission – begins today after numerous delays.

Rescue is an interesting choice of words for this segment of the inquiry into the collapse of the Algo Centre mall and the response to it, given the circumstances – a rescue-turned-recovery operation – and the mandate of the inquiry, “to examine the events, legislation, regulations and bylaws, policies, processes and procedures of provincial and municipal governments in respect of the emergency management and response.”

This part of the inquiry has been a long time coming, the start date pushed further and further back because of lengthy testimony and questioning during Part I, which examined the collapse and the reasons for it.

The testimony over the last five months has been shocking, frustrating and, by times, unbelievable. What comes next may not be as overwhelming as mall owner Bob Nazarian’s explanations of how he ran his business, but it is likely to shed considerable light on the roles and responsibilities of the response agencies – the Elliot Lake Fire Department, Toronto’s CanTF3 Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Team (HUSAR), and the OPP’s USAR/CBRNE Response Team (UCRT) – and provincial entities such as the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal, Emergency Management Ontario and the Ministry of Labour.

I understand that there is likely to be considerable discussion about who was responsible for what – everything from incident command to the widely reported but sorely misunderstood – and, perhaps, miscommunicated – decision to stop the search for Lucie Aylwin and Dolores Perizzolo, and whether disaster-response policies, procedures and protocols were followed.

Dan Hefkey, Ontario’s commissioner of community safety, is scheduled to be on the stand Thursday as an overview witness on emergency response. With lawyers representing the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC) and Toronto’s HUSAR team, plus counsel for the Elliot Lake, Toronto, Ontario and international firefighters unions chomping at the bit after months of preparation, I’m fairly certain some interesting details of the hours after the collapse, and Ontario’s emergency response protocol, will come to light.

Elliot Lake Fire Chief Paul Officer is scheduled to testify on Aug. 21. I spoke with Officer in May at the OAFC conference – he had declined interview requests for our August 2012 cover story on the response and he thanked me for understanding. I will be in Elliot Lake that week to hear Officer’s testimony, and that of Elliot Lake firefighters John Thomas and Darren Connors, and the OPP’s UCRT members.

Meantime, I keep thinking back to Friday, March 8, when I sat at a York University symposium on the collapse, next to three members of Toronto’s HUSAR team and behind two Elliot Lake firefighters.

None of firefighters or HUSAR members was wearing a name tag: they were not at the symposium as representatives of CanTF3 or the Elliot Lake Fire Department; they were there because they wanted to hear what others – who hadn’t been anywhere near Elliot Lake on June 23, 2012, or in the days or weeks afterwards – had to say about the incident and the response, and about them.

The inquiry into the collapse had started four days earlier and was running live on the screen at the front of the room before the symposium started. I did a presentation on media coverage of the incident. A Ryerson professor talked about why buildings fail. Joe Scanlon, who taught me journalism 101 at Carleton University and has become a bit of a disaster expert, presented on why we don’t learn from these types of incidents. None of the presentations – except mine – dealt specifically with the Elliot Lake collapse but the tension in the room was palpable as presenter after presenter, and questioner after questioner, confused the facts or misunderstood the roles of the responding agencies. Indeed, a York University ethics professor whose presentation was called Ethical issues raised after the Elliot Lake mall collapse – and who admitted that he knew absolutely nothing about emergency response or operations – asked symposium participants, who were mostly academics who had never been to a fire scene let alone a large-scale disaster, what they would have done if faced with a decision to risk their own safety or attempt to rescue two women trapped inside a collapsed shopping mall.

It was at that point that the people around me – the HUSAR members and the Elliot Lake firefighters – shook their heads in disbelief; one former HUSAR member whispered, “I don’t think I can listen to any more of this.” Later, one of the HUSAR guys, who was clearly frustrated with the lack of knowledge about emergency response, said simply, to no one in particular as we stood up at a break, “The truth will come out at the inquiry.”

The volume of misinformation and misunderstanding about what happened in Elliot Lake, about who called the shots, about who made what decisions, and about the politics of emergency response in Ontario will be thoroughly dissected over the next 10 weeks. It’s going to be a long haul.


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