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September 10, 2013
By Laura King


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Sept. 10, 2013, Elliot Lake, Ont. – I’m back in Elliot Lake this week to hear HUSAR’s Bill Neadles testify – he’s on the stand now (check back later for a story). And while I can’t be here every day, I have been paying rapt attention to the testimony, and it’s worth reviewing.

Sept. 10, 2013, Elliot Lake, Ont. – I’m back in Elliot Lake this week to hear HUSAR’s Bill Neadles testify – he’s on the stand now (check back later for a story). And while I can’t be here every day, I have been paying rapt attention to the testimony, and it’s worth reviewing.

HUSAR’s Tony Comella was grilled for a day and a half last week by a feistier-than-usual commission counsel Mark Wallace, on his note taking (HUSAR members are not compelled to take notes), on communication, and on command, the three areas that the inquiry has repeatedly been told need improvement.

Naturally, my ears perked up at this exchange about the media coverage of the incident.

“Media and social media crucified our team for good reason … ,” Comella said.

“Media and public relations were atrocious. Announcing that rescue efforts were terminated was an international public-relations disaster. In future, foresight needs to be part of the command team's strategic approach with multiple rescue options (Plan B, C, D, E, F …) to be done and never halt rescue efforts at any point or time.”

Further, Comella said, it was upsetting and frustrating when Elliot Lake residents became nasty after hearing that the rescue has been halted.

“What did you think?” Wallace asked. “You were aware first-hand that the people of Elliot Lake were angry at the rescuers?

“It was devastating to me,” Comella said.

“Why do you think they were angry?” Wallace asked. “What did you understand to be the source of their anger?

“My opinion,” Comella said, “is that I think that when we pulled the rescuers off the pile for their own safety, that that was viewed as giving up and that certainly isn't the case.

“What we didn't want was 30 more victims. And for the first time in my career as an emergency worker, I've experienced these people treating us this way from the street, and I was very confused at that, very affected by that.

“I couldn't understand how they could feel that way, when we were doing everything we can to help these people, and risking our lives to do it.”

That’s the point at which Comella became upset and the inquiry broke briefly.

What still hasn’t been clarified is who told whom to stop working when – there has been plenty of evidence about brief work stoppages and the Ministry of Labour’s role in rescue operations versus recovery. There will be more testimony on that.

We’ve heard already from Fire Chief Paul Officer that he wanted to release the fact that there were two people in the rubble, not 30. We’ve heard the coroner testify that both Doloris Perizzolo and Lucie Aylwin died almost immediately after the collapse of the Algo Centre mall on June 23, 2012. And we’ve heard that OPP Insp. Percy Jollymore – who testifies later this week – was the primary obstacle to Officer’s desire to get the facts out to his community.

“Communications is always an issue,” Comella said later. “Better communications, whether that be from a unified command cell down. In hindsight, I understand a little bit more about what happened than when I was on the scene, so if we could have a better system for that, perhaps it would be beneficial.”

There has been consistent testimony about the fact that communication at the command level, mainly due to the absence of an OPP staff sergeant in the command tent, was sometimes lacking, but that task-level members of HUSAR and the OPP’s UCRT rescue team worked well together on scene. There has also been confusion among laypeople about how incident command works.

“It struck me,” Wallace said to Comella, “when you were telling us earlier this afternoon that you were unaware of what the decision [HUSAR’s] Bill Neadles made about whether to continue with the rescue or turn it into a recovery, and given your position and hierarchy, I just find that incredible that you wouldn't know that.

“Do you not see that that is sort of a problem in terms of communications amongst the chain of command?”

“I think that, yes, communications could be enhanced absolutely, yes,” Comella said.

Wallace asked Comella if an effective team would be working toward a common goal.

“Yes.”

“And if you don't know what the goal is . . . you're not going to be moving in unison?”

“I believe,” said Comella, “that we were always moving towards a common goal, at least at my level."

Wallace then asked Comella about his expectation of the command structure and where the OPP’s rescue team, known as UCRT, would fit into it in Elliot Lake.

“My expectation is that the command would be a unified command,” Comella said, “with a leader from all the agencies that would be responding from the province to assist the community and UCRT would be one of those assist agencies just like us."

“So, would it be fair to say,” Wallace asked, “that it was your expectation that UCRT would have a command position equivalent to [HUSAR’s] TF-3?"

“Yes.”

“Which would mean that UCRT would have a person in the command tent; correct?”

“That's correct.”

OPP Chief Supt. Robert Bruce and others have testified that a staff sergeant – who would have acted as OPP’s critical incident manager in Elliot Lake – was not available to accompany the other UCRT members, and that contributed to the communication issue.

Wallace later reviewed a series of text messages during which engineers said Comella was becoming concerned about the operation and said it wasn’t worth risking lives of rescuers to retrieve the bodies of Perizzolo and Aylwin.

“Did you ever express sentiments like that . . . ?,” Wallace asked.

“That risk assessment . . . the reason we pulled everybody out is because it wasn't worth the life of all the rescuers, to sacrifice them to try and save these people,” Comella said. “That's a terrible thing, but that's the way it is.”

“What,” Wallace asked, “as of noon on [June] 25th when you pulled people out, what was your own view as to whether or not there was anybody alive still in the pile?”

“There's always a possibility of survival,” Comella said. “Historically we have people that have lived 17 days and just recently got broken. So there's – there's always that possibility. I understand that it gets less and less over time, but that doesn't change how we do our work and our dedication to getting those people out. So we are completely committed to rescuing them all the time. And when we stop operations like we did because of a safety issue, it's exceptionally frustrating at many levels because we don't want to do that. Nobody wants to do that.”

Earlier, Wallace had asked Comella why he didn’t take extensive notes at the scene. Comella said he made notes later on his laptop after the fact because it had been raining so his papers got wet and ripped, and that his priority was the rescue operation, not note taking.

John Saunders, lawyer for the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, asked Comella Friday whether firefighters take notes on the job. Comella said no, that it is impractical to do so while fighting a fire or doing a rescue.

Saunders then asked Comella about the confusion over the work stoppage.

“From your perspective, did you ever think you were going home?”

“No,” Comella said.

“Did you ever think that HUSAR had done everything that they possibly could do in this situation?"

“No, we were still working the problem to move forward.”

“Did you ever give up?”

“Never.”

“And were you ever without any options?” Saunders asked.

“No, we were never without options.”

Saunders walked Comella through his experience on Toronto’s HUSAR team, his expertise in technical rescue and with victims. Comella said he has worked at dozens of incidents that dealt with sudden and unexpected deaths. Further, he said, HUSAR instructors have been trained to understand what people do in a structural collapse.

“And as part of your training, what do they tell you people do in response to being trapped?” Saunders asked.

“They try to fight their way out.”

Comella said he felt uncomfortable saying anything further with civilians in the room but Commissioner Paul Belanger assured him that spectators had been warned about potentially graphic content.

“OK,” Comella said. “People claw their way out and try to claw their way out.”

“And without belabouring the obvious,” Saunders asked, “what does that mean?”

“When they become panic stricken, they do anything they can to try and get out of where they are. Rational thought is something that they have no control over. And when they become irrational, they just claw and it damages their fingers, rips their fingernails off, bruises their hands, that type of thing.

“And what did you observe?”

“That's the only training that I have for this, so I did look at their fingers, just to see if that was present and I didn't see a sign of that . . .

“I saw that there wasn't that struggle . . . so I felt a little bit better that maybe they didn't struggle.”


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