ELLIOT LAKE, ONT.—The scathing report from retired justice Paul Belanger has vindicated what the family members of victims and residents of this small northern town have been saying all along — that the deadly mall collapse was preventable and preceded by years of negligence and ignored warnings over the structure.
More than 100 community members gathered in Elliot Lake Wednesday to hear Belanger’s remarks on his 1, 394 page report that places the blame for the deadly collapse with the mall’s owners, inspectors and officials.
“It was not an accident, ” said Réjean Aylwin, father of Lucie Aylwin, the 37-year-old woman killed in the collapse. “This is something that never should have happened. What he was saying today was that it was not the building’s fault, it was everybody’s fault.”
Lucie, 37, and Doloris Perizzolo, 74, were killed in June 2012 when the roof collapsed above the lottery booth in the Algo Centre Mall. Several others were injured. What followed was a round-the-clock rescue effort that culminated in the recovery of the bodies of both women.
The 33 years leading up to the collapse of the mall and the week-long rescue effort were both the subject of a provincial inquiry that heard from 118 witnesses over as many days and gathered more than 1-million pages of documents.
“Although it was rust that defeated the structure of the Algo Mall, the real story behind the collapse is one of human, not material, failure, ” said Belanger. “It is difficult to resist the conclusion that, if any one of the owners, engineers, or officials who were involved with the mall over its 33 years of existence had insisted, ‘Enough — this building will fail if it isn’t fixed, ’ two lives would not have been senselessly and tragically lost. Some did, but they were ignored.”
Roger Oatley, the lawyer representing the families of Perizzolo and Lucie in their civil lawsuit, said they were pleased with the report.
“The family is relieved that the commissioner did not pull his punches and squarely laid the blame for this tragedy at the feet of the owners, the city of Elliot Lake, the engineers and the Ministry of Labour, ” said Oatley. “The family is also very pleased that the commissioner rejected the excuse given by the city officials that they did not know about the problem.”
The commissioner’s findings have no bearing on civil or criminal proceedings currently under way.
Members of the community applauded Belanger as he delivered his recommendations, but some raised the question of if and when further criminal charges would be laid. So far only one man has been charged criminally in connection with the collapse — former engineer Robert Wood faces two counts of criminal negligence causing death and one count of criminal negligence causing injury.
“I think there’s going to be more closure if the OPP comes out with more people. I think that some people in the community still feel that there should be some charges, ” said Luc Morrissette, who ran Alpine Flowers and Gifts in the mall for 16 years.
The OPP investigation into the collapse is ongoing.
Belanger makes 71 recommendations that touch on the province’s building code, real estate transactions and emergency services. Among the recommendations is a new form of inspection that would ensure buildings are maintained to a minimum standard, a public database for structural inspections and a requirement for building owners to disclose all previous inspections when selling property.
“If safety requires that buildings be designed and built so that they are safe when construction ends, it also requires that buildings be maintained so that they are safe during the whole of their useful life. There is currently no such requirement, ” he said.
Belanger also scrutinized the rescue effort, noting that there was a distinct lack of coordination at the upper levels. He questioned whether a faster response time by the urban search and rescue squads from the GTA could have changed the situation. Aylwin could have been alive for as long as 39 hours, Belanger wrote.
“Doloris Perizzolo’s death was unquestionably and mercifully quick, ” said Belanger. “But the extent to which miscues, miscommunications, and mistakes prevented the rescue of Lucie Aylwin is a difficult question.”
Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur said Wednesday that the government would act immediately on some recommendations, like establishing an advisory panel, but that others may take time.
“I am confident that we can all learn from this report. The advice contained within it will help to guide our decision-making as we move forward in creating a safer Ontario, ” said Meilleur.
Area NDP MPP Michael Mantha, who had an office in the former mall, called the report “scathing” and vowed to work to implement its recommendations.
“We owed it to the families and friends of Lucie and Doloris, and our community, to get answers about what happened. Today was the first step in getting those answers and now we owe it to them to make sure it doesn’t happen again, ” he said in a statement.
Highlights from recommendations
- Implement minimum structural maintenance standards for large-scale buildings across Ontario and require them to be regularly inspected.
- Create a publicly accessible database of structural inspections performed by licensed structural engineers.
- Ensure the results of those inspections are passed on with every sale by having sellers include an affidavit affirming they’re disclosing the complete history.
- Restore funding to urban search and rescue teams, enhance their training and ensure they can be quickly dispatched to all parts of the province.
- Build partnerships with Ontario Mine Rescue, which has 875 trained volunteer rescuers who are all mine employees, to assist in future disasters.