An emotionally charged press conference Thursday at the site of the Algo Centre Mall cave-in at Elliot Lake, Ont., swung from outrage directed toward the shopping centre owner to heartbreak over the victims in the tragedy.
The tearful fiancé of Lucie Aylwin, who was killed in the devastating collapse, commended emergency responders for risking their lives to try to save others in a precarious search and rescue mission.
"Eighty-four hours after the collapse, we were told our loved ones were found. We were told they did not suffer. We were told they were at peace," Gary Gendron told reporters Thursday.
His fiancée, Aylwin, worked at a lottery kiosk in the mall. She was killed with longtime Elliot Lake resident Doloris Perizzolo, officials confirmed Thursday.
The bodies of Aylwin, 37, and Perizzolo, 70, were pulled Wednesday from the rubble of the mall during an intense search effort involving special heavy machinery that carefully dismantled parts of the building.
Moments before Gendron's address, a representative of the Algo Centre Mall faced tough questions and shouting from furious locals as he spoke on behalf of the shopping centre's owner.
'Please, I'm a member of the community as well. When all this media circus leaves at the end of next week, all that's left is the Elliot Lakers.'—Antoine-René Fabris, lawyer for Algo Centre Mall owners
"My family was in the mall when it collapsed. If I had thought there was any danger, I certainly would not have put my family in harm's way," lawyer Antoine-René Fabris told an angry resident, who accused the Algo Centre owner of knowingly allowing the mall to continue operating, despite the building's apparently questionable structural integrity.
"Madam, I'm a person of Elliot Lake, too," an emotional Fabris said, responding to a community member who accused the mall's owner as viewing local residents "as dollar signs" rather than lives.
"Madam, I feel your grief … please, I'm a member of the community as well. When all this media circus leaves at the end of next week, all that's left is the Elliot Lakers. I'm a person of Elliot Lake as well," he said.
Fabris spoke on behalf of Bob Nazarian, the mall's owner, and said the owner would return to the scene as soon as the mall is released back into his possession by the authorities.
He confirmed that a notice of class-action proceedings has been delivered to Nazarian, and added that the family has received a number of death threats, but did not elaborate.
Saving up for wedding
Following the tense exchanges between Fabris and community members, Gendron addressed reporters and described his late fiancée as a "big-hearted, helpful" woman who would "never give up" trying to help others.
Aylwin had apparently taken on the part-time mall job to save money for her wedding. The other victim, Perizzolo, a mother of two daughters, reportedly worked at a hospital until she retired, and her husband died last year.
Perizzolo was known in the community as "the lottery ticket lady," CBC's Natalie Kalata reported Thursday afternoon from Elliot Lake. "In fact, she was purchasing a lottery ticket" when the collapse happened.
Gendron told reporters he had "a lot of unanswered questions" about the collapse, but said he and other family and friends needed time to deal with their grief.
"Now is not the time to be asking those questions or trying to get answers," he said. "We need to focus on grieving with our loved ones and saying thank you."
Nevertheless, Gendron said there was "nothing safe" at the mall where his fiancée worked, and that ultimately cost her her life.
"The fire alarm would go off in the middle of the afternoon," he said. "Why is it going off? That question needs to be answered."
The latest news in a tragedy that started when the roof-top parking lot caved in and debris crashed through two storeys of the mall on Saturday afternoon comes as work crews are cordoning off areas of the mall so Ontario Provincial Police can start a criminal probe.
A statement issued Thursday said the OPP's criminal investigation branch was conducting a death investigation into the matter, along with members of the Office of the Chief Coroner.
"This is a very tragic incident. Our sympathies go out to the families of victims who have lost their lives," OPP Commissioner Chris Lewis said in a statement. "Our people will continue to fully support the Coroner's Office to ultimately determine what happened and, possibly, how to prevent it from happening again."
Residents are seeking answers to why the tragedy happened and why equipment that proved vital to search efforts wasn't brought in sooner.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, who has promised a "thorough review" of the emergency response to the mall roof collapse, met with Elliot Lake Mayor Rick Hamilton on Wednesday morning to discuss an aid plan to help the community cope with economic and emotional loss.
McGuinty said he and Hamilton aim to figure out how to relocate some of the businesses and social services that were in the mall. The premier also said he wanted to clear up some misconceptions during the search and recovery work.
"It was unfortunate the impression created was somehow they [searchers] were putting down tools, when in fact what they wanted to do was, having come up against a wall literally in some sense, they were exploring a new option.
"It's really important that people understand that these people in this community together with the search and rescue team were always committed to doing everything they possibly could and never at any point in time considered abandoning the search."
MPP wants independent inquiry
Meanwhile, NDP MPP Mike Mantha, who represents Elliot Lake, said a review of the tragedy isn't enough, and he wants a full public inquiry.
Mantha said the families of the victims need and deserve answers, and while he praised the work of emergency workers, he said it's important to learn from the disaster.
"Canadians united behind Elliot Lake this week in a dark time," Mantha said. "Now, we owe it to the families of the victims and the community to take every step we can to get answers and to ensure this doesn't happen again. An independent public inquiry will ensure that no stone is left unturned."
But for residents of the former mining community of 11,000 that is located about 150 kilometres west of Sudbury, the answers can't come soon enough.
In an interview with CBC News earlier this week, before the first body was recovered Wednesday morning, Gendron said he held hope Aylwin would be found alive among the rubble.
He said he had breakfast with Aylwin on Saturday morning before she left for work at the mall, and hadn't seen her since.
Fiancé held on to hope
"She’s a good-hearted person just like the way I am and she is always willing to help out everybody," he said. "We've been together over two years."
Residents, meanwhile, are still expressing shock over the tragedy, and the way it was handled.
"It's just been very frustrating," said Kimberly Lilley Valley, 48. "There's been tears, there's been laughter, there's been hugs. It's just emotionally very draining."
'We will look into negligence; there is the possibility of charges if warranted.'—Marc Depatie, OPP spokesman
Some residents are also asking about the condition of the mall prior to the collapse, saying it had problems with leaks.
The mall's manager, Rhonda Bear, told CBC News that it had been undergoing repair and maintenance work on parts of its roof, but not on the section that collapsed. She also said an engineering study of the 30-year-old building turned up nothing.
"It'll never be open again, I hope not anyway," said resident Ellas Williams as he sat across from the parking lot of the Algo Centre Mall. "Tear it down, leave the piece of land as it is."
Search efforts were halted on Monday after officials deemed the building to be unsafe, even though workers had detected signs of life within the rubble. Parts of the building were unstable, leading to fears of a second collapse.
The decision drew widespread anger in the community and prompted an appeal from McGuinty for rescue workers to consider all available options. A specialized crane was brought Tuesday to remove sections of the mall's facade to gain safe entry into the site.
Townspeople applaud rescue team
That equipment should have been brought in sooner, said Catrina Briffett.
"I think they should have done a better job, they should have called these people as soon as they could," she said.
Kalata reported Thursday morning that work crews have put a fence up around the mall in light of the criminal investigation by the OPP, who are assisting the Ministry of Labour and the coroner's office.
OPP spokesman Marc Depatie said the criminal investigation was started "from the onset."
"We will look into negligence; there is the possibility of charges if warranted," he said, cautioning that the probe is in its early stages and there's still "lots of work ahead."
Bill Neadles, of the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue unit in Toronto, said during a briefing Wednesday following the recovery of the two bodies that the "hardest thing" was dealing with the perception from residents that his team had given up prior to the equipment arriving.
"That you thought we were going to pack up and go home. That was devastating," Neadles said at a Wednesday press conference. "We would stay another four to five weeks if we had to."
The audience, made up of townspeople, began to clap as Neadles finished his remarks and stood up to give him and his team, who are all volunteers and unpaid for the work, the applause.
Community members are also working to help some of the estimated 300 people who either work or own businesses in the mall.
"These are acquaintances," said Dawn Morissette, who helped organize the Elliot Lake Relief Fund. "These are people who have helped me in the mall. These are people that I grew up with and run into when I moved back into town, so these are faces that I'm used to seeing on a regular basis."
Donations can be made at a number of financial institutions, including Bank of Montreal, Scotiabank, TD, CIBC, Royal Bank of Canada and the Northern Credit Union.