The community of Elliot Lake, Ont., voiced anguish and outrage Monday night when rescue efforts at the town’s caved-in shopping mall were suspended, but several experts in disaster response say it was the right thing to do — even if it meant leaving someone to die in the rubble.

"It’s an unfortunate decision that they have to make," said civil engineer Sean Tracey, chairman of the board of the Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness and one of the people who developed the Canadian standards for heavy urban search and rescue, or HUSAR, that are being used in the northern Ontario town.  

"You do not risk lives unless you can save lives. And in this case … it’s just so extremely unsafe for those responders that them attempting to try and do this rescue would probably jeopardize even those that they were trying to rescue.

"So it was the right decision at the right time."

Emergency crews announced they had suspended their search for people trapped in the rubble of the Algo Centre Mall around 5 p.m. ET on Monday. But five hours later, after town residents began protesting outside city hall and the mall, and following a plea from Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to "leave no stone unturned," the search effort was relaunched.

Wayne Boone, an assistant professor at Carleton University in Ottawa and expert in infrastructure risk management, agreed with Tracey’s assessment, and said the choice to restart the rescue operation was pure politics. 

'Under no circumstances should a rescuer's life be jeopardized.'

—Staff Sgt. Jim Bock, OPP's urban search and rescue team 

"The decision to go back and use those resources again was no longer an operational decision," he said. "The decision to go back again, my point would be it was a political decision, for other than purely emergency-management reasons."

Boone said the Toronto-based HUSAR team on site in Elliot Lake — one of just five across the country — is a "rare resource," the prolonged use of which is "very unusual."

"They could be present at something else, deploying somewhere else."

Even the head of the other rescue team platooning with HUSAR to try to penetrate the rubble and fish out survivors from the mall said he wouldn’t put any of his personnel at more risk.

"We can’t risk rescue personnel’s lives for the sake of a chance that somebody might be alive," said Ontario Provincial Police Staff Sgt Jim Bock, head of the force’s urban search and rescue and chemical-radiological-nuclear response team.

"The rescue workers don’t want to stop, but there’s certain professionals that understand the structure — engineers — that have to make that decision.… The engineers say we shouldn’t be in there, and I totally understand that and I agree with them."

Residents fraught

None of that is sitting well with residents of Elliot Lake. The provincial police still have 12 names on their list of people who are unaccounted for in the wake of the disaster, and while it is hoped most of them are merely out of town or out of reach, community members don’t want to let up, fearing the worst.

At least one person is believed dead so far, and authorities said they last observed signs of life from another person in the debris Monday at about 4 a.m.

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Residents react to the news Monday evening that authorities had called off rescue efforts. That decision was rescinded hours later. (Chris Young/Canadian Press )

Judy Pine, who has lived in the community on and off for 35 years, said she went to the mall after hearing that the hunt for people trapped in the wreckage would resume.

"They are family, they are friends, and we are a very close-knit community," she said. "To walk out when there could be somebody alive is just beyond understanding, and we just weren't going to stand for it."

But while those passions are strong in residents and rescuers alike, yet another expert said that, at the end of the day, someone has to make a "rational decision."

"Sometimes those decisions are very hard to do, and this is the classic case," said Peter Power, who spent 20 years as a member of London’s Metropolitan Police, where he directed the response to disasters including bombings by the Irish Republican Army.

"In the heart of the rescue worker is undoubtedly to put yourself in danger to rescue others. Police, fire, ambulance — it doesn’t really matter; that’s what you’re there to do. 

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Elliot Lake is about 150 kilometres west of Sudbury.

"But how would it feel, say, if three rescue workers went down there, there was a terrible rift and they all perished? And then you have to respond to the next of kin, to the mothers and sons and fathers and daughters. So you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. There isn’t an easy answer to it."

Another former rescuer turned expert in disasters said much the same — there’s no sense risking the lives of 10, 20 or 30 people to save just one. Scott Phelps, a professor of rescue operations in New York City, knows first-hand: He was working as a paramedic during the Sept. 11, 2001, destruction of the World Trade Center. He resisted the impulse to run into one of the Twin Towers, a decision that likely saved his life but haunts him to this day.

"You don’t want to have more police officers or firefighters die so that you can rescue one person. So there’s always a balance between the ability to rescue people and the acceptable amount of risk," Phelps said.

"It’s really hard when you make these decisions. But these are experienced police and fire commanders who have had hundreds of hours of training and probably decades of experience.

"So although it frustrates the public, and understandably so, at a certain point, these are the experts."

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Corrections

  • Rescuers last observed signs of life from the rubble of a partially collapsed mall in Elliot Lake, Ont., at 4 a.m. ET on Monday, not 2 p.m. as initially reported.
    Jun 27, 2012 8:00 AM ET