The owners of the Algo Centre mall in Elliot Lake, Ont., say there was no evidence of any structural issues regarding the safety of the roof and they conducted regular inspections and maintenance in the six years they have owned the mall.
In a written statement delivered just before a public meeting held by the judge leading the public inquiry into the partial roof collapse, the owners said they "have and will continue to co-operate fully with authorities looking into this event and the owners specifically look forward to the opportunity to participate in the public inquiry."
The statement acknowledged "some of the residents of Elliot Lake may be disturbed over rumours that owners of the Algo Mall knew of a danger, ignored the warnings concerning the roof yet chose to do nothing,[but] this is not accurate."
"Since Eastwood Mall Inc. took ownership of the Algo Mall more than six years ago, they have had in place a regular program of maintenance and inspections, specifically regarding issues concerning the roof. The owners of the Algo Mall have in hand historical as well as current engineering reports that clearly indicate that there was never any structural issue concerning the roof at the mall, making the collapse of the roof even more surprising."
On June 23, part of the mall roof, which doubled as a parking garage, collapsed. Two people, Lucie Aylwin and Doloris Perizzolo, were pulled dead from the rubble. About 20 others were hurt.
The public meeting started Wednesday morning with about 200 residents in the room — which was only half full.
Mall was a social hub
The informal public gathering took place in the presence of Commissioner Paul Belanger and the lawyers who make up the judicial inquiry into the tragedy.
Justice Belanger read a statement to outline the inquiry's scope. He said the inquiry will not assign blame, but instead provide recommendations to prevent future tragedies and improve emergency response.
Once Belanger's statement was finished, the floor was opened to the public to hear how the tragedy has affected the community.
Residents spoke about how the mall was the social hub and a one-stop shopping centre where they could get coffee, read the newspapers at the library, as well as get groceries and clothes — all while meeting friends to catch up. Many people spoke about their experiences with isolation and loneliness since losing access to their social hub.
People also said there have been few opportunities to speak about their feelings.
Belanger told the residents the inquiry aims to provide that venue for them. The commission will meet privately in the weeks to come with residents who wish to provide information.
The commission's official hearings are expected to begin in Elliot Lake in January.
'Everybody has questions'
Was this something that could have been prevented? If it was, then who should have prevented it, or how could it have been prevented — what steps should have been taken?—Michael Mantha, local MPP
Over the past few days, Bruce Carr-Harris, one of the lawyers, said he and his co-counsel have made a few visits to the northern Ontario town, talking to community leaders and residents.
"Each time we come, we learn something a little extra about what may have happened here and what kind of information we need to get to answer our questions," he said outside the security fencing that now separates the mall and its remains from the community.
Wednesday's meeting was not an official part of the inquiry and but gave residents a chance to ask questions about the inquiry process, which is designed to find out what happened, why it happened and ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has given those running the inquiry 18 months to deliver a report.
Some, however, just want to move beyond the blight represented by the pile of rubble in the middle of their town.
"I sit here every day, and look up and that's all I see," said Melanie Lafontaine, who works in a flower store just down the hill from what was the Algo Centre Mall.
"It's kind of horrible. I don't like looking at it anymore."
The inquiry is looking into the circumstances of the collapse, as well as the emergency response, which some criticized as inadequate.
"Everybody has questions, and they all want answers," Lafontaine said.
"People are just going to wait and see what happens."
New mall coming
Michael Mantha, the area's provincial politician whose constituency office was in the mall, said people want to know why the tragedy happened and whether the ensuing rescue effort was the best possible.
But one question seems uppermost on their minds: "Was this something that could have been prevented?" Mantha asked.
"If it was, then who should have prevented it, or how could it have been prevented — what steps should have been taken?"
The collapse dealt a blow to the very heart of the community of about 13,500 people, taking with it 60 per cent of the town's retail space and destroying a favoured central gathering place, cool in summer, warm in winter.
Jobs for more than 100 people. Gone. The public library, with its free reading and internet. Gone. Lower-price stores, such as Dollarama, the Bargain Shop, and Zellers. Gone. The Foodland supermarket. Gone. Government services. Scattered throughout the town.
"It was a bad shock for us," said resident Barbara Vincent.
At the same time, she said, it is time to move on, time to stop talking about what was and what was lost.
"We need to forget about that mall and look forward to what's coming, and I'm sure what's coming is going to be better for sure," Vincent said.
Plans are underway to fast-track a new shopping mall not far from the now-condemned one, but it's unlikely to be operational before the end of next year, said Joyce Cyr, president of the area local chamber of commerce.
A photo that originally appeared with this story included a caption that erroneously identified Justice Paul Belanger. The photo has since been removed.Nov 29, 2012 12:00 AM ET