Elliot Lake mall rescue team showed 'limited efficiency'

The disaster team that deployed to the site of last year's deadly mall collapse came under withering criticism Tuesday over its role in the rescue operation

Bill Neadles shocked Elliot Lake after announcing mall collapse rescue effort was called off

The disaster team that deployed to the site of last year's deadly mall collapse came under withering criticism Tuesday over its role in the rescue operation.

In testimony at the judicial inquiry into the tragedy, crane company owner Dave Selvers said the Toronto-based Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Team showed "limited efficiency."

"(They) were of no use whatsoever in a situation like this," Selvers noted. "This team did not have any idea as to the means required to perform this operation."

Selvers's company, Millennium Crane, was called in hours after part of the mall's rooftop parking deck collapsed in June 23, 2012, and worked under direction of the Ontario Provincial Police. His crew arrived on the scene the next morning at a time when it was feared victims were still alive in the rubble and removed some of the precarious debris.

'Too many different messages'

Selvers said he thought the heavy urban search and rescue team — known as Canada TF3 — under Toronto police staff Insp. Bill Neadles had no idea how to go about the rescue task.

"There were too many people relaying too many different messages," he said of the team's leadership. "I didn't know what directive was going to be fired at me next."

TF3 is one of five specialized urban search and rescue teams in Canada that can respond to disaster situations. But Selvers said TF3 did not have the needed equipment, and didn't appear to understand anything about building construction, yet was reluctant to tap the expertise at hand.

He said he was surprised at the search team's reluctance to call in a heavy crane to remove rubble partly because of the roughly $2,500 an hour cost.

"I thought life was worth more than that."

By contrast, Selvers said the provincial police rescue team was "organized and professional" while several TF3 people were "walking around doing nothing."

'Political and ... frustrating'

Bill Neadles, the head of a heavy search and rescue team that responded to last summer's mall collapse in Elliot Lake, testified Tuesday at the Elliot Lake Inquiry, which is looking into the collapse that killed two women. (Yvon Theriault/Radio-Canada)

Neadles, who began testifying after Selvers, shocked the community two days after the collapse when he announced the rescue effort had been called off.

Previous witnesses have testified about the dangerous state of the building. However, many residents believed people were still alive in the rubble and demanded the rescue resume.

There was even chatter in town that a group of men were planning to storm the structure themselves late at night to look for victims. The official search did continue hours after it was called off — after a phone call with the premier.

"This got very political and it was very frustrating," Selvers said. The bodies of Doloris Perizzolo and Lucie Aylwin were pulled from the rubble four days after the collapse.

Coroner Dr. Marc Bradford testified last month that both women likely died quickly. Perizzolo, 74, was killed "almost instantly" after being crushed, the inquiry heard.

Aylwin, 37, likely suffocated under the weight of rubble on her chest. There was no evidence she had survived for any length of time, the autopsy showed.

At the time the rescue effort was halted, police said they still had a list with more than a dozen missing people on it. Rescue workers had also reported signs of life in the mall just hours earlier.

The Elliot Lake inquiry is expected to hear key evidence from Neadles about the decision to halt the rescue, and later resume the search.

Previous evidence shows the rescue effort did resume later in the evening on June 25, 2012, when demolition equipment was ordered.

The move to restart rescue operations followed a call from former Premier Dalton McGuinty, who urged emergency workers to find another way to reach the victims.

When the equipment arrived the next day, it was used to demolish the front of the building so rescue workers could reach the two people trapped in side.

Follow CBC News' live blog from the inquiry:

'Catastrophic' failure possible

On Monday, an engineer told the public inquiry how precarious the damaged building was during the rescue effort inside the collapsed Algo Centre Mall.

Engineer James Cranford told the public inquiry movement in the damaged building was a warning sign of the potential for a catastrophic failure. (Elliot Lake Inquiry)

Engineer James Cranford provided advice for the heavy urban search and rescue team that took charge of the rescue.

Cranford told the inquiry there was plenty of cause for the concern after rescuers noted the building had shifted in the days after the roof collapse.

"The failure mechanism for steel in that situation would be that it would deflect," he said on Monday.

"The deflection you would note would be a warning sign and then, at some point, the steel would fail. Depending on where that failure occurred, it could be catastrophic, but it would be sudden."

The public inquiry was established in July 2012 by the Ontario government and has been underway in Elliot Lake since March.

It was created to report on events surrounding the mall roof's collapse on June 23, 2012, the deaths of Lucie Aylwin and Doloris Perizzolo, the injuries to others and the emergency management and response.

Compilation of video evidence from Elliot Lake Inquiry:

With files from Canadian Press