The man who led the rescue at the Elliot Lake mall collapse admitted Thursday there were things that could have been done differently — but calling off the rescue was not one of them.

As Bill Neadles wrapped up his testimony at the public inquiry into last year’s collapse that claimed the lives of two women, he stood by his decision to pull rescuers from the dangerous building and not put them in harm’s way.

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Bill Neadles, the commander in charge of the disaster team that deployed to last summer's mall collapse, apologized Thursday for gaps in its performance, but stood by his decision to call off the rescue when he did. (Elliot Lake Inquiry)

"[It was only] a matter of when that [structure was] going to come down," Neadles said, adding he couldn’t morally justify sending rescuers back in.

"Unfortunately, even if I had had an indicator 10 minutes before that a person may still be alive, I'd have to make the same decision."

Neadles went on to explain he wished he had used different words when giving details to the community about what was happening — and he apologized for leaving the impression the victims were being left behind.

"I would just, you know, like to apologize to the families, if they felt that we were not doing the best we could," he told inquiry lawyers. "It appeared that we had left them, and that wasn't our intention."

Futile rescue effort

Hours after Neadles halted the search, then-premier Dalton McGuinty asked him in a late evening phone call to see if there was even a remote possibility of saving a life.

The team then devised a plan to have a demolition company use a large crane to try to make the area in which the victims were located safe for searchers by moving a collapsing escalator.

The rescue effort proved futile.

By the time searchers were able to get to the victims two days later and four days after the collapse — a process that involved removing the front of the building first — both Doloris Perizzolo, 74, and Lucie Aylwin, 37, were dead.

"She was covered with multiple layers of debris," he noted of Aylwin, who is believed to have survived the longest.

Under questioning, Neadles conceded the search and rescue team — known as Canada TF3 — had never deployed to a scene where there might have been survivors.

'I came to the belief that it wasn't a feasible operational risk for [mine rescuers].'—Bill Neadles,Toronto police staff inspector

He admitted never asking whether mine rescuers might have been able to save the victims, as some residents believed was possible.

While he did not know the capabilities of mine rescuers, he said they could not have safely entered the building.

"I came to the belief that it wasn't a feasible operational risk for them."

In the aftermath of the deployment, Neadles complained to a colleague that his career had been "chewed up" by media second-guessing of his decisions, the inquiry heard.

He also dismissed criticism that crane company owner Dave Selvers made at the inquiry earlier in the week that Canada TF3 had been "of no use whatsoever."

The comments were offensive, self-serving and self-aggrandizing, Neadles said.

"He wouldn't know what was going on," Neadles testified. "His perspective: it is what it is."

After the hearings wrap up in Elliot Lake next month, the commissioner will make recommendations on how to improve emergency response.

Neadles said he will be listening.


Compilation of video evidence from Elliot Lake Inquiry:


 

With files from Canadian Press