Crashing concrete still haunts Elliot Lake mall collapse survivor

An Elliot Lake man who was just metres away from where the Algo Cenre mall roof gave way a year ago is still working to move past tragedy.

Elliot Lake man says memories of mall roof collapse remain vivid, one year later

Jean-Marc Hayward was sitting at a table in the Algo Centre Mall food court when the roof collapsed. He said debris hit everyone around him, but remarkably he was unharmed. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

The afternoon of June 23 last year started like any other for Elliot Lake's Jean-Marc Hayward.

"I was just going to grab a coffee and get my 6/49 for the day," he said, standing in front of bunches of artificial flowers that still serve as a memorial at the mall site, which is now just an empty dirt lot.

The mall was deemed unsafe after the partial roof collapse last summer and was demolished.

"It's hard to believe that last year, at this time, there was a building ... people were still going to," Hayward said.

Bunches of artificial flowers still mark the site where people gathered in the hours and days following the deadly roof collapse at the Algo Centre Mall. The mall has been demolished. (CBC)

Hayward, who was in the Algo Centre mall food court, was about to walk over to purchase a lottery ticket when the ticket booth disappeared into a rush of concrete, steel and dust.

"All of a sudden I heard a rumbling sound. I looked to my left and there was a big slab of concrete coming down from the ceiling," he recalled.

"Believe it or not, everybody around me got hit with debris and sludge and muck and whatever."

Remarkably, Hayward was not hurt.

"I inhaled a lot of dust," he said. "I took in a lot and was coughing up a lot of stuff."

Memories haunt

Hayward said he was frozen in place for about 10 seconds. He remembers telling himself not to panic while he made his way to a nearby door.

Hayward walks with some difficulty because he has a condition known as dwarfism.

Once safely outside — and in a state he described as shock — he went back into the mall because he forgot his cellphone.

He wanted to make sure his daughter, who was supposed to be at the beach, had not changed her mind and gone to the mall.

Covered in dust, the phone was still sitting on the food court table. He picked it up and shot some of video. He later uploaded it to YouTube, where it has been viewed nearly 200,000 times.

"I was walking underneath that escalator that they were so worried about, that they had to take out before they decided it was safe enough to recover the bodies."

"I had a hard time talking about it for the longest time. It took me a while, maybe two or three months, before that loud crash finally went away," he said.  "I had trouble sleeping."

Hayward said he still speaks with a counsellor as he works to move on.

"That's my experience and I hope it's something I never experience again."

Public inquiry difficult to watch

A public inquiry started in March with a mandate to uncover the events that led to the fatal roof collapse, and to understand what happened during rescue efforts in the days that followed.

The commissioner, Justice Paul Belanger, will make recommendations on how to prevent future tragedies. The hearings are scheduled to continue through September, followed by court cases that could take years to resolve.

There are lingering questions about how the roof could fall in a building that served as a public space — a building assessed by engineers and inspected by city and provincial officials.

Hayward said he sometimes follows the testimony at the inquiry.

"I never heard about inspectors or anything until afterwards," he said. "I assumed if something was wrong they would do something about it, you know?"

Evidence that indicates some turned a blind eye to decades of leaking at the mall — so extensive people dubbed the mall Algo Falls — is the most difficult to watch, Hayward said.

"I understand why it was kept open. [It was] the main economy that kept Elliot Lake going," he said. 

"But also it took two lives."

On Sunday, people in Elliot Lake will gather at the former mall site and observe a moment of silence at exactly 2:18 p.m., in memory of the two women who died: 37-year-old Lucie Aylwin and 74-year-old Doloris Perizzolo.