'Goosebumps, chills, disappointment': Elliot Lake reacts to 'not guilty' mall collapse ruling

There is a sense of emptiness in Elliot Lake, Ont. after the only person criminally charged in connection the deadly 2012 Algo Centre Mall collapse was exonerated and people are wondering if any one will be held responsible.

Former engineer Robert Wood cleared of criminal negligence in relation to 2012 Algo Centre Mall collapse

The memorial for Lucie Aylwin and Doloris Perizzolo in Elliot Lake, Ont. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

New flowers were placed at the memorial for Lucie Aylwin and Doloris Perizzolo in Elliot Lake, Ont., by relatives one day after the only person criminally charged in connection to the roof collapse that caused their deaths was exonerated. 

Former engineer Robert Wood was found not guilty of two counts of criminal negligence causing death and one count of criminal negligence causing bodily harm on June 1 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

"I was standing in the local grocery store when that announcement came through a friend of mine," Pastor Alice Forest of Grace Christian Church in Elliot Lake, Ont., said.

"All of us standing there in the little circle talking had goosebumps, chills, disappointment."

'A lot of hope that this dark chapter in our community would be closed'

Wood declared the Algo Centre Mall structurally sound two months before a portion of its rooftop parking deck gave way onto shoppers. 

The Crown submitted dozens of photos of rust, plaster oozing and tarps hanging from the building's ceiling collecting water.

Justice Edward Gareau told the court it is evident that the shopping centre leaked since the day it opened in 1980.

Yet, Gareau said it is conceivable that Wood, who has over 30 years of engineering experience, did not believe the mall's conditions were unsafe, and that this assessment would be made out of "poor judgment" not malice. 

"It's tough," Elliot Lake Mayor Dan Marchisella said.

"There was a lot of hope that this dark chapter in our community would be closed."

New lawn signs: 'Mr. Wood ... Walks'

Marchisella, who said he is close to Perizzolo's family, was moving back to Elliot Lake from Petawawa, Ont., when the 2012 roof collapse happened. 

He stayed and ran for mayor to help people after experiencing the city's profound loss. 

"The hope is that sometime in the future we will see some form of justice being served," Marchisella said.

"Some closure for our families."

Long-time Elliot Lake resident Ed Eckert has already erected signs on his front lawn about the ruling that read "Mr. Wood ... Walks."

"Winners: Judges, lawyers government paper pushers," Eckert's sign said.

"Losers: Citizens of Elliot Lake again."

The guinea pig?

It will take time and justice for people to find closure from the mall collapse, according to Eckert. 

"Elliot Lake will never get over it," Eckert said. "Everybody you talk to is upset."

Eckert said he was not surprised that Wood was exonerated because the former engineer was, in Eckert's view, "tossed under the bus."

John Price, another Elliot Lake resident, also holds that view. 

"Poor Robert Wood was the guinea pig," Price said.

"I'm sure that the judge looked at everything and say that Robert Wood wasn't alone in the problem with the mall collapse."

But many people are still taken aback by the decision.

'Doesn't mean somebody isn't morally responsible'

"It's just very upsetting," Elliot Lake resident Ashley Hanna said. 

"Nobody's been held accountable ... I think part of us will never, ever heal to be honest."

Forest said she has repeatedly counseled people over the past five years who still struggle with hearing loud bangs and booms in a structure.

She said she encourages people to forgive, but said that there can only be reconciliation if there is truth and the community is still searching for people to own up to the 2012 disaster. 

"Just because legally nobody can be held responsible for this, it doesn't mean that somebody isn't morally responsible," Forest said.

"I believe there are a lot of people who have gone to bed many, many nights feeling guilty, but have never been able to express that they felt somewhat responsible because there was no safe place to say that."


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: