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Calls for public inquiry into mall collapse, coroner and ministry probe underway

There are calls for a public inquiry after two bodies were pulled from a caved-in mall in the northern Ontario city of Elliot Lake.

Both the public and the devastated community need to know why the roof of the Algo Shopping Centre collapsed Saturday and whether everything possible was done over the following four days to locate the victims, Ontario New Democrat Mike Mantha said Thursday.

Mantha, whose constituency office was in the mall, said there were numerous complaints from local residents about the mall’s condition.

“The basic question is: why did this happen and why was this permitted to happen?” he said.

“It’s not only what has happened over the course of this weekend that has really frustrated individuals, it’s many years of development for a long time leading to this.”

Premier Dalton McGuinty said the regional coroner’s office is conducting a probe of the two deaths with the assistance of provincial police. The Ministry of Labour, which visited the mall six times in the last three years, is also investigating.

McGuinty’s also promised that the province will “carefully review” how it responded to the tragedy.

The history of the mall will also be under “intense review,” he said after a meeting with Mayor Rick Hamilton.

“Once those preliminary investigations have been conducted, we’ll be in a better position to determine what kind of review we need to put in place to provide people with assurance that things that need to be done, were in fact done,” McGuinty said.

“Or if they weren’t done, keep our minds open to this possibility to draw what lessons we can from that.”

The ministry said officials paid six visits to mall over the last three years, most of which related to complaints about reported leaky pipes, a leaky roof, mould, and an unsafe escalator. But no orders related to those complaints were issued.

A lawyer representing the mall’s owner, Richard Nazarian, said Thursday that the mall was inspected on a regular basis.

Antoine Rene Fabris said the company had spent more than $1 million in renovations. He said the matter “will undoubtedly lead to litigation,” adding the company has received notice of a class-action lawsuit, but declined to provide further details.

Fabris said Nazarian, who was not present at the news conference in Elliot Lake, has received threats. The owners are waiting to take possession of the mall from the Ministry of Labour that is currently preparing a structural stability report, Fabris said.

Questions have also been swirling about the effectiveness of the rescue missions, and whether anything more could have been done to save lives.

The inquiry also needs to address why there was an apparent breakdown in communication about the rescue efforts, Mantha said.

The search was believed to have been called off on Monday but reinstated after community members protested and McGuinty spoke to the search-and-rescue team.

Officials insist the suspension was never meant to be permanent, adding dangerous conditions within the building would have endangered the 37 crew members tasked with saving any survivors.

Yet residents were led to believe that they had given up when that wasn’t the case at all, Mantha said.

“There was a breakdown somewhere in leadership or somewhere in the communication,” he said.

McGuinty may have added to the confusion when he issued a statement late Monday saying he’d “instructed” provincial officials and the rescue team to find out if there was another way to reach the victims, Mantha said.

The premier tried to clarify the events of Monday night, saying the rescue team had to switch to Plan B when they realized their resources weren’t enough to continue the search.

Rescuers spent two days sifting through the debris and using sophisticated equipment to try to clear a path to anyone who may have survived when a roof came crashing down through the two-storey building.

Generally search and rescue teams are reluctant to use heavy equipment because it’s less easy to manipulate and therefore more risk involved in moving heavy pieces of the structure, McGuinty said.

“Maybe one of lesson that we can draw together from this is that in future we need to make sure that we have heavy equipment standing by, just in case the usual process for extracting people who are caught up in rubble doesn’t pay dividends and we’ve got to turn to heavy equipment,” he said.

In the end, however, the rescue mission became a recovery operation.

Police have not officially released the names of the two people recovered from the mall, but McGuinty has referred to them as Doloris and Lucie.

Retired miner Rejean Aylwin has previously said he feared his daughter Lucie was trapped inside the wreckage.

The province is also offering financial help to the devastated community to help relocate businesses and social services and offer support to those who’ve lost their jobs.