ELLIOT LAKE, Ont. — The specialized disaster team that deployed to the site of last year’s deadly mall collapse in northern Ontario came under withering criticism Tuesday over its role in the rescue operation.
In evidence 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 of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., was called in hours after part of the mall’s rooftop parking deck collapsed in the afternoon of 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.
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 such urban search and rescue teams in Canada that can respond to disaster situations.
But Selvers said TF3 did not have the needed equipment. Not did its personnel appear to understand anything about building construction yet they were reluctant to tap the expertise at hand.
He said he was surprised at the search team’s unwillingness 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 really doing nothing.”
Neadles, who began testifying after Selvers Tuesday, has yet to respond directly to the criticism.
In his early testimony, Neadles described the scramble to assemble his team — comprising Toronto police officers, firefighters and EMS personnel — on the Saturday afternoon of the collapse.
Pulling the members together was a matter of “who picked up the phone first,” he said.
Ultimately, they deployed on the seven-hour drive to Elliot Lake with about three dozen people, roughly half a full complement and no crane.
The team arrived in the early hours of Sunday in pouring rain with little detailed information about the situation on the ground.
“There is one confirmed female adult for recovery and a fluctuating and inconsistent number of potential unaccounted for persons,” he wrote in an update hours after arrival.
Neadles shocked the community two days after the collapse when he announced the rescue effort had been called off.
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.