Rescue operation underway

ELLIOT LAKE, Ont. — Rescue crews are gearing up to start dismantling part of a collapsed shopping mall in this northern Ontario city in a renewed bid to rescue at least two people trapped inside.

ELLIOT LAKE, Ont. — Rescue crews are gearing up to start dismantling part of a collapsed shopping mall in this northern Ontario city in a renewed bid to rescue at least two people trapped inside.

The risky plan — which has won support from both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty — would see a robotic arm deliberately topple some of the more fragile structures within the rubble of the Algo Centre Mall.

Bill Needles of the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team said a precariously balanced escalator whose imminent collapse turned would-be rescuers away from the site on Monday will now be demolished under strict supervision.

A specialized machine currently en route from Toronto will knock the escalators away from the victims, he said.

“Once we get this machine set up in front of the building, the arm will be able to reach up over top of the structure and plop itself down right on the floor,” Needles said. “It seems like that’s kind of ”Transformers“ kind of stuff, but that’s what they’re assuring me we can do.”

Once the escalator is out of the way, crews will clear a path from the door at the south corner of the building, he said.

The two victims are believed to be lying within 12 metres of that entrance and will be removed if structural engineers give crews the green light to enter.

Officials stressed, however, that the likelihood of finding survivors is increasingly slim.

No one has detected signs of life since Monday morning, Needles said, adding the prognosis is not positive.

“Our doctor has indicated to us that the remote chance that there is still someone that has survived based on the information that we supplied him, he was of the opinion that it probably was a very slim ability for that person to remain alive,” Needles said.

At least one person is confirmed dead after the roof of the shopping mall crashed through the two-storey building on Saturday afternoon. More than 20 people were injured, none of them seriously.

Earlier in the day, both McGuinty and Elliot Lake residents voiced their determination to assist the rescue effort despite the disheartening odds.

“I thought it was important that we exercise every option, explore every possibility,” McGuinty said. “I’m sure if that was your mom or your daughter or your brother, if somebody came to you and said, ’how far should we push,’ I think we’d all say we need to go as far as we possibly can to rescue these individuals.

Community members agreed. Buoyed by renewed hope of saving survivors, they began organizing groups of volunteers willing to help with the operation.

Local residents were quick to voice their outrage on Monday after officials called off the rescue effort, loudly condemning crews for walking away from the operation too soon.

Rescuers had detected signs of life inside the mall earlier in the day, but aborted the search hours later after determining a secondary collapse was imminent.

That decision did not sit well with residents of this former mining hub, who gathered at city hall to voice their displeasure within moments of the announcement.

Among those hit hardest by the news was Rejean Aylwin, who said he believes his daughter Lucie Aylwin is inside.

“They just gave up,” Aylwin said on Monday.

“It doesn’t make sense. You can’t give up. You’ve got to keep going until you find them.”

Aylwin said he worked in a mine for 35 years and that culture among miners was to never leave someone to perish underground.

On Tuesday morning, at least 70 people had volunteered to assist with the renewed rescue effort.

Michael Croke said they’re well-acquainted with the perils of such efforts.

The list of volunteers includes at least 30 former miners such as himself, as well as dozens of younger people willing to help remove rubble.

“We’re not going in there blind and stupid,” said Croke. “We’ll go in there and do the same that they’re doing. We’ll check it out. But we also know the mall. Even though there’s danger overhead, if you’re in the rescue business, you’ve got to expect that kind of danger.”

Catherine Timleck-Shaw said rescuers must remain optimistic if only for the sake of those who may have survived.

“As far as we’re concerned, there’s someone alive in there. And that person has a right to live,” she said.

McGuinty said community members have the support of the entire province.

“They’re not alone. We are 13 million Ontarians strong. They are part of the family,” he said. “They have our prayers, but more than that, they have our active support.”