The Algo Centre Mall disaster – A first-hand account from the last to leave

by Alicia McCutcheon

ELLIOT LAKE—Thoughts are with the people of Elliot Lake this week as they struggle to come to terms with tragedy after a portion of the roof of the Algo Centre Mall collapsed Saturday afternoon, leaving one person confirmed dead and tens more feared missing under the rubble.

On Monday afternoon, fears worsened when, under an order from the Ontario Ministry of Labour, the search and rescue mission was called off and deemed a demolition and recovery mission, meaning all hope of survival had been snuffed out.

Judy Lafleur, whose parents were the former proprietors of Manitowaning’s Wayside Motel, was the last person to leave the badly damaged mall on Saturday.

She told The Expositor that Saturday was spent working at the mall restaurant, Mum’s Place. Just before 2:30 in the afternoon, Ms. Lafleur headed for the lottery kiosk to chat with a friend who runs the booth. The friend was complimenting Ms. Lafleur on Facebook photos of her wedding only one week before, to former Little Current resident Mike Robinson. When she noticed the line for lottery tickets getting long, Ms. Lafleur left her friend to her job, she explained. Only feet from the kiosk, she heard a deafening roar, one she likened to the sound of a freight train bearing down on the mall, and began to run. Turning back to look, Ms. Lafleur watched in horror as two cars and a slab of concrete fell on top of her friend.

“I watched it all,” she lamented. “She has no idea what hit her. I’m 99.9 percent certain she’s dead.”

Ms. Lafleur said she has no idea of the fate of the 15-20 people who surrounded the lottery kiosk and whether or not they managed to run for cover, she was so focussed on her dear friend.

“One minute we’re standing there talking, the next minute the sky is open,” she continued. “There was water, debris and concrete everywhere.”

Ms. Lafleur’s new husband also works in the mall, in the Foodland located on the second level. Her first instinct was to make sure he was okay then she got down to the business of helping those around her.

“We (she and her boss) helped to get the seniors out who were sitting in the food court when it happened,” she continued. “There was one old man who was hit by a piece of asphalt, he was hurt pretty badly and there was blood everywhere, and we got him out.”

“You could hear the screams, ‘please help me, please help’,” Ms. Lafleur recalled, a tremor in her voice. “I’ll never forget that. For as long as I live, I’ll never forget.”

Ms. Lafleur and her family attended the afternoon press conference where the community first learned that there was no hope for survival of the missing.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” she said. “We didn’t get a lot of answers. I’m so lost for words.”

What makes the cancellation of search and rescue plans even more devastating is the fact a known survivor had been located under the rubble Sunday. Crews were elated to hear the sound of tapping from within the rubble, indicating there was a survivor, news reports said. Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes explained to The Expositor that while the tapping had stopped, search and rescue was able to determine that the person was still alive Monday afternoon due to the detection of breathing.

Ms. Lafleur noted that not only does her community have to deal with the loss of life, but also that there are approximately 500 people who work in the mall who are now without jobs for the time being, and in her case, that goes for both her and her husband.

“We’ll never get through this, never,” she said firmly.

The Expositor contacted MP Hughes, whose constituency office, shared with Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Michael Mantha, moved to the mall just one month ago.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of those are still missing,” she said. “We’re staying positive that someone will be found alive.”

Ms. Hughes had attended Monday’s noon press conference where it was confirmed that one person—the person whose arm and leg was spotted by rescuers and reported in the news—had died.

According to previous articles from the Elliot Lake Standard, concerns regarding the integrity of the mall’s structure has been of concern to citizens for years, with a leaky roof plaguing mall businesses. However, the Standard reported, the mall’s owners had a major reconstruction of the roof done several years ago due to the leaks. A spokesperson for the mall’s owners told the CBC Monday that $1 million had been spent on renewing the facility not long ago.

The mood in Elliot Lake is somber, but still hopeful. Ms. Hughes noted that those who gathered outside the mall to watch the deconstruction process and await good news from within give a loud cheer every time a portion of the crumbled structure is removed, encouraged by the slow process.

Ms. Hughes called the mall “the heart of the community.”

At 10 pm Monday, citizens of the city began to mobilize, refusing to let the search falter, a news report states. With the group ready to take matters into their own hands, Mr. Mantha adressed the crowd, calming their fears and assuring them he would do everything in his power to see the search for survivors resume. As of press time Monday, 20 people were still reported as missing by their families.

“Two days ago, a tragic accident in my community united us in shock and in grief,” a late night release from MPP Mantha said. “Since then our community has been united in efforts to save every life we can. Earlier today, my community learned that rescue efforts were being abandoned and we are, once again, united in shock, in grief and in outrage.”

“I cannot believe that a mere 48 hours after these tragic events, there is nothing further to do,” the MPP continued. “I don’t accept it. The people of Elliot Lake don’t accept it and I don’t believe Canadians will accept it.”

“We cannot leave people behind while there is hope,” he continued. “The premier must take all steps needed to continue the effort and we have contacted the prime minister’s office to ensure that federal resources are deployed as well. This is not the time to give up. This is the time redouble our efforts.

By Monday evening, Premier Dalton McGuinty had weighed in on the topic, saying in a statement, “I believe we owe it to the families waiting for word of their loved ones to leave no stone unturned. We owe that to the people of Elliot Lake too. Ontarians expect nothing less.”

According to a report from the CBC, the premier’s statement came as the search and rescue team were investigating “more extreme mechanical measures” to stabilize the structure and restart the search.

Ms. Hughes explained that the mall housed many important services, such as the Algoma District Social Services, Algoma Public Health and Service Canada, as well as the constituency offices of both Mr. Mantha and herself.

“Our doorstep is right where it collapsed—all that’s left is the railing,” she said, noting that all calls are being redirected to her Ottawa office.

Ms. Hughes added that the Elliot Lake Chamber of Commerce has “stepped up to the plate” to help the businesses and employees affected by the tragedy.

“We’re seeing a community that’s working to pull together,” she added.

Constable Al Boyd, community services officer with the Manitoulin OPP, told The Expositor Monday that two officers from Manitoulin, both members of the search and rescue and response team, were on hand to assist with the search.