Rescue crews are preparing for a controlled demolition inside a collapsed mall where at least two people are trapped in the northern Ontario town of Elliot Lake in the hopes that it will make the structure safe to enter.
A large specialized crane and a small fleet of heavy equipment from Priestly Demolition Inc. arrived Tuesday evening to the small northern Ontario town, where rescue efforts have continued after Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty insisted officials take on extreme measures.
Residents let out a cheer as the colossal yellow machine, which has a reach of 45 metres and took three trucks to transport from Toronto, rolled up to the mall along a road that has been paved especially for it.
Officials believe there are 12 people still unaccounted for who may still be caught underneath the rubble, an estimated number that has dropped from 30 announced on Monday.
Priestly Demolition, a major Toronto construction firm, brought a “brand new, multi-million dollar” piece of equipment that can lift portions of the broken roof and heavy pieces of debris, providing access to those trapped under the Algo Centre Mall.
The “articulating” arm is capable of reaching over top of the crumbled structure, lifting and removing pieces within a 50-metre reach.
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“It seems like Transformers kind of stuff, but that’s what they’re ensuring it can do,” said Bill Neadles of the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team.
The rescue team plans to dismantle the escalator within the mall, pushing it backwards so it falls over.
“It will be a controlled maneuver and will fall away from victims on the floor,” Neadles explained. Next, engineers will assess the safety of the structure while crews cut through the front entrance of the mall.
Victims are about 10 to 15 metres from the front doors.
A slab of concrete fell over the escalator, making it difficult and dangerous to access. It’s unclear when unsteady beams could give in, threatening a second collapse.
“It is a safety hazard,” Ontario Provincial Police Insp. Percy Jollymore said.
Jollymore said that the number of missing people now stands at about 12, compared to Monday’s 30.
Calls are pouring in across Canada, making it difficult to estimate how many people may be trapped. The number of people missing doesn’t necessarily equate to the number of those trapped, he noted. These people are unaccounted for.
“We’re really looking for people that they believe could be in the mall,” Jollymore said.
Elliot Lake Mayor Rick Hamilton said he grieves with the town’s residents and assured them that officials are doing what they can to help rescue anyone who may still be alive beneath the rubble.
“Someone said yesterday we can’t leave any person behind. We all agree, we will do anything and everything,” he said.
Earlier today, emergency crews returned to the site deemed too dangerous after McGuinty intervened, urging officials who had abandoned their search to continue their rescue mission.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has also stepped in, offering federal assistance to the city after he spoke with McGuinty late Monday night.
Although the federal government has pledged to help, officials are being told Ontario has the capacity to manage the situation and does not need the resources the Canadian Forces has to offer, a government source told Global News.
That said, the government and military are ready to jump if a request is received.
Should that time come, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’s office will take the lead on the federal effort to help.
“We stand ready to assist as required,” the minister’s spokeswoman Julie Carmichael said, describing the situation as tragic.
Neadles said the military is on standby but has not been formally called in.
It was a sweet and solemn victory for the northern Ontario community, reeling from the Saturday afternoon incident when the roof collapsed, raining down in a thunderous crash that injured at least 22 people. One person was confirmed dead.
When officials called off their search once they determined the site would be too hazardous to enter, the town, with a population of 11,500 people, turned their candlelight vigils and prayers into protests.
“Rescue missions never end, save our families, save our friends,” the crowd chanted outside the crippled building. Some residents told reporters they hoped their screams and whistles would help possible survivors that they wouldn’t give up until they are saved.
Some had even threatened to enter the building themselves.
McGuinty told The Canadian Press that he sympathized with the town.
“If my son was in there or my wife or a brother or a sister or a close friend, I would want no stone left unturned,” the premier said.
“It may be that there’s only a slim chance of success, but I think we owe it to the families especially that we give it a shot and do the best that we can,” he said.
In an update yesterday, Ontario Provincial Police said that about 30 people were still missing. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they are trapped; they’re unaccounted for, inspectors clarified.
It’s unclear how many people are still outstanding. Officers had said the number fluctuates as phone calls pour in from concerned family members.
They said “life detector machines” – similar to x-ray technology – found “signs of life” earlier on Monday. Tapping sounds had been heard coming from beneath the rubble, a cryptic sign that survivors were still hanging on.
Bill Neadles of the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Team told reporters that crews were facing the threat of a second collapse within the fragile structure.
The two-storey centre was built in the early 1980s and received a passing grade last month following a structural examination, according to Eastwood Mall Inc., which owns the mall.
The mall houses a grocery store, restaurants and a number of retail outlets. A hotel is also attached to the centre.
At the scene is a tangled mess of twisted metal and concrete supports protruding from the rubble. A gas leak was triggered, forcing emergency officials to cut power to the mall and at the peak of the tragedy, a local state of emergency was declared.
The roof had some minor maintenance repairs to prevent leaks, but there were no “substantial renovations” underway, a source told The Canadian Press.
With files from The Canadian Press