Plus, what the tragedy in Elliot Lake says about our country’s readiness to deal with catastrophes
In places like Elliot Lake (population 11,300), the locals like to say that everyone knows everyone. It’s not true, of course. Even the smallest of towns have strangers. But in this pocket of northern Ontario—where Lucie Aylwin was proudly born and raised—it’s hard to find someone who didn’t know her. An employment counsellor stationed at the Algo Centre Mall, the 37-year-old helped countless residents fine-tune their resumés and land a job. “She would help anybody,” says her fiancé, Gary Gendron. “If she wasn’t capable of doing it, she would find a way of doing it. She would never give up.”
On that Saturday afternoon, June 23, Aylwin was at work—not in her usual office, but at the lottery kiosk on the mall’s second floor, right across from the food court. With a wedding to plan, she took the weekend job to help pay the bills. “We had breakfast together,” Gendron recalls. “She gave me another big hug and a kiss and said: ‘I’ll see you at 6:30.’ ”
It was a few minutes past 2 o’clock when Doloris Perizzolo walked toward the lottery counter. The 74-year-old widow was a food-court regular, another familiar face among so many. Just days earlier, Perizzolo had won $1,000 on a “Money Multiplier” scratch ticket. She was back again to test her luck.
At a table nearby, John Marceau was sitting with three friends and a hot cup of coffee (one cream, one sugar) from Mum’s Place. “I didn’t even have time to drink nothing out of it,” says the 79-year-old. “Right in front of me, a big cement beam fell down. I was thrown about eight feet.” Jean-Marc Hayward was halfway through his own coffee when the room started to shake. “I heard a loud noise that got louder and louder,” he recalls. “I looked left and part of the roof came down. It seemed like it happened in slow motion.”
It didn’t. Before anyone could even react, a giant slab of concrete—12 m by 24 m—plummeted from the parking lot above, smashed into the lottery kiosk, and sliced through the second floor. “It felt like an earthquake,” says Josh Marshall, another shopper who narrowly survived. “Like someone smacked you in the ears.”
The first 911 call came in at 2:19 p.m.
Capt. John Thomas, a 16-year veteran of the Elliot Lake Fire Department, was among the initial rescue workers to rush inside. Red helmet on his head, an oxygen tank on his back, Thomas ran up a set of exterior stairs to what was left of the second floor. Looking up from the food court, he could see the sun shining through the roof. Down below, on the main level, was a pile of cement and other debris nearly 10 feet high. A silver Ford Explorer was among the rubble. “It was like a dream,” he says now. “But we had a job to do, and I went in mode.”
They pounced on the rubble—police, medics, firefighters (full-time and volunteer)—scouring for survivors. Is anybody here? Tell us where you are. It was Thomas who first heard the voice. “It was like a mumble, and it was really hard to distinguish the direction,” says Capt. Darren Connors, another firefighter who climbed the pile. “I was looking down a small triangular hole, trying to stuff my head in. The adrenalin is running through you so hard that you think you can move all that concrete—and you do your damndest to try.”
At one point, the team did manage to pick up a table-sized piece of cement, convinced that the voice was directly underneath. All they found was more debris.
The crew had no idea at the time, but the voice belonged to Lucie Aylwin. Amazingly, she had survived the collapse. Her customer, though, was not so fortunate. One of the firefighters found Doloris Perizzolo near the top of the pile, covered in concrete. Only a hand and a foot were visible. “I slid her watch up and tried to feel if I could get a pulse,” Thomas recalls. “She was cold to the touch.”
The men focused their attention back on the voice, moving anything that was light enough to lift. Bricks. Railings. Benches. Flowerpots. Using a sewer camera from the city’s public works department, firefighter Adam Vance tried to pinpoint their survivor. “I stuck that camera down every hole we could find,” he says. “There are pieces of rock falling, and you can hear little chunks of concrete hit and tang off some pipes. Things are moving and shifting, but we just kept going.”
For the rest of this article, please go to the Maclean’s Magazine website: http://www2.macleans.ca/2012/07/09/disaster-none-of-us-wanted-to-leave-it-was-heartbreaking/