The lingering grief was palpable at an informal public meeting of the judicial inquiry they hope will explain why the tragedy struck them almost two months ago.
As Commissioner Paul Belanger listened, several residents spoke as if the family home had burned down.
"The emotional impact is going to be long-term for many people in this community," said long-time resident Fran Perkins, who was in the mall on June 23.
Speakers noted just how central the mall was to their daily lives — as both a shopping destination but also a favoured place to meet, exchange chat, share a coffee, or catch up with the world at the library.
The partial collapse of the rooftop garage not only killed two people, it also destroyed 60 per cent of the town's retail space, including several lower-cost stores.
Some residents noted that scores of younger people had lost their jobs, while others talked about the difficulty and expense of getting to surrounding communities to buy everyday items such as socks or underwear.
Formal hearings are expected to begin early next year as the commission seeks to find out why Algo Centre Mall collapsed and the emergency response, and to make recommendations aimed at preventing a recurrence.
In his opening remarks, Belanger said the inquiry's task is to find out what happened, but not to assign blame.
"This distinction can be frustrating for members of the public who want to see the perceived wrongdoers penalized," Belanger said.
"Punishment or penalty may follow but not as part of the public inquiry itself."
Belanger also expressed his condolences to the community, saying the tragedy "shook all Ontarians and all Canadians."
For Gary Gendron, whose fiancee Lucie Aylwin, 37, died in the rubble, the loss has only become more acute.
"It's harder now than what it was when they took her body out on the 27th of June," Gendron said after the meeting.
"It's setting in that she's not coming back home."
Gendron was to meet privately with Belanger, as were relatives of the other victim, Doloris Perizzolo, 74.
Michael Mantha, the area's member of the provincial legislature, spoke eloquently of the central role the mall played in people's lives, and said the burning question is whether the tragedy was preventable.
Others wondered why nothing was done about the mall earlier. Residents had complained about its condition, alleging a leaky roof and unsafe escalator were well-known features of the building.
"(Where) do you report a mess like we had with the mall," said Bruce Clarke. "All the residents of Elliot Lake knew how bad it was."
In a statement, Eastwood Mall Inc., owners of the Algo Centre, said they were unaware of any structural issues that could have led to the "surprising" roof collapse.
"The owners of the mall have no information or knowledge as to how this event occurred," the statement said.
The statement dismissed as "rumours" talk in town that the owners "knew of a danger, ignored the warnings concerning the roof, yet chose to do nothing."
However, residents will have to wait at least a year for the answers — once the inquiry has reported its findings. Some queried why it would take so long.
"We're trying to do this in the quickest most effective way that we can," commission co-counsel Bruce Carr-Harris said.
"We have an awful lot of work to gather evidence and materials."
Some residents expressed anger at Mayor Rick Hamilton and council for being largely invisible. Hamilton declined a media interview without explanation.
Commission lawyers have spent the past few days getting to know the town.
Among other things, they met privately with town council on Tuesday and paid a visit to the collapsed mall, peering at the rubble through the emergency fencing.
Some residents wondered aloud if hoarding could be put around the site to screen it from view, while Gendron said he wished they would simply clean up the mess.
"I hope they tear it down as soon as possible," Gendron said. "Even going for a walk with the dog in that area is hard."
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