03/04/2013 04:00 EST | Updated 05/03/2013 05:12 EDT

Elliot Lake Mall Collapse: Inquiry Into Deadly Collapse Of Northern Ontario Mall Begins

ELLIOT LAKE, Ont. - Many people had the opportunity to prevent the deadly collapse of a mall in northern Ontario last summer but failed to do so, the inquiry into the disaster heard Monday.

In his opening comments as the hearing kicked off, lawyer Doug Elliott said there were several causes for the collapse but the tragedy should never have occurred.

"A shopping centre mall should not just fall down," said Elliott, who represents local citizens.

"We thought someone would do something before it was too late."

The judicial inquiry under Commissioner Paul Belanger formally began hearings Monday into the collapse of the Algo Centre Mall last June 23.

The probe will also be looking at whether the emergency response to the disaster was adequate.

Two women — Lucie Aylwin, 37, and Doloris Perizzolo, 74 — were killed when part of the roof-top garage caved in at the mall, which was a critical hub for the one-time uranium boom town of about 13,000.

"It was the heartbeat of the community," said Roland Aube, a longtime town lawyer and Elliott's co-counsel.

The roof-deck collapse and deaths of Aylwin and Perizzolo, Aube said, was "a serious blow to the citizens of Elliot Lake and one many believe could have been prevented."

As relatives of the victims and a few members of the community looked on, Belanger stressed in his opening statement that the aim of the probe is to find out why the roof-top garage caved in, not to find blame or legal fault.

"This is not a trial," Belanger said.

That didn't stop Elliott from pointing out the mall had a history of problems no one seemed to address properly. Nor did anyone pick up on the critical structural problems — likely caused by road-salt compounded corrosion — until it was too late.

"This tragedy represents a failure of the engineering profession of Ontario," Elliott said.

In fact, Elliott said, many people had the opportunity to prevent the tragedy but "failed to do so."

The lawyer, also a longtime resident of Elliot Lake, said everyone appeared to miss an obvious solution to the problem: close the garage to traffic.

Instead, he said, a series of Band-Aid solutions was tried, but "none of them ever worked."

Elliott also said maintenance of the leaky roof declined under the last of the mall's three sets of owners, Bob Nazarian, who has insisted he was blameless.

He also criticized the "long delay" on coming up with an alternative rescue strategy when the initial approach was deemed unsafe.

The rescue effort drew widespread criticism when rescuers said they were giving up shortly after announcing they had detected signs of life in the rubble.

Doug Kearns, who represents a local group that owned the mall before Nazarian bought it, expressed concern the inquiry could further traumatize the community if not handled properly.

"I realize that come September, the rest of you will all be gone and we'll be left here," Kearns said, looking around the room.

"I hope that you will keep mindful of the fact that Elliot Lake does need to be a better place when you leave."

For those who continue to experience pain from the events of last June 23, Belanger said a quiet room had been set up on the third floor on the newly renovated office building in which the hearings are being held.

The inquiry is expected to hear from as many as 75 witnesses over the next several months, with the expectation Belanger will deliver his report and recommendations by January 2014.

Commission counsel Peter Doody filed 1,884 numbered exhibits Monday, many with hundreds of attachments.

The first witness — an engineer who will offer an overview of the designing and constructing of a building — testifies Tuesday.

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