06/21/2013 10:00 EDT | Updated 08/21/2013 05:12 EDT

Elliot Lake, Ont., residents set to mark one-year anniversary of mall collapse

ELLIOT LAKE, Ont. - A lone bulldozer stands idly at the side of what looks to be a gravel pit in the middle of a town that one year ago stood watching in shock and disbelief.

The site is clear now of the rubble that blighted the area since part of the Algo Centre Mall caved in, killing two women, injuring several others, and decimating Elliot Lake's social hub.

"It took a long time for people to get over it," says resident Katherine Demers. "It devastated the whole community pretty badly."

What now seems so painfully obvious is that the disaster was decades in the making, a tragedy some residents feared would happen but most refused to believe could happen.

For much of the past year, a judicial inquiry has been plugging away, looking to explain how and why part of the roof-top parking deck caved in on hapless staff and shoppers last June 23, sparking a frantic but fruitless search of the rubble for survivors.

Days later, searchers pulled the bodies of Lucie Aylwin, 37, and Doloris Perizzolo, 74, from the mall's twisted remains.

More than 60 witnesses have testified. The inquiry, expected to cost upwards of $15 million, has seen photographs of rusted support beams, videos, animations and models. It's heard hundreds of hours of testimony.

"We're making very good headway on all the issues," says commission lawyer Bruce Carr-Harris, who calls the deaths "needless."

"The mall rotted away in front of everybody. It's an extraordinary rarity that something like this could happen."

Why the rotting occurred has become self-evident.

Badly designed and constructed, the parking deck was never properly waterproofed, allowing water, snow melt and road salt to penetrate joints in the concrete and rain down into the stores below.

Some users dubbed it the Algo Falls, and joked about taking an umbrella when shopping. Some refused to park on the deck. Most people, however, trusted the leaks would be fixed, eventually. They never were.

Through a succession of owners, inspections and patches, the leaking continued. No one, it seems, had the will or money to make the drastic repairs that would have saved the structure.

Ultimately, steel supports and in particular a single weld — looking as if they had been submerged in seawater for years — crumbled and gave way.

"I'd really like to know how that was allowed to happen," says resident Jef Culic.

"We'll never forget. Definitely, it was a big hit for the town. It's a pretty small closely knit community."

In a few weeks, the final witnesses of Part 1 of the inquiry into the causes of the collapse will testify, including the mall's third and last owner, Bob Nazarian.

Several witnesses have testified Nazarian was unwilling to undertake the costly renovations necessary, that he ordered an engineering inspection report prepared just seven weeks before the collapse to be altered to downplay the state of disrepair.

Earlier this month, the discredited engineer who did that last inspection, Bob Wood, spent two days trying to explain why he missed the seemingly obvious.

"I have over 40 years of looking at rusted steel and I did not see anything that gave me any concern," said Wood, who is facing charges under provincial health and safety laws.

"They don't care what they do, as long as they get paid," said Edwin Nichols after hearing that testimony.

While the Aylwin and Perizzolo families are suing the province, the mall owner, the city, and the engineers who said the centre was safe, residents hesitate when asked who they blame for the collapse.

Over the years, so many people had a hand in the pending tragedy, or should have lifted a hand to try to forestall it, they say.

On Sunday, residents will mark the one-year anniversary of the collapse with a "remembering together" memorial at which doves are slated to be released.

Some people, however, are fed up with the attention the tragedy has visited on the quiet town of about 13,000 nestled among the north's lakes and treed hills.

"Get out of here!" one man growled recently at a reporter. "I'm sick of you media always stirring things up."

Most, however, seem content to wait for the inquiry to unravel the tangle of who did what and report out early next year, even though its mandate is not to assign blame or liability.

First, later this summer, the commission will hear evidence about the adequacy of emergency response to the collapse.

Among Part 2 witnesses will be former premier Dalton McGuinty, who intervened when the search effort was called off within hours of rescuers saying they had detected signs of life in the rubble.

Provincial police, too, are investigating to see if anyone committed any crimes.

In the interim, residents are pinning their hopes on a new mall under construction a stone's throw from where the old one once stood. It's one thing they agree on: they can't wait for it to be built.

"It sure has changed life around here without that mall around," says Mike Riding.

"I'll be looking forward to getting that new one put up."

Demers agrees people are anxious to see the new mall. She also hopes the town does something with the forlorn site of the former mall, perhaps set up a memorial.

"Hopefully they do something nice with that property," Demers says.