08/23/2013 10:06 EDT | Updated 10/23/2013 05:12 EDT

Elliot Lake rescue communication 'frustrating'

Elliot Lake's fire chief says communication is the top thing that could have been improved during last summer’s rescue efforts at the collapsed Algo Centre Mall.

The fire chief there said officials should have come up with the plan on what the next steps would be before trying to explain to the families — and the public — that the rescue effort was over.

Paul Officer said it was "frustrating" the media continued to be told there was a list with so many missing people on it.

And even though a paramedic had confirmed one of the victims was dead, Officer said OPP decided not to tell the public there was a fatality — a move he said caused unnecessary speculation.

“I knew we didn't have 30 people trapped within the first hour [after the roof collapsed],” Officer said.

“I knew we had one fatality. I knew we had one potentially viable victim. If we're not getting it from the people in the know, then we are going to the guy on the corner. And that is exactly what happened.”

Officer says communication went from bad to worse when a news conference was hastily called to convey that the building was too dangerous to continue the rescue.

“I wanted to scream to the people, 'hey, we aren't finished here yet,' but I couldn't,” he said. “I didn't have those answers to move forward yet.”

‘Very angry’

After the roof fell, Elliot Lake fire fighters spent two hours digging through the debris zone.

When the building was deemed too unstable to continue, the rescue was briefly called off.

At that point, Officer said the Ministry of Labour wanted to order the mall owner to get a structural assessment within a week.

That would have to be completed before the bodies of the two women inside could be retrieved, Officer said. And it would have meant putting the recovery in the hands of the mall owner — an alternative that didn't sit well with Officer.

“Quite frankly, at this stage of the game, I am very angry on the direction that's taking place,” Officer said during testimony at the Elliot Lake Inquiry on Thursday.

“The option of putting an order on Mr. Nazarian — and with my dealings with him in the past, is really not an option to me. Those poor people would still be in there if that was the case.”

After people in the community expressed outrage that the rescue had been halted, then-Premier Dalton McGuinty intervened.

Officer said the emergency crew was then authorized to bring in a demolition crane to stabilize the debris, which allowed them to recover the two women.

The public inquiry was established in July 2012 by the Ontario government and has been underway in the community since March.

It was created to report on events surrounding the mall roof’s collapse on June 23, 2012, the deaths of Lucie Aylwin and Doloris Perizzolo, the injuries to others and the emergency management and response.

The public inquiry is expected to last until late October.