ELLIOT LAKE, Ont. - The commander in charge of the disaster team that deployed to last summer's mall collapse apologized Thursday for "gaps" in its performance but stood by his decision to call off the rescue when he did.
Toronto police Staff Insp. Bill Neadles also insisted the team did everything it could have done.
"I just would like to apologize to the families if they felt we weren't doing the best we could and to apologize to the town," Neadles told the inquiry into the tragedy.
"Every effort that we were at the time capable of performing, we believed we performed to our best abilities."
At the same time, Neadles conceded there "probably are gaps" but he did not elaborate.
Relatives of the two women killed when the rooftop parking deck caved in and many in the community were furious when Neadles halted the rescue operation hours after signs of life were detected in the rubble.
Some accused his Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team of simply abandoning the victims.
"We extended our capabilities and then, because of some gapping there, it appeared that we had left them and that wasn't our intention," he said.
On his third day on the stand, Neadles was adamant his decision to halt the search two days after the collapse was the right one given the extreme dangers posed by the unstable building.
He would have made the same call, he said, even if he had known for certain someone was still alive in the rubble, given the risk to his team members.
"Putting them in harm's way, I just can't do that, liability-wise nor morally," he said.
"It's a hard decision to make, but I would still make that same decision."
Hours after Neadles halted the search, then-premier Dalton McGuinty asked him in a late evening phone call to see if there was even a remote possibility of saving a life.
The team then devised a plan to have a demolition company use a large crane to try to make the area of the victims safe for searchers by moving a collapsing escalator.
The rescue effort proved futile.
By the time searchers were able to get to the victims two days later and four days after the collapse — a process that involved removing the front of the building first — both Doloris Perizzolo, 74, and Lucie Aylwin, 37, were dead.
"She was covered with multiple layers of debris," he noted of Aylwin, who is believed to have survived the longest.
Under questioning, Neadles conceded the search and rescue team — known as Canada TF3 — had never deployed to a scene where there might have been survivors.
He admitted never asking whether mine rescuers might have been able to save the victims, as some residents believed was possible.
While he did not know the capabilities of miners, he said they could not have safely entered the building.
"I came to the belief that it wasn't a feasible operational risk for them."
In the aftermath of the deployment, Neadles complained to a colleague that his career had been "chewed up" by media second-guessing of his decisions, the inquiry heard.
He also dismissed criticism crane company owner Dave Selvers made at the inquiry earlier in the week that Canada TF3 had been "of no use whatsoever."
The comments were offensive, self-serving and self-aggrandizing, Neadles said.
"He wouldn't know what was going on," Neadles testified. "His perspective: it is what it is."