ELLIOT LAKE, Ont. - A hearing into the collapse of a mall's rooftop parking lot almost nine months ago begins Monday as a public inquiry delves into the tragedy that killed two women and left a community bereft.
The inquiry, expected to hear from as many as 75 witnesses and last into the summer, will attempt to shed light on why concrete and debris poured down on hapless Algo Centre Mall shoppers and staff last June 23.
The two-phased inquiry will also examine the adequacy of the emergency response and rescue efforts that were called off right after responders said they had detected signs of life in the rubble.
Commissioner Paul Belanger, who hopes to report by the end of January, has already stressed his mandate — as with all public inquiries — is to find out what happened, not to assign blame.
Still, assigning blame is important for the families of the two victims, Lucie Aylwin, 37, and Doloris Perizzolo, 74, who are suing several parties for their deaths.
"We're looking forward to the evidence that establishes who's at fault," said lawyer Roger Oatley, who speaks for the families.
"Armed with the evidence that we hear and see at the inquiry, we will know at whom we should be pointing the finger in our lawsuit."
If early indications are a guide, narrowing down responsibility for the collapse of a facility that was built in 1982 and changed hands several times will be tricky.
Among the central questions to be answered: Was the rooftop garage properly designed and constructed in the first place? Did engineers and city officials do their jobs? Did the three sets of owners, especially the last one, take sufficient action to address maintenance issues?
After all, residents had complained for years about leaks at the mall, an important shopping and services focal point for the community nestled in the rugged northern Ontario landscape.
Bob Nazarian, whose Eastwood Mall Inc. owned the Algo Centre when the roof caved in, maintains he is blameless.
"We do have evidence that water penetration from the same location was a problem before the construction was even completed in 1982," said Michael Title, the lawyer who speaks for Nazarian.
"It's a long, long trail and I doubt (the inquiry) is going to be very definitive in terms of cause or in terms of even drawing conclusions on how to prevent such a collapse in the future."
What is clear, Title insists, is that a series of engineering reports done since 2005 when Eastwood Mall bought the Algo Centre — including one done for the Royal Bank ahead of advancing a $3-million mortgage — rang no alarm bells.
"All of the reports that I've read would have convinced me that everything was fine," he said. "The structure was deemed structurally sound as late as May 2012."
Both Oatley and Title said they would be looking for a thorough examination of the way engineers work and the standard of care expected for their inspections.
The inspection component should resonate far beyond Elliot Lake, said Mark Green, an engineering professor at Queen's University.
"The biggest outcome would be investigating whether or not current inspection practices are appropriate," said Green.
Inquiries from an engineering magazine in the U.K. when the incident occurred is also a sign of wider interest in the inquiry, he said.
Peter Doody, one of Belanger's counsel, said he's confident the inquiry will be able to tell the story of the mall and its collapse with enough clarity to make recommendations aimed at averting a similar tragedy.
The inquiry's first witness is expected to provide an overview of designing and constructing a building.
After that, the hearing will proceed through the mall's history in chronological order, starting with its design.