TORONTO - The premier of Ontario is launching an independent public inquiry into the deadly roof collapse at a mall in Elliot Lake, as questions persist over whether an apparent lack of information sharing between the province and the city could have contributed to the tragic accident.
Two people were crushed to death when part of the roof came crashing down at the Algo Centre Mall on Saturday.
Residents have since complained that the mall was in shabby condition before the cave-in and have questioned the speed at which rescuers tried to reach those trapped in the rubble.
Premier Dalton McGuinty said the families of the victims and other Ontarians have raised "important questions that deserve to be answered."
"This is a difficult time for these families as they grieve their loved ones," McGuinty said late Friday in a statement.
"We have an obligation to do whatever we can to prevent similar tragedies and respond in the best way possible when they do happen."
A police officer, a firefighter and an engineer will be sifting through the debris at what's left of the mall to collect information which will aid the chief coroner and the Ministry of Labour in their investigations, officials said.
A ministry spokesman said the engineer won't, however, be looking into the cause of the roof collapse, which resulted in the deaths of Doloris Perizzolo and Lucie Aylwin.
"We don't have the authority to shut the building down, the city does," said Tom Zach, explaining it is the city's responsibility to enforce Ontario's building code.
"The structural integrity of this building — if there's any problems with the roofing — that's not something we as a ministry are looking at."
Asked whether changes are needed to better co-ordinate information about complaints regarding building safety, Zach replied: "That's a good question."
"I think part of this review will look at the different parties that are involved," he said, adding that a lot of information was shared during the rescue and recovery operation.
The ministry paid six visits to the Algo Centre Mall over the last three years; the latest one being in January when it received a complaint about a leak in the rooftop parking garage.
The inspector went to the site and found it covered in snow, making it difficult to determine the origin of any leaks, said Greg Dennis, a spokesman for Ontario Labour Minister Linda Jeffrey. The inspector found no health and safety violations and no orders were issued.
The inspector's report, released late Friday, noted that "leaks have occurred in the past despite a snow removal program which involves and includes rubber blades."
It also noted that an "ongoing maintenance program is in place to patch leaks and attempt to find source location."
"Eastwood Mall are evaluating their options and will be dealing with this problem on a permanent basis spring/summer 2012," it said.
Provincial inspectors were also called on Nov. 17, 2010, to investigate another complaint about leaky pipes in the washroom of the Foodland store, he said. It had been repaired when the inspector returned on Jan. 7, 2011.
The ministry engineer — who inspected the mall on Monday — will try to determine the safety of the building after emergency teams spent days dismantling it in order to reach the two victims killed in the collapse, said Dan Hefkey, Ontario's commissioner of community safety.
"At that point, what he's going to do is he's focusing on the how and the why," Hefkey said.
"So are there other structural issues further through the building, as well as figuring out at that site in question where we recovered the two bodies exactly the how and the why there."
Once that's done, the engineer will be able to give that information to the mall's owner, who will decide if the building will be torn down, Hefkey said.
A spokeswoman for the City of Elliot Lake was unavailable for comment Friday on whether the city had inspected the mall and what it found.
McGuinty has promised that his government will "carefully review" how it responded to the collapse.
And provincial opposition leaders have been pushing for answers, saying the public deserves to know exactly why the roof collapsed and what happened during the rescue and recovery efforts.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, whose party first made the call for an inquiry, welcomed McGuinty's announcement.
"We owe it to the people who lost their lives, the people of Elliot Lake and all Canadians to take an independent look at everything that led to this disaster and everything that happened after," she said in a statement.
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said he wants to know why rescue efforts were suspended on Monday, just hours after emergency workers heard signs of life amid the rubble.
"But there was some kind of screw-up and a serious one," he said.
"Questions need to be asked and answers need to be given. ... What happened? How are we going to fix this? Why did it take so long to get the equipment there? This is not the kind of action and result you'd expect in a province like Ontario in 2012."
Dennis, the Labour Ministry spokesman, also corrected erroneous information released by the ministry earlier this week about another visit to the mall on June 1, 2011.
The ministry initially said it received a complaint about a leaky roof, mould and an unsafe escalator. Dennis said in fact, there was no such complaint and the visit was merely a routine inspection of a hotel at the mall site.
The inspector issued orders related to the training of workers handling hazardous material and the reporting of the material.
Also on Friday, the chief coroner's office released the bodies of the victims to their families for funeral service.
The news came a day after Aylwin's fiance spoke publicly about the tragedy.
An emotional Gary Gendron said he didn't consider Aylwin's place of work a safe one.
"I think myself, that mall should have been closed a long time ago," he said Thursday. "People made a lot of complaints about the mall but nothing changed."