One Step From Death

Cet article provient du magazine Maclean’s. Il est uniquement disponible en anglais.

Last summer, Canadians held their collective breath as emergency workers tried in vain to reach two women buried in the rubble of a collapsed shopping plaza. As a public inquiry prepares to dissect the rescue effort, Maclean’s speaks to survivors about the day the roof came crashing down, and the split-second that changed their lives forever.

CHAPTER I

‘The last straw’

Her wedding was four weeks away, and Sherri Watson still needed a pair of shoes to match the dress. Zellers was her next stop. Jason Morrissey, her fiancé, was behind the wheel that Saturday afternoon, steering his Jeep Grand Cherokee toward the only shopping mall in Elliot Lake, Ont.—and up the concrete ramp that led to its now-infamous rooftop parking lot. The weather was gorgeous, blue sky and sunny. Jason, 32, was dressed in shorts and a baseball cap. His bride-to-be wore flip-flops.

Their Jeep parked, the couple walked toward the Algo Centre’s main upper entrance, a pair of brown metal doors on the roof. Neither knew it, but a security camera recorded their every step. “I was busy talking about the wedding,” says Sherri, 33 at the time. As the camera’s digital clock approached 2:18 p.m., the pair disappeared inside the doors.

Seconds later, the video camera still rolling, a grey Ford Focus drove past the same entrance and away from the mall. As forensic engineers would later conclude, that single passing car was “the last straw” for the Algo Centre’s notoriously leaky roof. Thirty-plus years of salt, slush and rain had so thoroughly corroded the building’s steel skeleton—and one welded connection in particular—that the weight of a small vehicle was enough to bring down the deck.

Eight more seconds was all it could hold.

Inside the doors, Jason and Sherri were halfway down a set of stairs that led to a second-floor lottery kiosk and a food court. (To their left, parallel to the staircase, was an escalator going back up to the roof.) Sherri and her flip-flops were one step ahead, still talking about the wedding, when Jason felt the rumble. “My husband saved my life,” she says. “I had debris hit my head and my leg, and I didn’t even know what was happening. If he didn’t grab me and pull me back, I would have gone down with everything.”

Back outside, the same surveillance camera captured the split-second horror: thousands of pounds of steel and concrete—and one parked Ford Explorer—crashing into the mall below. When that weld let go, at precisely 2:18 p.m., two women were standing directly underneath that portion of the roof, just down the stairs: 37-year-old Lucie Aylwin, herself a bride-to-be, working weekends at the lottery kiosk to save money for her wedding; and Doloris Perizzolo, 74, a loving mother and grieving widow who visited that mall almost every day. Neither survived.

That chilling surveillance footage is the climax of a crucial exhibit at the Elliot Lake public inquiry: an animated re-enactment, prepared by investigating engineers, that explains exactly why, and how, the roof caved in. Knowing the end result, it is heartbreaking to watch.

Jason and Sherri, survivors by the slimmest of margins, first saw the footage when it was posted on YouTube in March, nine months after the collapse. Until then, they had no idea they were caught on tape. “It’s not easy to deal with,” Sherri, now a Morrissey, tells Maclean’s. “I saw the mall actually collapse. I mean, it was right in front of my face.”

What happened on June 23, 2012—one year ago this week—was a disaster three decades in the making, the culmination of so many dubious decisions and shoddy patch jobs that the public inquiry has only begun to unravel the ugly truth. In the weeks to come, commissioner Paul Bélanger will also hear disturbing evidence about the ensuing rescue effort, and why it took four days (and some political intervention) to finally reach those two women buried in the rubble. Dalton McGuinty, Ontario’s premier at the time, is among those scheduled to testify.

But as the proceedings inch along, witness after witness, lawyer after lawyer, it is easy to forget how utterly devastating that moment was for so many. The security footage doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.

Like the Morrisseys, dozens of others were steps from the lottery booth when the clock struck 2:18. Their eyewitness accounts—as told to Maclean’s, and detailed in police statements filed at the public inquiry—paint a chaotic, terrifying scene. The bang. The dust. The stale, stinky water. The what-ifs. There were so many close calls, so many twists of fate, it’s a miracle more bodies weren’t pulled from the wreckage.

One woman, Michelle Arnott, was working right beside Lucie Aylwin that entire day. Just three minutes before the cave-in, the 34-year-old walked downstairs to the mall’s other lottery booth so the woman working there, Rachel Rivet, could take her afternoon break. Interviewed by police, Arnott said she now battles post-traumatic stress disorder, including a new-found fear of noises and large crowds. “It’s going to take a long time to get over this,” she told investigators.

Louisette Rognvaldson, sitting with two tables of friends, was about to walk to the kiosk to buy a scratch ticket. “Then I checked my purse,” she recalls. “I didn’t have any money so I thought, ‘Oh well.’ As soon as I thought that, bang, that was it. I will never forget that.” The force of the falling concrete knocked the 66-year-old out of her chair. “Our purses were floating, and everyone was yelling: ‘Grab the purses! Grab the purses!’ That’s how much water came down: not to our knees, but pretty close.”

John Marceau had no intention of staying at the food court. He was working outside that day, repairing some siding on his house, when he drove to the mall in the hopes of finding his friend, a carpenter. He didn’t find him, but another friend convinced the 79-year-old to stay for a coffee. “I just put the cup on the table and was getting ready to sit down,” says Marceau, a retired miner with pale blue eyes and a wide grin. “When I woke up, I was lying beside a table that was knocked over. I was bleeding like hell.”

In a nearby elevator, steps from the collapse zone, were Janet Black and her mother-in-law, Shirley. Visitors from Peterborough, Ont., they happened to be in town for a relative’s memorial service, their first-ever trip to Elliot Lake. They chose that day, that moment, to walk into the Algo Centre. “The doors opened on the second floor, and as soon as the doors opened, all this stuff just flew right into the elevator,” says Janet, then 58. “There was dust flying everywhere.” She pushed Shirley back and peeked out the door. The floor was gone. “Even telling you now, I’ve got goosebumps all over me. It was scary. It was very scary.”

The man behind the wheel of that passing Ford Focus (the so-called “last straw”) had just left the food court minutes earlier. He had no clue his car triggered the collapse until someone showed him the exhibit video. Contacted by Maclean’s, the 69-year-old declined to talk. “He went to the mall every afternoon,” a relative says. “He said: ‘Oh my God, I was shaking. I don’t know why I was spared.’ ”

So many are haunted by the same thought.

CHAPTER II

‘Algo Falls’

Opened in 1980, the Algo Centre was built on a foundation of high hopes and false assumptions. The uranium mines west of Sudbury were booming (yet again) and, by all estimates, Elliot Lake’s population was set to soar to 30,000 people. Maybe 40,000. All those well-paid newcomers would need a shopping centre. When the bold predictions failed to pan out—and every mine eventually closed—the giant mall remained, a painful, oversized reminder of what should have been.

But the Algo Centre wasn’t just a symbolic disaster. Constructed without a waterproofing membrane, the rooftop parking lot (itself a questionable idea, especially in snowy northern Ontario) leaked from day one, eating away, bit by bit, at the steel I-beams holding the deck in place. The building was such a lemon, such a monumental miscalculation, that by 1991—just 11 years after the grand opening—the company that built it considered locking the doors and abandoning the property. “I see no magic,” wrote one executive at Algoma Central Corporation. “The question is, what does the future hold for Elliot Lake?”

The future, it turned out, was senior citizens. When the mining companies left, the one-time “uranium capital of the world” successfully rebranded itself as a retirement community, marketing all those empty houses and vacant apartments to pensioners looking for a picturesque, inexpensive place to live out their golden years. At the centre of the new recruitment campaign was Elliot Lake Retirement Living, a not-for-profit organization that ended up buying the Algo Centre, and the attached hotel, in 1999. The mall was now a critical part of the city’s sales pitch to seniors. Drips and all.

Retirement Living owned the building for six years, and on its watch, the steel connections continued to deteriorate. The city’s only library, down the hall from the second-floor lottery kiosk, was such a soggy mess that employees had no choice but to cover bookshelves with tarps. On some rainy days, the leaks were so intense the library may as well have been outside. “As I sit at my computer to write this letter, I am listening to the drips in the ceiling, wondering when the ceiling tile will fall on my head,” wrote chief librarian Barbara Fazekas, in one of many letters of complaint to Retirement Living’s general manager. In another stunning email to colleagues, one city councillor was even more blunt: “The thing that I am really worried about is the possibility of the roof caving in, with cars parked up there.”

By the time businessman Bob Nazarian, from Richmond Hill, Ont., bought the mall in 2005, the damage was essentially done. Even if he had patched the leaks (which he claimed to be doing, but never actually did), so much water and road salt had already seeped into the steel structure that a catastrophic failure was inevitable. No one—not the city, not the provincial labour ministry, and not an independent engineering firm hired to inspect the mall 10 weeks before the collapse—realized how dangerous those rusty beams had become.

Sadly, evidence presented at the inquiry suggests the mall’s very existence was so important to Elliot Lake—a major employer, a major taxpayer and a major piece of the “retirement living” strategy—that the economy trumped public safety, again and again.

Yet all around town, the mall’s decrepit condition was a running punchline. “Algo Falls,” as the locals dubbed it. Throughout the second floor, garden hoses dangled from above, draining water from yellow “bladders” pinned to the ceiling. For maintenance staff, emptying pails was all part of the job.

Like so many others, Lucie Aylwin earned her living among the buckets. A lifelong Elliot Laker, she worked in the mall as an employment counsellor for Collège Boréal, helping countless people find steady jobs. In a city of 11,000, where faces are familiar, hers was especially so. Recently engaged, Aylwin had taken on a second job of her own, working the odd Saturday at the lottery booth.

On June 22, the day before the collapse, Aylwin sat in the food court, drinking her morning tea (large, double cream). Marie Giroux, a friend who also worked in the Algo Centre, joined her at the table. As Giroux told police, they talked about the sad state of the mall, a “common conversation.”

At the lottery kiosk a few steps away, Gary Sauvé finished his regular delivery of magazines to the booth. He noticed two buckets on the counter, each one full of water.

The next morning, June 23, Aylwin ate breakfast with her fiancé, Gary Gendron, and kissed him goodbye. She took a white purse to work, her lime green wallet tucked inside. Her husband-to-be never saw her again.

CHAPTER III

Buzzard

From high above, the Algo Centre looked like a backwards capital L. Both main entrances (one on the roof, one on the ground) were located in the mouth of that L, where the two lines met. For decades, shoppers strolled in and out of those doors, carrying groceries and socks and diamond engagement rings. It was that section of the mall—the mouth of the L, from rooftop to second floor to ground level—that was doomed to crumble.

Rachel Rivet, now 54, worked at the downstairs lottery booth, right inside the ground-floor entrance. Unofficially, Rivet was the Algo Centre’s official greeter. “I was the first face people saw when they walked in the main door,” she says. “So a lot of people knew me, but they didn’t know my name.”

Rivet’s booth was tucked underneath the escalator that went up to the food court. Behind her—directly below Lucie Aylwin’s second-floor kiosk—were two other businesses: the lobby of the Algo Inn, the hotel adjacent to the mall; and Eddie’s Barbershop, a plaza staple. Stanley Ceglarz, a Polish immigrant, bought the barbershop in 1996. His typical weekend hours were 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Except in the summer, when he closed at 2 o’clock and went home early.

Before her shift that Saturday morning, Rachel Rivet was upstairs at Mum’s Place, one of two restaurants in the second-floor food court. Heather Richer, the owner, had been toiling near the stove since 5 a.m., as usual, baking and preparing soups (chicken dumpling was her specialty). “She made the mall smell delicious in the morning,” says Richer’s younger sister, Tracy Bérubé, who also worked at Mum’s Place. “I know she wanted it to be a reflection of what came out of my mother’s kitchen.”

Rivet, a friend of Bérubé’s, spent all her breaks at Mum’s. “Rachel always came up to the restaurant,” Bérubé says. “She would say, ‘Shall we check the barbecue?’ which meant, ‘Should we go outside for a cigarette?’ ”

Although its main counter faced the food court, Mum’s Place also boasted a 44-seat dining room. A fire exit led to an outdoor concrete canopy, which wrapped around one side of the mall like a balcony. As they smoked their cigarettes, the morning sky clear and bright, the ladies spotted a large bird hovering above. Rivet thought it was an eagle; Bérubé, one year later, is still convinced it was a buzzard. “It was just circling and circling,” she recalls, waving her right arm around and around. “I said: ‘It’s like a buzzard flying over a desert, and it’s creepy because it only flies over death or when death is near.’ ”

Rivet snapped a photo with her cellphone, but by that point the bird was too far away to identify. “It bothered me the whole morning,” Rivet says. “It was just so surreal.”

Bérubé didn’t end up staying at the restaurant that day. Instead, she and two other sisters embarked on a last-minute road trip to Sault Ste. Marie, taking her two hours away. In hindsight, that sudden change of plans probably saved Rachel Rivet’s life.

Hungry Jack’s was the other restaurant in the food court. (There used to be a Tim Hortons, too, but it moved out because the leaks were so bad.) Elaine Quinte, who owned the eatery with her husband, Jack, came to work that day in a pair of jeans and a black shirt, with “Hungry Jack’s” written in red. She parked her Pontiac Grand Prix on the roof. “I think people knew there was a really good chance something would happen one day,” she says. “But I don’t think anybody ever thought it would happen on June 23, 2012.”

A year earlier, Quinte arrived at her restaurant to find two slices of concrete lying on the floor. Thankfully, the pieces had plummeted from the ceiling overnight, when nobody was there. Both fragments looked like icicles, one as long as a baseball bat. Furious, the Quintes showed the damage to mall management. They did nothing. Jack and Elaine also voiced their concerns to Al Collett, Elliot Lake’s deputy mayor, who alerted Bruce Ewald, the city’s chief building official. “What do you want me to do, Al?” Ewald asked. “Close down the mall?”

For a Saturday, the Algo Centre was not particularly busy. The weather was way too beautiful to be indoors. But people did come, especially the regulars. If they walked through the ground-floor entrance, they would have seen Rachel Rivet at the main kiosk. (“Daily’s 1,” as it was called.) If they descended from the rooftop parking lot—as Jason and Sherri Morrissey did—they would have looked straight at the second-floor kiosk (“Daily’s II”), right at Lucie Aylwin and Michelle Arnott.

Rosario Capillo, a former city councillor, was in the food court that morning, drinking coffee with friends. He had known Aylwin for years, and when he went to buy his Saturday 6/49 ticket, he was surprised to see her behind the counter. “I said, ‘Lucie, what are you doing in here?’ ” he recalls. “She said: ‘Oh Rosario, I’m working in here because I’m getting married and I want to make a little extra money to buy a nice wedding dress.’ ”

The beam above them was less than four hours from crashing down.

Kreations & Things, directly behind Aylwin’s booth, was a new addition to the mall, opened just five months earlier. It specialized in sterling silver and custom jewellery. Yves Bérubé, who owned the shop with his wife, is Tracy’s brother-in-law. “The night before we moved in, we had a rainstorm,” he recalls. “So we get there the next day, and the front windows and the front door looks like Niagara Falls. It looked like one of those water features that people pay big money for.” As usual, maintenance workers “fixed” the problem by installing a tarp and a hose under the ceiling tiles and diverting the water to a pail.

Bérubé, 49, worked alone that Saturday. As always, he wore a suit and tie. He can’t remember which one, as hard as he tries.

Out his door, turning left, was the entrance to a narrow hallway leading to an elevator, which went from the hotel lobby to the second floor to another door near the parking deck. When escalators were typically broken for weeks at a time, that elevator was the only way for many elderly shoppers to reach the food court. It was a busy place.

Dollarama, with its yellow and green sign, overlooked the food court. It, too, was plagued by relentless leaks. Next door, at the end of the hall, was the Bargain Shop, managed by Adam Amyotte. “If a car passed over us, the whole floor shook,” says Amyotte, who moved to Elliot Lake one year before the collapse. “Even if a heavier-set person would walk, you could feel their steps. It was really weird.”

When he first arrived on the job, Amyotte’s new co-worker, Teresa Perizzolo, was just coming back. Her father, Giuseppe, died of cancer in May 2011, and she took time off to support her mother, Doloris, now a widow after four decades with the man she loved.

A food-court regular, Doloris dropped by her daughter’s store all the time, a reason to get out of the house and mingle with friends. That Christmas, she brought her Pomeranian, Maggie, to visit Santa Claus in the mall, making sure to stop at the Bargain Shop to show off the dog’s holiday outfit.

On June 15, 2012, just eight days before the roof caved in, Perizzolo cashed in a $1,000 “Money Multiplier” scratch ticket. “Everybody has dubbed her ‘the ticket lady,’ ” Amyotte says, referring to countless news reports about the collapse. “Yes, she liked to play scratch tickets and Nevadas, but there was so much more to her than just that.” She was a proud mother and doting grandmother. A long-time cook at the hospital, whose own kitchen always smelled like fresh pastries. A wife who took care of her dying husband. A 74-year-old lady with a famous deadpan wit.

The day before she died, Doloris Perizzolo went to the Bargain Shop to meet Amyotte’s new baby boy. “She had a pretty wicked sense of humour on her for an older lady,” he says, smiling at the memory. “She said, ‘Good thing he looks like his mom and not his dad. But the one nice thing is he has his dad’s bum.’ ”

CHAPTER IV

‘Like slow motion’

At Mum’s Place, the staff had an escape plan: If the roof comes down, head straight for the walk-in freezer. Each employee knew the drill. “Every time the snowplows were up there, every one of my dishes was rattling,” says Richer, the owner. “We always knew that, one day, that roof was going to fall in. I had a big titanium freezer, and that was the plan.”

Sarah Ball, 23, had worked at Mum’s since the day it opened in 2009. It was a small-town family restaurant, the kind of place where waitresses knew their customers’ names and hugged them before they left. The regulars didn’t need menus to order their breakfast. “I still, to this day, know half the town’s coffee orders,” Ball says. Stationed behind the front counter, her regular post, Sarah Ball was nearly eight months pregnant.

Judy Robinson, a fellow waitress, was in charge of the dining room. When it rained outside, drenching the roof, customers had to dodge multiple buckets to reach their seats. “I think we were all scared in our own way,” Robinson says now. “Absolutely.”

The previous Saturday, June 16, was Robinson’s wedding day. Heather Richer closed the restaurant so everyone could attend the ceremony, and as the 45-year-old walked down the aisle, a nervous wreck, she noticed all the girls wearing giant silver glasses—a playful poke at her famously bad vision. “I had a hard time wiping the tables down at the restaurant,” she laughs. “That was the big joke, because I was supposed to go for surgery on my eyes.”

By June 23, seven days after the wedding, those novelty glasses were all over Facebook. So many of Judy’s friends—including Lucie Aylwin—had clicked on the photos.

Jean-Marc Hayward took the bus to the mall that afternoon, arriving just before 2 o’clock. Originally from Saint John, N.B., the 43-year-old first visited Elliot Lake when he was playing on the Canadian Half Pints, a basketball team of dwarfs that toured the country and lectured students about bullying. He moved to the city full-time in 2007. “There was another little guy that was born and raised here; he was also on the team,” Hayward says. “There was something about this town I like. It was a unique town.”

He bought his coffee from Mum’s (double cream, one sugar) and found a table in the middle of the food court. His chair faced Dollarama; the kiosk was to his left. “The first thing I noticed was: ‘Wow, for a Saturday, there’s not too many people here.’ ”

Stanley Ceglarz was one floor down, locking up his barbershop. June 23 was his second Saturday on summer hours. The 55-year-old didn’t know it yet, but he saved his own life.

Like Hayward, Ann Power was sitting alone in the food court. Retired from Eaton’s, the 84-year-old moved north from Toronto a decade ago after reading an article about Elliot Lake. She rode the bus to the mall every day. “They were letting it run down to nothing,” she says. “It was disgusting.” More than once, she felt the entire place “shiver.”

Gerard Joseph, 74, parked his Ford Explorer on the roof, steps from the upper entrance. After a stop at Zellers, he and his friend, Lynn Clapperton, ventured to the food court, where they met up with two of Clapperton’s relatives, including her son, Yves Audet. Clapperton, also 74, had a pacemaker. Joseph needed an oxygen machine to breathe.

On Saturdays, Louisette Rognvaldson usually met the same gang for an afternoon coffee. There were eight of them that day, enough to pull two tables together. “We would joke, ‘One of these days, a car is going to come through,’ ” she says. “We said it jokingly. Deep down, I guess we never thought it would.”

John Marceau, in search of his carpenter, steered his pickup truck to the Algo Centre, pulling into the ground-level parking lot at approximately 2:10 p.m. He walked through the main entrance, right past Rachel Rivet, and up to the second floor. Near the food court, Marceau bumped into Doloris Perizzolo, an old friend. She had just gotten her hair done at a salon across the street.

Marceau used to work the mines with Giuseppe Perizzolo, and in their younger years they four-wheeled and snowmobiled together. When Giuseppe was sick, he visited his friend at home. “She took good care of her husband,” Marceau says. As they chatted, he asked Doloris how she was coping; by then, her husband had been gone for 13 months. “I’m getting better and better,” she replied.

At Mum’s Place, a pregnant Sarah Ball was having another one of her cravings. She wanted licorice. Judy Robinson, her friend and co-worker, walked to Dollarama to find her some. Sarah Nielsen and her friend, Josh Marshall, both 17, were inside the store, browsing the aisles and killing time. Marshall picked up a small electric fan, one of those battery-operated models that fits in your hand. “He said: ‘Hey, check out this fan,’ ” Nielsen recalls. “We were looking at this stupid fan.”

Back downstairs, Janet and Shirley Black arrived at the main doors. Their relative’s memorial service was over, and while their husbands opted to go back to their hotel near the entrance to town, the ladies decided to visit the mall. Shirley, fresh off knee surgery, leaned on her cane. “The escalator going up was broken,” Janet says. “I went back to the lottery desk to ask where the elevator was.”

As she approached the booth, Janet watched as Michelle Arnott relieved Rachel Rivet for her afternoon break—a seemingly insignificant event that, no doubt, saved Arnott’s life.

“Michelle was always late,” Rivet says. “I’d always tease her about that.” Sometimes, Rivet even had to phone the upstairs kiosk to remind her colleague to come down. But that afternoon, Arnott left the second-floor booth at exactly 2:15 p.m.—three minutes before the collapse. Lucie Aylwin was now alone behind the upstairs counter.

Typically, Rivet would head to Mum’s Place and, as always, ask Tracy Bérubé “to check the barbecue.” But with her friend in Sault Ste. Marie, Rivet walked to a different exit: the loading-bay door at the back of the Algo Inn lobby. “I never go there for a cigarette because it’s where the garbages are,” Rivet says. “I thank God. My guardian angel must have been looking out for me.”

It was 2:17 p.m.

Shirley Black, still standing by the broken escalator, asked another shopper if the mall had an elevator. The stranger pointed her in the direction of the hotel lobby. “All of a sudden, my mother-in-law yelled at me: ‘Janet, I found where the elevator is,’ ” she says. “We walked into the elevator and I pressed the button for the second floor.”

John Marceau didn’t find his carpenter in the food court, but he did find Agostino Tocco, another long-time friend. Dressed in black pants and a royal blue golf shirt, Tocco went to the Algo Centre every day, sometimes twice a day. In his thick Italian accent, he convinced Marceau to stay for a coffee. He even bought it for him (one cream, one sugar).

On her way to pick up licorice, Judy Robinson stopped at the lottery kiosk to talk to her friend. “It was pretty quiet at the booth,” she recalls. “Lucie said to me, ‘What is with those pictures?’ And I knew what pictures she was talking about because that was the big talk.” Laughing, Robinson started to explain the story behind the big wedding glasses.

Up on the roof, Jason and Sherri Morrissey walked toward the doors, the surveillance camera rolling.

Behind Lucie’s kiosk, Yves Bérubé hung a sign on the door of his store: “Back in 10 minutes.” “It wasn’t overly busy, so I decided I was going to go out for a smoke break,” he says. A Next cigarette in one hand, a lighter in the other, he walked right underneath the beam that was about to fail.

Inside Dollarama, Marshall and Nielsen headed to the checkout to pay for that portable fan. “For some strange reason, I just looked at it and was like: ‘I don’t want this anymore,’ ” he recalls. “We turned around and walked all the way back to put it back.”

Up above, the Ford Focus drove by. The last straw.

At the kiosk, Judy finished telling Lucie about the glasses. “I’d better let you go,” she said, turning toward Dollarama.

At the Bargain Shop, Adam Amyotte had just finished counting the cash intake from the night before; his plan was to visit a bank across the street and make a deposit. As he exited the store, he could see Lucie Aylwin in the distance, handing Doloris Perizzolo her Nevada tickets.

Janet and Shirley Black were in the elevator, going up.

John Marceau put his cup on the table and pulled out a chair.

Louisette Rognvaldson checked her purse.

Rachel Rivet, outside the hotel service door, lit her cigarette.

Heather Richer and Sarah Ball served a familiar couple at the restaurant counter.

Adam Amyotte, approaching the kiosk, looked over at Mum’s and nodded at the girls.

The Morrisseys walked down the stairs, Sherri still talking about the wedding.

2:18 p.m.

“I remember hearing a rumbling sound and looking to my left,” says Jean-Marc Hayward, nearly finished his coffee. “It was almost like slow motion, watching this big slab of concrete coming down.”

“It was like a mini-earthquake, and then a great big bang,” Richer says. “You look over and everything is gone.”

Sarah Ball, standing beside her, watched it fall. Like dominoes, she says. “I remember not being surprised; that’s the biggest thing,” she recalls. “Even as it was happening, it was almost immediately: ‘Okay, freezer.’ ”

CHAPTER V

2:18 p.m.

It may have felt like slow motion, but there was absolutely no time to react. The whole thing was over in a second. Two, at the most.

A rectangular chunk of the roof—12 m by 24 m—crashed down on the second-floor lottery booth and punched another massive hole through the floor below. Eddie’s Barbershop, locked up minutes earlier, was now a jagged mound of concrete. Next door, the entrance to the hotel lobby was blocked with fallen debris, floor to ceiling.

Janet and Shirley Black had walked under that exact spot seconds earlier, heading from the first-floor kiosk to the elevator. So did Rachel Rivet, now standing outside the loading-bay doors. “I didn’t even get a chance to put the lighter in my pocket,” says Rivet, who had just lit her cigarette. “I heard a rumble and the door flew open. It was almost like a scene from The Twilight Zone.”

On the other side of the enormous pile, Lynda Benson stood beside the ground-floor kiosk, covered in dust as thick as soup. Sixty-five at the time, she and her husband had moved to town just eight weeks earlier, but until that afternoon she had yet to visit the local mall. When the clock struck 2:18 p.m., Benson was buying a batch of Nevada tickets, handing a $10 bill to Michelle Arnott. “It’s a noise like none other,” she says. “It’s not something you can describe with one word. I just looked at her and she looked at me, our hands kind of suspended in the air. I had the money; she had the tickets.”

A gust of air whipped open the main doors. Arnott—in the crosshairs of the looming collapse only three minutes earlier—ducked and covered her head, then darted outside. The floor was soaked with water, deep enough to touch her ankles. Her skin felt like it was burning. As she later told police, “everybody did voice concern” that the mall could collapse, but “we didn’t really take it serious.”

Two floors up, on the staircase leading down from the roof, Jason Morrissey dragged his fiancée to higher ground. They escaped, barely, through the same door they entered, careful not to trip into the rectangular pit that wasn’t there when they arrived. The outdoor security camera continued to record. “I didn’t even know I was bleeding, but my leg was gushing blood,” Sherri recalls. “My knee, front and back, foot, everything, was covered.” Jason pulled off his T-shirt and wrapped it around her right leg, then grabbed her cellphone to dial 911—one of many frantic calls about to fill the emergency switchboard.

On the other side of the yawning hole was a door leading to the third floor of the hotel. Jason noticed two young boys trying to exit to the parking lot—oblivious to the fact that there was nothing left to step on if they came outside. “He was freaking on those kids, telling them to stop,” Sherri recalls. “He’s in a lot of the pictures. He’s the guy with no shirt, pointing.” Amid the chaos, one memory bothers Sherri Morrissey more than anything: two women on the parking deck, laughing hysterically. She still can’t fathom how anyone thought it was funny.

Her fiancé peered down the hole. He could hear voices calling for help. A thick, rusty beam—the one that let go—dangled from one end, like a tree branch in the breeze. At the top of the rubble, two levels down, he saw Gerard Joseph’s 2010 Ford Explorer.

Joseph, sitting at the edge of the food court, was thrown from his chair and pelted with debris. His friend, Lynn Clapperton, had just bought some scratch tickets and was about to sit down when the SUV—the same one that brought her to the mall—fell through the ceiling. Her son, Yves Audet, was tossed toward another table. In a statement filed at the inquiry, Audet “heard a loud rumble, saw ceiling tiles beginning to fall and started to yell out to warn people that the roof was collapsing. Before he could finish his sentence, he was hit with water and debris.”

For Claude Morisset—and so many others—it happened way too fast to comprehend. Seventy-four at the time, Morisset spent his career in construction, working for the mining firms when they were still booming. He was sitting near the staircase leading down from the roof, watching as his wife, Therese, returned to their table. She was carrying a Bingo ticket. “She didn’t even scratch it yet when the damn thing came down,” Claude says. “I saw the sky, and then I looked at her. It knocked her on the floor and she was covered with rubble up to her neck.”

“Stop it!” Therese screamed. “Stop it!”

Morisset—a survivor of four heart attacks and one open-heart surgery—somehow managed to dig her free. “I can’t give you all the details, but I still have the picture in my head and it keeps coming back,” he says. “It was a horrific thing, I’ll tell you.”

Behind the Morissets, a little further from the stairs, Ann Power’s coffee spilled on her lap. The 84-year-old jumped out of her seat, choking on the cloud of dust that overwhelmed the food court. “I’m looking at the sky,” she remembers. “It was unbelievable. There was so much dust, and I was so confused, I didn’t know which way to get out.” At her feet, shattered ceiling tiles floated in filthy sludge.

“All the dirty water that had been up above for 30 years came down on us,” says Louisette Rognvaldson, sitting at that table of eight, close to Dollarama. “It was so powerful, I fell on my knees. My sister swallowed some. Another guy had water in his eyes.” One of her friends, Mary Catherine MacEwen, told police “it was like Niagara Falls opened up.”

Agostino Tocco thought a bomb went off. Chatting with John Marceau and another friend, the 68-year-old retired miner was struck on the head, right shoulder and right knee. “I just missed getting killed,” he says. Tocco lost his glasses, but is fairly certain he stayed conscious.

His old friend was not so fortunate. “It was a big, sharp bang,” Marceau remembers. “One noise, that’s all I heard.” Heavy fragments smashed into his head, knocking him at least five feet from the table. “I passed out. When I woke up, nobody was there. All the dust was settled.” His face was dripping blood. Two of his left ribs were broken.

Inside Hungry Jack’s, Elaine Quinte heard the deafening smash. As her restaurant filled with water and dust, she tried to bolt out of the way; she told police she’s still not sure if she ran into a wall or was hit by debris.

At Mum’s Place, Sarah Ball fled—as planned—into the walk-in freezer. Alone inside, she could hear cries coming from the food court. The 23-year-old held her pregnant belly, fearing the worst. “I remember standing in the freezer,” Ball says, her voice cracking. Even now, a year later, that particular memory is too difficult to share. “But we made it,” she finally says.

Heather Richer was behind the Mum’s counter, watching Judy Robinson walk from the kiosk to Dollarama in search of licorice. “I was looking at Judy and then, all of a sudden, I don’t see Judy anymore,” she says. “But I don’t see the ticket booth, either. One minute it’s there, the next minute it’s gone.”

“I turned, and I got about three or four steps away,” says Judy, tears in her eyes. “It was like a freight train coming.” She started to run, but the force of the collapse slammed her to the ground. “I thought everybody was gone. All you could hear were screams.”

If she spoke to Lucie a few seconds longer, Robinson’s new husband—married just the week before—would be a widower.

Amazingly, Jean-Marc Hayward wasn’t hit with a single slice of debris. He chose the right table. “It took a while to sink in, you know?” he says. “ ‘Wow, what just happened?’ The whole area was just filled with dust. It was so thick.” Hayward ran as fast as he could, heading to the side door of Hungry Jack’s. He will never forget hearing Tocco’s Italian accent behind him: “Hurry up, Jean! Hurry up!”

Hayward made it outside, to the same concrete walkway where, a few hours earlier, Tracy and Rachel saw that bird circling overhead. Yves Bérubé, walking away from his store, had just reached the same balcony when the clock struck 2:18 p.m. “I didn’t even have a chance to light my lighter and—boom!—directly behind me,” he says. “It all fell in. If I had stopped to say hi to somebody, I would have been in the hole.”

Bérubé’s first instinct was to race back inside. He stopped near the bottom of the second-floor staircase—now littered with concrete slabs, and dangling over the pile like a slide into a swimming pool. “I looked up and I’m seeing the sky,” he says. “It was something out of a movie, it really was.” The front of his store, on the other side of the hole, was completely sheared off. His “Back in 10 minutes” sign was among the rubble.

Inside Dollarama, Josh Marshall put his fan back on the shelf. “It felt like someone just hit you in the ears,” he says, describing the noise. “I know it was a couple of seconds, but it felt really long. I felt the entire mall was going to collapse on my head.”

“People were screaming,” recalls Nielsen, his friend. “ ‘There’s no way out!’ ”

Margrit Pulkowski, Dollarama’s assistant manager, was working at till 4, mere metres from the edge of the collapse zone. When Judy Robinson left the kiosk, she was heading straight toward her. It was “a ripping and wrenching sound,” Pulkowski told investigators. She froze, locking eyes with another cashier. When she dialed 911 on her cellphone, Pulkowski’s hands wouldn’t stop shaking.

“We were going up in the elevator and all of a sudden, this big thundering crash happened,” says Janet Black, the visitor from Peterborough. “My mother-in-law looked at me and said: ‘What is going on, Janet?’ ” When the door opened on the second floor, dust engulfed the elevator. “The scene reminded me of the twin towers, with all the twisted metal,” she says. “It’s just chilling.”

Janet pushed the button to go back down, but the elevator went up instead.

In the food court, Heather Richer—up to her ankles in rancid water—was doing her best to direct traffic. Sarah Ball, who didn’t stay in the freezer for long, followed her boss’s lead, helping dazed patrons out the back of the dining room. “Just the faces on them, I will never forget,” Ball says. “Stone-cold faces.”

Many in the food court, including a soaking-wet Louisette Rognvaldson, escaped through Mum’s Place. “I would have been there,” she says. “I was just getting up to get a scratch ticket, but I didn’t have any money to go.”

The elevator carrying Janet and Shirley Black stopped on the third floor of the hotel. Two other women—strangers they never saw again—climbed on with them, riding it back down to the lobby. “You’re not supposed to be on elevators when there’s a power outage or anything like that, but I just figured it was the safest place,” Janet says.

She was right. They got off on the ground floor, scurrying to safety out the same back door where Rivet was standing at 2:18 p.m.

Shoved to the floor as she walked away from Lucie’s kiosk, Judy Robinson injured both her elbows. But like the rest of her Mum’s Place colleagues, she didn’t flee the scene. She stayed in the mall to make sure others got out. “Judy screamed at me: ‘Yves, come over here!’ ” says Yves Bérubé, who was also scouring the food court for victims. When he ran toward Judy’s voice, he saw John Marceau, severely gashed and bruised. He was the worst of the wounded. “He kept going in and out of consciousness,” Robinson says. “There was blood everywhere.” Richer grabbed every napkin she could find, trying to stop the bleeding. “Thirty seconds,” she says, “seemed like hours and hours.”

Standing safely on the balcony outside the restaurant, Jean-Marc Hayward reached for a cellphone that wasn’t there. Amid the bedlam, he had left it on the table. Hayward’s teenage daughter was at the beach, but he was desperate to call her, just to make sure she hadn’t changed her mind and come to the mall. He darted back inside to retrieve his phone. “I’m looking at this hole,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.” Somehow, his cellphone was still on the table. He dusted it off and recorded 42 seconds of video, a clip destined to go viral. By then, the food court was nearly empty, except for the small crowd tending to John Marceau.

“We got him out through the ramp doors—through the same doors I had gone out,” says Yves Bérubé. “We brought a chair out there and sat him in the chair. I looked over the railing and I saw the fire department.”

Outside the back of the hotel, Janet Black left her mother-in-law and walked to the other side of the mall, desperate to find her SUV. People were everywhere, dressed in shorts and sandals and tank tops. “I had my phone on me,” she says. “I thought: ‘Geez, I should take a picture.’ ” Later, when she looked at the photograph, Black was stunned: A thin beam of sunlight was shining straight down on the roof, directly over the collapse zone.

Adam Amyotte, the Bargain Shop manager, was among the last to leave the building. After watching his friend Doloris vanish into the rubble, he, too, stayed behind to help others get out. Like the Mum’s Place dining room, his back door became an escape route. “We cleared the whole upper level of the mall without having a police officer or a fireman or a paramedic,” he says. “Before they were on site, we had it cleared.”

When the time came, Heather Richer wasn’t quite ready to go. As ludicrous as it sounds, she needed to clean her kitchen first. “I didn’t think it was real,” she says now. “I just assumed they’re going to patch it up and we’re going to go to work tomorrow. So I told Judy: ‘We’re not leaving. We’ve got to put everything away.’ I put every single thing away. My baking. My soups. Everything.”

They emptied the coffee pot. They made sure the grill was shut off.

It was their final shift at Mum’s Place.

CHAPTER VI

Survival

What unfolded over the next 90 hours captivated—and infuriated—an entire country. From the outside, the dramatic search for survivors appeared slow and disorganized, as specialized rescue workers methodically burrowed their way inside, careful not to trigger a secondary collapse. At one point, the entire operation was abruptly halted because of safety concerns—only to be reignited after a late-night phone call from premier McGuinty (and the eventual arrival of a giant crane trucked in from Toronto).

In a town that never left a miner behind, locals were livid. Some screamed at exhausted firefighters, calling them cowards. By the time emergency crews reached Lucie Aylwin and Doloris Perizzolo—on Wednesday morning, nearly four full days after the deck fell down—there was no miracle to celebrate.

In late July, the Elliot Lake inquiry will begin to dissect every aspect of the rescue effort, separating fact from fiction. The public will learn how that second-floor staircase—the Morrisseys’ staircase—was so overloaded with concrete it was on the verge of snapping, a catastrophe that could have killed every searcher stationed below. No commander, in good conscience, could ever leave his men in such a vulnerable spot.

The public will also learn the truth about the women who died—and exactly how they lost their lives. Sadly, we already know Doloris Perizzolo was killed on impact, discovered under mounds of concrete by hometown emergency responders who rushed the pile as soon as they arrived. Whether Lucie Aylwin survived the initial barrage, even for a few hours, has yet to be publicly confirmed by a coroner. It will be.

For those who did survive, the answers to come should provide some level of peace. Some semblance of “closure,” as the cliché goes. But the horror they endured that Saturday afternoon—what they saw, what they heard and how narrowly they cheated death—has forever changed each one, physically and emotionally. “To me, this was a miniature 9/11,” says Judy Robinson, the last friend to speak to Lucie Aylwin. “I will live it till I die.”

One year later, the Algo Centre is now a deserted plot of land. Demolition crews finished what the leaks started, ripping apart all that was left—including Mum’s Place. “The first couple months were really bad,” says Heather Richer, sitting in her backyard, a short walk from her old restaurant. “A couple of days after, I was in the shower. For some reason, I had water on the floor and one of my pictures fell off the wall. It was like the mall collapsing again. I freaked and I cried.”

Her former employees, Judy Robinson included, have urged her to reopen the restaurant at a new location. But Richer isn’t ready. She doesn’t think she ever will be.

Sarah Ball delivered her baby later that summer, a beautiful little girl. Two weeks later, a construction crew started blasting near her apartment—prep work, ironically enough, for the site of Elliot Lake’s next mall. Ball’s first reaction was to grab her daughter and sprint outside, terrified her building was about to collapse. “Another thing that goes through my head often is: ‘Were there only two people?’ ” she says. “To this day, I see old regulars that I haven’t seen in a while and say: ‘Okay, you’re off the list.’ I still have this feeling that maybe there could be more.”

Like so many others, Ball also wonders if she should have done more. “We all knew how bad it was,” she says of the mall. “We could have stood outside with picket signs. But that’s not our job. We trust in the inspectors and the owners to let us know if we’re going to die in a building we work in.”

The Quintes, who lost Hungry Jack’s that day, are the lead plaintiffs in a proposed $30-million class-action lawsuit filed against a long list of defendants, including the city, the province, and the mall’s last owner, Bob Nazarian. Elaine Quinte still has trouble talking about the collapse. (“I’d rather not,” she tells Maclean’s. “I’m not dealing with it well.”) But their statement of claim mirrors what so many others have experienced over the past year: “When she and Jack think of the events of that day, they are sometimes overcome with feelings of anxiety, sadness, grief and guilt.”

Yves Audet—sitting with Gerard Joseph when his SUV plunged through the ceiling—has trouble even leaving his house. He shakes when he enters a building higher than two storeys, and has struggled with bouts of survivor’s guilt. Margrit Pulkowski, working the Dollarama checkout, told police she is suddenly petrified of things that never scared her before. Like pumping gas. She fills up as fast as she can, afraid the station could explode.

“I still think about it when I see the clouds and the blue sky,” says Ann Power, now 85. “It was a really nice day that day.” Still recovering from her injuries, seen and unseen, she now depends on sleeping pills. For Agostino Tocco, the nightmares have been so haunting, so vivid, he sometimes falls out of bed. “I want to say I’m not doing too bad,” the 69-year-old says. “But I’m not 100 per cent.”

After months of counselling, Jean-Marc Hayward is slowly feeling better. “The sound of that slab hitting—that big bang—I could play that over and over in my head,” he says, sitting on a couch in his apartment. “If I think hard enough, I can relive it, but it’s not as front of my mind anymore.” Neither is the guilt, as irrational as it sounds. “At one point, I thought: ‘Why take somebody like her?’ ” Hayward says, referring to Lucie Aylwin. “In some ways, I felt it should have been me.”

Like Hayward, Lynda Benson has also spoken to a therapist, a service she never dreamed she would need. “Every now and again, I’ll hear a particular noise and I almost feel like I want to be sick,” she says. “My forehead gets wet and sweaty and I think, ‘Don’t be so silly. You’re home. You’re okay.’ ” She hurt her neck and shoulders that day, standing at the first-floor kiosk with Michelle Arnott. But it’s the mental trauma that stings the most. “It’s really hard to explain, because I’ve always been strong,” she says. “I’m used to looking after everybody else. I don’t really know why this hit me the way it did.”

On Elizabeth Walk, in plain view of the old mall site, is Yves Bérubé’s new store. He and his wife reopened Kreations & Things on Oct. 1, barely three months after the front entrance to his old shop was sheared off. “It was therapeutic for me, in a sense,” he says. “For the most part, I don’t really think about it so much anymore, until somebody brings it up. Then things start to come back again.”

Bérubé can’t help but wonder: What if? What if he had left his store a few seconds later? What if his wife had worked that day? What if his parents, who spent every Saturday in the food court, hadn’t decided to go strawberry picking? What if the parking deck had fallen the following weekend—Canada Day—during the city’s annual Uranium Festival?

Adam Amyotte has grappled with the same questions. His wife was on her way to the mall, with his baby son and stepdaughter. What if they had showed up at 2:17? What if he left for the bank a little bit earlier? Would he have stopped at the kiosk to talk to Doloris? “It took a lot of counselling to get to where I am today, because I was in no mental state right after it happened,” the 31-year-old says. “I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: That day, my life changed. But I learned a lot about myself also. I didn’t turn around and run away. I stayed there and I helped people, and made sure they got out.”

Claude and Therese Morisset were among those who made it out, but they’ve never been the same. She was pelted with debris, bruising and slicing her right shoulder, arm and hand. He, too, was hit on the right side, just hard enough that he’ll never fully recover. Before June 23, Claude needed a cane; today, the 75-year-old depends on a walker and an oxygen hose. “I went to the public inquiry the first day, and then I’ve been watching it on the Internet because I’m not too mobile anymore,” he says, sitting on his front porch. “I was about as close to the hole as you could get, and it’s done a lot of damage.”

So many sounds remind him of that day. Snow falling off his roof. A plow driving by. “It’s the rumbling noises that throws you into a nightmare,” Morisset says. In one of his worst dreams, he was hanging from the hole, his fingertips barely gripping the edge.

“That noise, it stayed in my mind day after day,” says John Marceau, now 80. “As soon as I hear a banging noise, my mind goes right to that mall.” A year later, Marceau looks nothing like the blood-soaked man carried out of the Algo Centre. His broken ribs have healed, and the cuts and bruises on his face have disappeared. And even though he can still hear that atrocious noise in his head, it doesn’t consume him. Some days, the mall doesn’t even pop into his mind. “I don’t sit here and think about it,” he says, swaying back and forth in his living-room rocking chair. “Just like a soldier, try to forget it.”

The Morrisseys have tried to move on, too. Seeing themselves on surveillance was a surreal experience, but they don’t obsess about what could have been. “I’m grateful to my husband because if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be here,” Sherri says. “And I’m grateful that we were the only people on the stairs.”

The couple got married, as scheduled, on July 21, four Saturdays after they parked their Jeep on that roof. Sherri bought her wedding shoes at a Wal-Mart in Sudbury, 160 km away.

Maclean's July 8, 2013