Documents obtained by CBC News illustrate intense discussions taking place within the Ontario premier's office between the time rescue efforts were stopped at the collapsed mall in Elliot Lake in June and the ultimate decision to restart the search for survivors hours later.
The timeline will be a focal point of a public inquiry that will investigate the causes of the collapse as well as the emergency response.
The documents show that officials in the premier's office corresponded in a series of emails to devise a strategy to address the fallout from the decision on June 25 to abandon the rescue attempt for survivors at the site of the Algo Centre Mall, where part of the rooftop parking garage had collapsed two days earlier.
After the initial collapse, which would leave two dead and several injured, beams and slabs had been falling in the building.
On the evening of June 25, Staff Insp. Bill Neadles, the head of the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) Team that was overseeing rescue efforts, announced that the changing conditions had made it too dangerous for crews to be near the building.
The rescue had to be abandoned, he said, even though he acknowledged that someone could still be alive under the rubble.
The documents lay out in the greatest detail to date that the decision to end the rescue efforts was made by 3 p.m. because conditions were no longer safe.
Email correspondence among government staff show that the office of the premier was set to release a statement that evening attributed to McGuinty in which he was going to state that he was "saddened to learn that efforts in Elliot Lake have moved from rescue to recovery."
The statement draft also states "the news comes as a terrible blow to the people of Elliot Lake and beyond who rushed to the scene this weekend."
A series of emails ensued as officials reviewed public reaction to the decision. At 6:31 p.m., Wendy McCann, the director of communications at the premier's office, sent an email saying the statement would not be issued.
The premier's staff and other government officials then discussed it further, and the optics of the situation were considered; one staffer writes "I worry we're going to wear a decision made by experts."
McGuinty questions decision at 7:30 p.m.
A staff member at the premier's office told CBC News on Thursday that it was informed of the decision to end search efforts by 3:30 p.m., and the premier was then told of that decision around the same time that the news was made public at approximately 5 p.m.
The premier's office said in a statement on Thursday that once McGuinty was informed of the decision to abandon the search, he "immediately said he wouldn’t accept it and pushed to explore all options to ensure the search would continue."
Madeleine Meilleur, the minister of community safety and correctional services, said in an interview Thursday that "what is important is as soon as the premier heard about the fact that they were pulling out, he got involved right away … his answer was: 'It cannot happen.'"
The documents obtained by CBC News show that a conference call with McGuinty and other staff at the premier's office was arranged for 7:30 p.m.
It was during that call, around 2½ hours after he was first informed about the decision to cease rescue efforts, that the premier told staff that he could not accept that conclusion, Laura Miller, the deputy chief of staff for communication and strategy at the premier's office, told CBC News Thursday.
By 8:57 p.m., the premier had spoken to HUSAR and Emergency Management Ontario. "They have clear direction to find an alternative," says an email from a staffer at the premier's office.
"It is critical that folks wake up and see their provincial government acting in accordance to their own values and views," says another staffer.
The search for any survivors resumed late Tuesday, and rescuers later recovered two bodies from the rubble.
Timeline of the events
The following is a timeline of the correspondence between officials at the premier's office and other ministries on June 25. Also included are other events that took place that day as related to CBC News by staff at the premier's office on Thursday.
3 p.m.: By this time, HUSAR staff have determined the structure is too unstable for rescuers to work safely and that "rescue operations will immediately transition to recovery and demolitions operations," a briefing note sent out by the provincial emergency operations centre reveals.
3:27 p.m.: John O'Leary, manager of legislative issues with the premier's office, sends a note to his colleagues asking them to "huddle on Elliot Lake ASAP please. This is urgent and is [going] to require a statement I believe from the premier."
Around 5 p.m.: McGuinty is informed of the decision to abandon the search, Laura Miller, the deputy chief of staff for communication and strategy at the premier's office, tells CBC News on Nov. 8.
5:07 p.m.: Jonathan Leigh, an assistant director with the cabinet office's communications department sends a draft statement he has written attributed to the premier to other staff at the premier's office.
"Like all Ontarians, I was saddened to learn that efforts in Elliot Lake have moved from rescue to recovery," the statement says. "Ontario is a large province that feels much smaller at a time like this, and I know all Ontarians will come together to support the people of Elliot Lake as they recover from this tragedy," it concludes.
5:35 p.m.: After watching a news conference in which emergency officials, including Neadles, announce their decision to abandon rescue efforts, Wendy McCann, the director of communications at the premier's office, sends an email to colleagues in the premier's office and the cabinet office saying she thinks "the statement stands."
5:43 p.m.: McCann writes a note about what appears to be social media reaction to the decision. "Tearful citizen asks "It didn't matter how bad it was … you never left a man underground … Why can't we get a mine rescue team in here[?]," reads one such note.
6:23 p.m.: Lloyd Rang, then the director of writing at the premier's office, asks Leigh and another staffer with the cabinet office to alert him when a translation is ready. "Don't push the button just yet though. Want to talk to Wendy first," he writes.
6:31 p.m.: "We aren't going to issue that statement," says McCann in an email. "And it's unlikely we'll want a different one tonight. Thanks."
6:57 p.m.: Bradley Hammond from the premier's office sends an email to his colleagues. "CBC phoned asking for comment – wants to know if the premier thinks rescue is being called off too soon. She specifically referenced 9/11 and people being pulled from that well after the incident," he writes.
"Any word on when we'll have a statement? I worry we're going to wear a decision made by experts," Hammond says.
7:08 p.m.: "No statement tonight from the premier," McCann replies to Hammond. She says the Ministry of Labour is working on a statement "that will outline the steps that resulted in the decision and next steps."
7:30 p.m.: A conference call with McGuinty and other staff is arranged for 7:30 p.m. It is during this call that McGuinty told staff that he could not accept the decision to abandon rescue efforts, Laura Miller, the deputy chief of staff for communication and strategy at the premier's office, told CBC News Nov. 8.
7:37-8:19 p.m.: In a series of messages, provincial staff arrange a conference call for the premier to talk directly with the rescuers.
7:54 p.m.: Thomas Chanzy, the chief of staff to the Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, says in an email that he has just spoken to local MPP Michael Mantha.
"He's very concerned by the reaction in the community toward the decision to stop the rescue operations," Chanzy says in the email addressed to staff from the premier's office and the Ministry of Labour.
8:41 p.m: Chanzy responds to a recap of social media reaction to the abandoned rescue.
"People are shocked and angry. People think we're letting people die. They're under the impression that the rescue operations stopped despite signs of life in the debris," he writes.
8:57 p.m.: Laura Miller, the deputy chief of staff for communication and strategy at the premier's office, confirms the premier has spoken to Husar and Emergency Management Ontario, who both now "have clear direction to find an alternative."
She also says that her office needs to have a statement ready "in short order. It is critical that folks wake up and see their provincial government acting in accordance to their own values and views."
Around 10 p.m.: A new statement attributed to the premier is issued in which he says he believes, "If there is any hope of finding survivors, that must be the priority." The statement say he has "spoken to [EMO] and [HUSAR] and … asked them to explore every possible alternative."
Corrections and Clarifications
- A previously published version of this article said Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty was set to publicly endorse the decision by emergency officials to give up the rescue operation at the collapsed mall in Elliot Lake in June. However, McGuinty's staff say that while they were working on the plans to endorse the decision, the premier was unaware of their work. Nov. 8, 2012 | 5:32 p.m. ET