ELLIOT LAKE, Ont. - The head of the disaster team responding to last year's deadly mall collapse admitted Wednesday to calling off the search for survivors without looking for options for proceeding.
Toronto police Staff Insp. Bill Neadles testified he made the decision, which came just hours after signs of life were detected in the debris and which infuriated the community, for fear the rescue had become too dangerous.
In a discussion that lasted a few minutes two days after part of the rooftop garage caved in killing two women, the head of rescue operations told Neadles further collapse of the Algo Centre Mall was imminent.
"The recommendation to me was that we remove all of the workers from the building," Neadles testified.
"They'd already been pulled out but then I went one step further to say we would not at this point in time be going back in."
He would soon inform family members the rescue was over but denied telling them the bodies would be recovered during a demolition of the mall — something he did tell the media afterward.
Angry town residents began trash-tweeting the search team, and some demonstrated, prompting Neadles to warn his members to stay off the streets to avoid confrontations.
The decision to end the search came after Neadles had reported publicly that a "life detector" had picked up breathing in the inaccessible rubble early that morning. He did not mention being told the finding was in fact unreliable.
Neadles said he had pressed ahead with the search until it got too dangerous, despite the opinion of a team doctor that the likelihood of finding anyone alive would be a "miracle."
"I knew in my head that this was going to be a very difficult situation for anyone to survive," Neadles said.
"But my heart was telling me that I still need to go forward with continuing this."
He called it "regrettable" that he had not asked for advice on whether there might have been some way to continue the search.
Unlike was reported at the time, Neadles said the Ministry of Labour played no role in calling off the rescue — which was restarted later that evening after a phone call with then-premier Dalton McGuinty.
In the call, McGuinty asked for an explanation as to why the search was stopped, and if there was a possibility — no matter how remote — of saving a victim who was possibly still alive.
Neadles undertook to reassess the situation, the inquiry heard.
The mall collapse on June 23, 2012, killed Doloris Perizzolo, 74, and Lucie Aylwin, 37, whose bodies were recovered four days later.
While the coroner has testified both women died quickly, the inquiry heard Wednesday that police heard tapping in the rubble about 20 hours after the cave-in.
However, rescuers were unable to get to the source of the sound because of the debris and precarious state of the building.
Neadles, who commanded the Toronto-based Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team, admitted to lapses in communications as various plans to get to the area were devised.
At times, he appeared to operate in a strange vacuum.
On one occasion, he reported a crane would be deployed but the person in charge of operations did not know about it.
"It's really quite astounding that your operations' chief didn't know there were going to be crane operations," commission lawyer Mark Wallace said.
On Tuesday, a crane company owner who also responded to the mall collapse testified he thought the search team was useless.
The mall collapse occurred when a support beam weld failed due to rust from years of water and salt penetration.
Neadles returns to the stand for a third day Thursday.