A tough call in the Ontario mall collapse, but the right one


When you know that time is running out on getting to survivors underneath a bunch of rubble, and you know there are survivors, it must be really hard to just step away because the situation is unstable.

I think statistically though in those type of rescues you on average lose more rescuers than you rescue surviving victims.

It’s psychologically and perhaps politically impossible to walk away but you have to play the odds. It sounds like people got started before engineers had even done an evaluation. That was dangerous.

Considering that anybody putting up a building like that is going to have engineers spend many hours running the numbers before putting it up, you would expect that if all of a sudden various supports are taken out somebody is going to have to spend hours working out how the numbers have changed for the rest of the building, and maybe make some rough calculations about what happens if you start removing further supports or debris. Some of the debris may be stabilizing the structure and if you remove it, boom.

I think that maybe Canada needs to look at some kind of disaster response team, maybe one at either end of the country, that has appropriate machinery and their go-bags already aboard an aircraft, good to go with 30 minutes or less notice.

Another good idea would be to start a process of scanning as many building plans, including engineering computations, into a national database as possible. That shouldn’t cost a great deal but it would likely save a lot of time in an emergency.

If a disaster response team has to wake up somebody in the planning department at city hall and then sift through paper and figure out who the architect is and wake that person up (assuming they aren’t building something in Dubai), it could be one or two days or more depending on the organization of a municipality to get important engineering information.

If it is already in a database and you have appropriate critical incident response organization you could have an engineer already looking at something like a mall collapse within ten minutes and making some preliminary evaluations based on pictures witnesses are taking on their cell phones.

Look at this as a dry run for British Columbia and for Washington State.

Almost every other major fault in the Pacific Ring of Fire subduction zones has already gone off in the past 8 years and BC and Washington are overdue for a big one.


Six of the top 13 earthquakes since 1900 have come in the past 8 years, after 39 years without a big one. The big ones seem to come in clusters. That’s the data.

We hear a lot about the San Andreas fault but if a thousand mile section of the west coast from British Columbia to northern California suddenly shifts ten feet up that will be ten times as exciting as anything the San Andreas fault is capable of.

One mall collapse seems to have resulted in a somewhat muddled and perhaps dangerously confused rescue effort, without any other distracting chaos.

In saying that I’m not finding fault. It is hard to say how you will react to something that never happens. People whose practical experience lies elsewhere are in a position to have to figure things out on the fly and I’m sure they are doing their best.

But the tragedy may ultimately save lives because it has become clear that we aren’t ready.