Tuesday, July 3, 2012


(National Post) - By Tristin Hopper

As police and firefighters from across Ontario streamed into the site of the Elliot Lake mall collapse this week, arguably one of the most hardened rescue groups on the scene — veterans of 9/11, the Haiti Earthquake and the Costa Concordia sinking — were never even allowed past the police tape.

“We’ve been on standby since arriving, and if you’re a results-oriented person, the worst thing in the world is to be on standby,” John Green, chief of Special Operations for Ottawa-based International Rescue, told the Post Wednesday.

The group, an Ottawa-based rescue non-profit, was summoned to Elliot Lake by a call from a private citizen. The roof on the Algo Centre Mall caved in at 2:15 p.m. on Saturday; by 2:55 p.m., an Elliot Lake resident (“He’d heard about what we’d done in Haiti,” Mr. Green said) got the organization on the phone.

About 40 hours later, Mr. Green — along with six team members — pulled into the small Northern Ontario town in a specially outfitted fire truck, hauling a trailer packed with lifts, supports, concrete-cutting chainsaws, liquid nitrogen, concrete-cracking explosives and thermite charges.

Of course, by then, Ontario’s Ministry of Labour had barred access to the unstable structure, and the Toronto-based Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team had just informed a crowd of locals that it had called off rescue efforts.

“At 11 p.m. [Monday], they just came out and said, ‘go home, we don’t want you on scene,’ which was a little bit of a kick,” Mr. Green said. “We’ve been to over 30 of these and we’ve never been told to go home.

“They’d have to sedate us and drag us out of there to stop rescue efforts, and I think that’s what they were worried would happen,” he said.

During the long lulls in rescue attempts, as provincial officials waited for heavy lifting equipment from Toronto, the International Rescue team members — clad in blue coveralls — could do nothing but roam among the crowds lining the mall’s perimeter.

The group’s disaster resumé, emblazoned on the back of their shirts, includes the 2003 forest fires in B.C., Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. Gulf, the Indian Ocean Tsunami and its inaugural mission, the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, India.

Mr. Green was among the first volunteers to search for survivors in the rubble of the World Trade Center in September 2001, and only six months ago, he was in Western Italy to advise Italian search crews in recovery efforts for the wreck of the Costa Concordia cruise ship that crashed into a reef off the Italian coast.

“I spend about 150 days a year in hotel rooms,” he said.

International Rescue, which also counts branches in New York and Indonesia, is funded almost entirely by its private, sister company, P.R.E.P. Services International, a hazardous materials consulting business. “P.R.E.P. makes money and International Rescue costs money,” Mr. Green told a reporter last year.

Most employees of P.R.E.P. services serve roles in both organizations and are hired with expectations they will participate in rescue operations.

The team’s small size and experience of many decades helps keep the group flexible to act as rapid, early responders, Mr. Green said.

“The Red Cross machine is [a] monolith. They have difficulty specifically identifying and reacting, and we do not have those limitations and that’s why we’re a usable asset rather than a thorn in their side,” he told Postmedia in 2005 just before departing for Indonesia to assist in rescue efforts for the Indian Ocean tsunami.

In the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, International Rescue was part of a team that uncovered the body of former Liberal MP Serge Marcil, who died in the collapse of the Hotel Montana.

When asked about the group at a Wednesday press conference, Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team leader Bill Neadles said it was “the first time” he had heard of them.

“They have to be brought in on behalf of the province of Ontario … the province would have to grant them status in order to be sanctioned to come assist us,” he said.

International Rescue did contact the Ontario Provincial Police Command Centre before setting out, but were told simply to travel to Elliot Lake and stand by in case they were needed.

The group takes its name from the secretive rescue squad featured in the 1960s TV series Thunderbirds.

The show — featuring marionettes instead of live actors — portrayed an elite squad routinely called in to

co-ordinate complex rescues using a high-tech fleet of rockets, aircraft and space stations.

The real-life International Rescue bases its operations out of a converted fire truck equipped with tires designed for high speed, a full complement of emergency lights, and an onboard command centre. An accompanying trailer carries bomb defusing suits, scuba gear, firefighting equipment and a wide variety of rubble-busting explosives and chemicals.

The group pulled out of Elliot Lake Wednesday night, a few hours after two bodies were recovered from the mall’s wreckage.

Officials left the International Rescue team unable to offer anything more than peripheral support during its stay.

“There should be more oversight than one team performing one function,” Mr. Green said. “It’s like holding a dinner party where one of the guests is a sous-chef, and you don’t let him help out in the kitchen.”

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