On Saturday, a rooftop parking lot collapsed into a busy shopping mall in Elliot Lake, Ont. One person is believed dead, perhaps as many as 30 missing. This is shocking in a country where building codes and modern construction techniques have largely banished sudden structural collapses to the “World” section of newspapers. There is also the dawning realization that all of this may turn out to have been not just preventable, but foreseeable — reports have been emerging of structural problems with that roof going back several years.
Soon enough, we’ll have our answers — how many dead, how many wounded, what happened and if it could have been avoided. Until then, we’re left waiting for more information, something that falls hardest on the families of the missing.
Especially today. Vanishing during a disaster used to be a something that would happen even to those that survived unscathed — it could take hours or days to get word to your loved ones that you were safe and sound in the aftermath of a tragedy. That was before each of us carried a combined telephone and email device with us at all times as a matter of routine. In our digital age, when disaster strikes, we expect to hear from our loved ones right away. If we don’t, the panic sets in.
Based on what is known about the Elliot Lake collapse so far, it bears some resemblance to a disaster that struck Kansas City in 1981. The Hyatt Regency Hotel in that city was hosting a dance in its expansive lobby when two pedestrian walkways suspended above suddenly collapsed, killing 114 and injuring hundreds more. An investigation eventually concluded that engineering compromises made to keep the walkways sleek and attractive had put too much strain on critical support joints. But on the night of the disaster, as rescuers fought to dig out survivors before water from broken pipes could drown them, the only way to figure out who was trapped or dead was either to identify corpses or interview eyewitnesses who could say, with certainty, that they’d seen someone they knew crushed.
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