|Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty addresses residents during a visit to Elliot Lake, June 27, 2012. REUTERS/Kenneth Armstrong
ELLIOT LAKE, Ont. -- Five days after disaster struck this Northern Ontario city, the premier finally made his way to ground zero as the search for victims trapped in the rubble of a collapsed mall wrapped up.
And while some of the 10,000 or so residents felt Dalton McGuinty's visit was too little too late, most greeted the Timmins, Ont., native with a hero's welcome.
"Ontarians marvel at your resilience and your ability to pull together in the face of an incredible challenge," McGuinty said Wednesday afternoon, singing the "tight-knit" community's praises between bursts of applause.
McGuinty said he watched on television as residents stood together, day and night, and it was "inspirational."
It was the premier who convinced decision-makers to press on after the controversial call was made to cease the search-and-rescue operation less than 48 hours after tragedy struck at the Algo Centre Mall because conditions were too dangerous.
But McGuinty downplayed his role in the effort, which ultimately led to the recovery of two deceased women on Wednesday.
"I heard there was some discussion about not going ahead with the search at one point in time and I reacted as all of you did, and as all Ontarians did," he said, explaining he called those at the helm of the operation and asked, "Is there not some other option that we might be able to pursue?"
With help from a massive robotic arm brought in from Toronto, workers slowly picked through the twisted metal and concrete until the bodies of Lucie Aylwin and Dolores Perizzolo were found.
"...we all knew we were going to do everything we could to return them to their families where they belong," McGuinty said. "We owed that to the families, we owed that to all the people of Elliot Lake."
Soon after arriving in Elliot Lake, the premier met with the victims' families to express his condolences.
McGuinty then addressed the media, where he praised Mayor Rick Hamilton for his leadership and commended Bill Needles, who led the rescue effort, as well as all members of the Heavy Urban Search And Rescue team who worked tirelessly since Saturday.
The premier refused to comment on whether the delay from calling off the search Monday may have cost lives. But he vowed there will be a "thorough review" of the response to the tragedy.
"We're human beings and we do nothing perfectly," McGuinty said, adding there are always "lessons to be learned" after such disasters.
The premier also promised to "look into" concerns residents raised about the shopping centre, which has been inspected by the ministry of labour six times in the last few years and repeatedly deemed safe.
"We will ensure we get the kinds of answers the people of this community are entitled to," he said.
Some citizens were critical of the premier and his government for not shutting down the mall when many residents were convinced it was a disaster waiting to happen.
Fern Dumas, 69, said McGuinty's visit was a "nice gesture" but the premier should have come to town sooner.
"It's good for his political image but it does nothing for those people who were dying under the slabs of concrete in the mall," the senior said.
"I feel all of these politicians knew that we were in harm's way," Dumas added. "We saw it with our own eyes."