Could emergency response robots have been available sooner to the community of Elliot Lake?
By Casey Nobile
June 29, 2012
Rescue workers removed their hats as the body of Lucie Aylwin, 37, was removed from the rubble of Algo Center Mall in Elliot Lake, Ontario on Wednesday afternoon. Ms. Aylwin was one of two casualties—22 suffered minor injuries—that resulted from a portion of the mall’s roof collapsing on Saturday, June 23.
The solemn moment comes four days after the sudden collapse and less than 48 hours after sounds of Alwyn’s breathing and tapping were identified in the building by a remote life detector.
Elliot Lake, a former mining community, is now left questioning not only whom to blame for the initial collapse, but whether the troubled rescue efforts—which culminated in the use of a mammoth mining robot— amounted to “too little too late”.
Complications began Tuesday with a stop order delivered by the Ministry of Labor to Toronto’s Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team.
Search and rescue personnel were ordered out of the building when engineers deemed the site unsafe due to a precariously balanced escalator still running in the mall.
Community members were outraged, and populated what has been dubbed “Memorial Corner” to demand the continuation of the rescue.
Just as a group of civilian miners volunteered themselves to search for victims, it was announced that hope, in the form of a Komatsu mining robot, was on its way. The plan was to initiate a controlled demolition of the escalator and clear the way for rescue operations to recommence.
The Komatsu PC 850 was donated to the effort by Priestly Demolition. The crane with its 150-foot, highly articulated robotic arm arrived from Toronto Tuesday, June 26 on three separate trucks, and a special roadway was paved for its delivery.
Similarly, Penguin Research Center sent a robotic arm that could shine a light and take pictures of the mall’s interior. They did not have the capability to send audio signals or messages into the trap-zone to communicate with any potential survivors.
Three other mining robots on the scene could navigate inside the building and take video, but were not equipped to remove debris.
Spectators compared the Komatsu arm to a T-Rex, some to a Transformer, as it reached into the wrecked mall from the roof. But when the colossus failed to touch down on the escalator, the robot became used to claw, shear, pinch and cut its way through debris toward victims near the southeast entrance.
While some residents cheered, others expressed concern that tearing chunks from the building might jeopardize the safety of anyone clinging to life within the rubble.
By Wednesday, June 27, rescue turned to recovery as no survivors were found.
The incident in Elliot Lake is plagued by questions of what could have been. What if heavy duty rescue robots—rather than repurposed mining equipment—had been available sooner? If humanoid, rather than human rescue teams were the norm, would the search effort ever have been called off in the first place?
Researchers into emergency response robotics might see this tragedy as a cautionary tale. In the meantime, Elliot Lake and its neighboring communities mourn their losses, and the robots roll home.