FERNIE, B.C. – Emergency crews gained access to part of an arena in Fernie, B.C., on Wednesday more than 24 hours after three workers died following an ammonia leak while emergency maintenance was being done on refrigeration equipment.
Fire Chief Ted Ruiter said the west side of the building was determined to be safe. The city said earlier fire and emergency services were working with a specialized hazardous material team to contain the leak inside the building.
The three men who died were not identified in order to respect the wishes of their families. The city said two of the men were municipal employees while the company that employed the third man said he worked out of their Calgary branch.
A state of emergency remained in effect and fire Chief Ted Ruiter said plans were being made for people who would have to stay out of their homes for another night.
About 60 people living near the Fernie Memorial Arena were asked to leave on Tuesday as a precautionary measure, Mayor Mary Giuliano said.
“Fernie is a tight-knit community and I know we’ll pull together to support one another as we have in the past,” she told a news conference.
“Sadly, we lost three people yesterday, two of whom were part of the City of Fernie family.”
On Facebook, the city said Tuesday the arena was closed for “emergency maintenance” before it confirmed there had been three fatalities.
Ruiter said crews responded shortly before 1 p.m. to reports of a leak of anhydrous ammonia at the arena and arrived to find someone performing CPR on a person.
Crews then entered the facility and found two other victims, he said. After performing an “interior search,” Ruiter said they had to leave the building for safety reasons.
“Yesterday was an extremely difficult day for us here in Fernie,” he said.
WorkSafeBC, the B.C. Environment Ministry, the Interior Health Authority and the hazardous materials team from Calgary were at the arena on Wednesday.
Ruiter said they were checking levels of ammonia in the air around the arena, but he did not release any details.
The mayor, fire chief and an RCMP sergeant would not answer questions at news conferences Wednesday, citing a request from the Mounties.
Sgt. Trevor Tribes said the RCMP still had to conduct a scene investigation and interviews before it can determine whether anything criminal contributed to the incident.
Paul Jewer, vice-president of Toromont, which owns refrigeration company CIMCO, said the company has no further details to add on what happened. He confirmed the contractor who died worked for the Calgary branch of CIMCO.
“We’re just devastated to have lost a family member,” Jewer said.
Giuliano said the accident has hit her East Kootenay community hard.
“We are a small town and everybody knows everyone and there is a lot of wondering who it is that we might know, so it is affecting everybody,” she said.
A red sign with a black heart was set up outside the arena facing the main highway that passes through Fernie. On it in white letters was written: “Remembering the lives lost. Fernie Arena. October 17, 2017.” Two flower bouquets lay nearby.
A block behind the arena, streets were cordoned off with police tape and barricades while a group of police officers gathered nearby.
Premier John Horgan and Labour Minister Harry Bains issued a joint statement, saying they “were saddened to learn of three workplace fatalities.”
“This is a tragic situation. Families and friends are grieving, and our hearts are with them,” they said.
“Neither workers nor their families should have to fear for their safety when they are on the job. Tragedies like this force us to underscore our commitment to ensure that B.C. families can rely on safe workplaces.”
Ammonia is commonly used in mechanical refrigeration systems, including those found in ice rinks. It is used in liquid form but becomes a gas once it is released into the air.
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety says ammonia is a colourless gas that is toxic if inhaled.
Symptoms of ammonia poisoning may include coughing, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing and tightness in the chest. The centre says symptoms may develop hours after exposure and are made worse by physical effort.
Irene Lanzinger, president of the BC Federation of Labour, offered her condolences to the families, friends and community of the three workers killed.
In a statement, she called on the workers’ compensation board to increase its enforcement for workplace health and safety protections and training, adding that prevention is the only way to end injuries and fatalities on the job.
“The health and safety of workers must be paramount at every workplace,” Lanzinger said.