VICTORIA – Canadian Olympic silver medallist and former world champion figure skater Karen Magnussen can still feel the spot deep in her chest where an ammonia leak burned her lungs six years ago, leaving her disabled and unable to go back to an ice rink to teach the sport she loves.
Magnussen, 65, said the deaths of three men this week in Fernie, British Columbia, after an ammonia leak at the local arena is a horrible tragedy and she urged communities across Canada to ensure arena cooling systems are regularly maintained and inspected.
“We’re talking about children,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Langley, B.C. “Not to mention all the people who are there watching. This should be a priority. This is our national sport for God’s sakes. People live in arenas in Canada.”
Magnussen said she was a victim of an ammonia gas leak in November 2011 in North Vancouver at the North Shore Winter Club where she was teaching skating lessons.
“An ammonia leak happened, same as in Fernie, and I was very lucky to not be dead and end up the same as those poor souls in Fernie,” she said.
Magnussen said she walked out of her office at the club straight into a cloud of ammonia gas. She said she saw arena officials waving at her, but did not know they were warning her to stay away.
No alarm was sounding, she said.
“Now for the last six years my health has deteriorated,” Magnussen said. “I have lung infections. I cough all the time. It drives my family crazy but I can’t help it,” she said. “I can’t even go in a rink.”
Magnussen said when she walked into the hallway and smelled the ammonia she instantly thought about the children and ran to the dressing rooms in the arena. Emergency officials were already there and had evacuated everybody safely.
She said she was the only victim of the gas leak.
“It burns your throat,” she said. “I have burned my vocal cords. My lungs were burnt. I get lung infections. I can feel the same spot where the burning was in my lungs every time I get sick, which is often.”
Magnussen said her life-altering experience should have served as a warning across Canada about the dangers, but it apparently did not and now three people are dead.
“I just feel they didn’t take it seriously enough,” she said. “But if they don’t a major tragedy will happen in Canada. We have way too many people who are in arenas every single day from six in the morning until midnight.”
Ammonia is commonly used in mechanical refrigeration systems, including those 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.
B.C.’s coroners’ service said the men who died were Fernie residents Wayne Hornquist, 59, and Lloyd Smith, 52, and 46-year-old Jason Podloski of Turner Valley, Alta.
Magnussen won the figure skating silver medal at the 1972 Olympics in Japan. She won the world championship in 1973 in Bratislava in the former Czechoslovakia.
She said she considers herself the victim of a workplace incident that should never have happened.
“My whole livelihood was taken from me,” Magnussen said. “My career, my health. I wasn’t ready to retire. I loved the kids. I loved the hockey players who I worked with.”