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City of Fernie devastated following deadly ammonia leak at arena

Last Updated Oct 18, 2017 at 12:53 pm PDT

Three men were killed in an ammonia leak at Fernie Memorial Arena in October, 2017. (Courtesy Fernie Tourism)

Out-of-town contractor among three dead after suspected ammonia leak at Fernie arena

FERNIE (NEWS 1130) – The community of Fernie has been left devastated by the death of three workers following a suspected ammonia leak at an ice rink.

The RCMP is carrying out an investigation at the Fernie Memorial Arena, with WorkSafeBC officers also there to look into this tragedy, which has left two city workers and an out-of-town contractor dead.

“Sadly, we lost three people yesterday, two of whom were part of the City of Fernie family,” said Mayor Mary Guiliano.

She added given the size of the community, many have been left rattled.

“This is a small, tight-knit community and everybody knows everybody else. So, this has devastated the entire town. It’s a real tragedy that has affected all of us at council, at the City of Fernie, and the residents of Fernie.”

The identities of the people who died have not been released, although their next-of-kin have been notified.

Giuliano added her email inbox has been flooded by people from around the province and beyond sending their condolences. “Honestly, I have heard from back east, up north, and to the coast. Amazing, how this type of news travels so quickly.”

The city remains under a local state of emergency; 60 people living near the arena were told to leave their homes yesterday for safety reasons.

On Facebook, the city said Tuesday the arena was closed for “emergency maintenance” before it confirmed later in the day that there had been three fatalities.

Fire Chief Ted Ruiter said crews responded shortly before 1 p.m. to reports of an ammonia leak 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.

The mayor, fire chief and an RCMP sergeant would not answer questions at the news conference, citing a request from the Mounties.

WorkSafeBC, the B.C. Environment Ministry, the Interior Health Authority and a hazardous materials team from Calgary are at the scene today.

Sergeant 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.

BC Federation of Labour President Irene Lanzinger wants to ensure a thorough investigation is carried out. “It’s always a terrible, terrible tragedy when workers die, and we say these deaths can always be prevented.”

She tells NEWS 1130 an ice rink may not sound like a very dangerous place to work, but, “whenever there are chemicals involved, there’s potential for danger.”

“We don’t know the details in this case, but sometimes that has to do with confined spaces. We’ve certainly seen injuries in that regard before — you may remember the mushroom farm incident, which was an issue of chemicals in a confined space, and people suffocated,” she adds.

“I understand that the RCMP is investigating… we will determine what happened, why it happened, and whether or not there was negligence on the part of the employer — which is important. I have every confidence it will be a thorough investigation and will answer some of those questions.”

Ammonia is commonly used in mechanical refrigeration systems, including those found in ice rinks. It is used in liquid form in such systems 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.

In addition to being used in ice rinks, ammonia is used in fertilizer and to make plastics, fibres and other chemicals.