FERNIE, B.C. — Three people who died after a suspected ammonia leak were doing maintenance work on ice-making equipment at an arena in southeastern British Columbia, says the city’s mayor.
Fernie Mayor Mary Giuliano said Wednesday the city is not identifying those who died in order to respect the wishes of their families, but described two of them as local residents and the third as an out-of-town contractor.
A state of emergency remained in effect following the leak, which was first reported at the Fernie Memorial Arena on Tuesday.
“Fernie is a tight-knit community and I know we’ll pull together to support one another as we have in the past,” Giuliano told a news conference.
“Sadly, we lost three people yesterday, two of whom were part of the City of Fernie family.”
About 60 people living near the arena have been asked to leave the area as a precautionary measure, Giuliano said.
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. on Tuesday 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.
As of Wednesday morning, officials were working on a plan to safely enter the building, he said.
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 were on scene Wednesday.
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.
Giuliano said the accident has devastated her East Kootenay community.
“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.
Premier John Horgan and Labour Minister Harry Bains issued a joint statement, saying they “were saddened to learn of three workplace fatalities” in Fernie.
“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 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.
Irene Lanzinger, president of the BC Federation of Labour, offered her condolences to the families, friends and community of the three workers killed in the leak.
In a statement, she called on the workers’ compensation board to increase its enforcement of 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.
The Canadian Press