Bodies removed from Fernie arena following ammonia leak, evacuation order persists

Director of Fire and Emergency Services Ted Ruiter addresses media during a news conference in Fernie, B.C., on Thursday, October 19, 2017. Ruiter said that the bodies of three men have been removed from an ice arena after a deadly ammonia leak on Tuesday set off a local state of emergency in Fernie.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lauren Krugel

FERNIE, B.C. - The bodies of two men have been removed from an ice arena in southeastern British Columbia following an ammonia leak as officials try to piece together a timeline leading up to the deadly incident.

Norm McInnis, chief administrative officer with the City of Fernie, said an alarm went off at the local arena around 4 a.m. Tuesday, prompting the municipality to shut down the rink and call in a specialist for emergency maintenance.

Shortly before 1 p.m. emergency crews responded to a 911 call and arrived to find someone providing CPR to a person.

"We all have questions as to what happened," McInnis told reporters Thursday. "Something went terribly wrong."

Fire Chief Ted Ruiter said response crews originally entered the facility Tuesday afternoon but left for safety reasons after performing an interior search.

Emergency responders were able to re-enter the building and recover the bodies around 11 p.m. Wednesday, he added.

An evacuation order will remain in place until at least Friday for about 60 people living in the area while crews investigate whether there is any lingering danger, Ruiter said.

"Getting the evacuated residents home remains our top priority, but we need to make sure that we get them home safely."

Two of the men who died were city employees. McInnis said the municipality will shut down its operations Friday to give staff time to grieve.

A spokesman for the parent company of refrigeration business CIMCO confirmed the third victim worked for their Calgary branch.

A city spokesperson, the fire chief and an RCMP sergeant declined to answer questions at a news conference on Thursday about the incident. No questions were taken at media briefings on Wednesday as well, citing a request from the RCMP.

Twyla Sevinski, a lifelong Fernie resident, said people in the community have been shaken by the tragedy. She recalled coming across a chaotic scene Tuesday afternoon as a flurry of fire trucks and ambulances rushed to the arena.

"There was a lot of fear around town,'' she said Wednesday. "It's a lot to take in all at one time. I just hope that everybody can get through this.'"

Sevinski said her eight-year-old daughter loves to skate at the arena and her 14-year-old son has spent many hours on the ice playing hockey.

"What if other people were in there when this happened? It could have impacted a lot more people, children. It's scary,'' she said.

Sevinski said the event has stirred up memories of another tragic event that shook the community nine years ago.

Her brother in law was one of eight snowmobilers killed in a series of avalanches in the rugged southeastern B.C. backcountry in December of 2008 and her cousin was one of the survivors.

"We've had some serious tragedies go on here and we just try and support each other to get through it,'' she said.

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.

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