'Something went horribly wrong': RCMP investigating timeline of deadly ammonia leak in Fernie

The bodies of three men have been recovered from an ice arena in Fernie, B.C., two days after a deadly ammonia leak.

Two city workers and a Calgary-based contractor, with CIMCO Refrigeration, were killed at the Fernie Memorial Arena in the Rocky Mountain community on Tuesday. 

Norm McInnis, the city’s chief administrative officer, said alarms starting going off at the arena around 4 a.m. MT. He said two city workers and a “specialist” were called in to assess the problem.

Somewhere between that dispatch and the first 911 call, McInnis said “something went horribly wrong.”

“We all have questions as to what happened,” he said at a press conference Thursday morning.

Sgt. Trevor Tribes said RCMP will continue their investigation on Thursday.

He said determining a timeline will be a priority for investigators, adding they will also look into, “whether or not there was a criminal aspect to this incident.”

Fernie arena Facebook post

The city of Fernie posted this message to Facebook Tuesday morning: “Notice: The arena will be closed today while crews complete emergency repairs to the refrigeration plant.” Three men later died. (City of Fernie/Facebook)

3 ‘outstanding, most wonderful individuals’

Fernie Fire Chief Ted Ruiter said crews were able to enter the area through the main entrance just after 11 p.m. on Thursday to retrieve the men’s bodies.

They haven’t been identified at their families’ requests.

On Thursday, Fernie Mayor Mary Giuliano said she couldn’t, “emphasize enough of how amazing these three were.”

“There are no words to adequately describe the pain of loss for the families of those lost but also for the huge loss to our entire town,” she wrote on Facebook. “These men were all outstanding, most wonderful individuals.”

Fernie Memorial Arena memorial

A memorial for the three men killed in an ammonia leak at the Fernie Memorial Arena appeared on Wednesday. Fernie is a tight-knit, Rocky Mountain community of around 6,000 people. (submitted by Chris Inglis)

Norm McInnis, the city’s chief administrative officer, said much of the same on Thursday morning.

“We lost two incredibly, vital members of our team yesterday and we’ve all been impacted. CIMCO Refrigeration also lost a member and we want to recognize that,” he said.

McInnis said all City of Fernie operations will shut down on Friday “to give time to staff, process, grieve and begin to heal.” Council meetings scheduled for next Monday have also been cancelled.

Paul Jewer, executive vice-president of CIMCO’s parent company, told the CBC that CIMCO has staff in Fernie to assist in the investigation.

“In the meantime, we are focused on the well-being of all those affected. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and the team,” he said.

Ruiter said the chemical responsible for the deaths is anhydrous ammonia, a noxious gas that can cause fluid to accumulate in the lungs if it’s inhaled. It is commonly used in mechanical refrigeration systems, including those found in ice rinks.

Up to 60 people living near the arena remain under an evacuation order and emergency social services are available, McInnis said. Affected residents are living at a local hotel in the meantime.

The city will maintain a state of emergency until next week.

McInnis said WorkSafe BC will be launching its own investigation after RCMP officers finish theirs.

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