Emergency crews were on scene at the Fernie Memorial Arena where three confirmed fatalities occurred Tuesday. (Alexandra Heck/Fernie Free Press)

Refrigeration mechanics students grapple with Fernie’s deadly leak

‘Something happened that created an immediate danger, and these guys were in the middle’: instructor

A deadly ammonia leak in Fernie turned into a sobering lesson for budding refrigeration mechanics at Okanagan College Wednesday.

Ray Koepke, an instructor with Okanagan College’s refrigeration and air conditioning mechanic pre-apprenticeship program in Penticton, one of three in the province, said his class had only gone over safety with ammonia refrigeration plants a couple of weeks ago.

“That’s one of the particular requirements for this class,” he said. “We’re very much aware of what safety precautions are in place, and what you can and can’t do.”

Read more: Investigators hone in on timeline of deadly ammonia leak in Fernie

With what’s called a Class-T machinery room, Koepke said there is no shortage of safety regulations that should bar a tragedies like Tuesday’s deadly leak in Fernie from occurring.

For instance, anyone who enters the room must have a refrigeration certificate, the mechanical room must have panic doors that open to the outside, a leak detection system needs to be in place with an audio alarm and visual meter on the outside to show the level of ammonia in the room. Anything above 25 parts per million is deemed unsafe, Koepke said.

But in Tuesday’s tragic incident, three people were killed by an ammonia leak, including two city workers and one out-of-town contractor, and a neighbourhood was evacuated.

In a news conference Thursday, officials indicated the alarm went off at 4 a.m., and the building was closed for repairs. But between then and 1 p.m., “something went terribly wrong” and a medical emergency was called in.

Read more: Fernie mourns after fatal ammonia leak

“To take three people out in such short notice like that, they would have gone in there working on something, they probably didn’t have safety gear on — and not required to, if there’s no danger — but something happened that created an immediate danger, and these guys were in the middle of it,” Koepke said.

“Not saying that they would have done something wrong. It’s just that they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s not like these things go all the time, either. It’s got to be of some freaking thing that happened, some equipment failure, some device failure. Something happened that’s outside the normal realm of expectation for the piece of equipment.”

One of Koepke’s students works on ammonia at the Summerland Packing House, which brought the issue ever closer to home for the class.

“Everybody’s concerned about what happened,” Koepke said. “We like our people in Canada; we like to keep them. So we don’t send them into places where it’s not safe.”


@dustinrgodfrey

dustin.godfrey@pentictonwesternnews.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Leadership transitions at the College of the Rockies

Paul Vogt steps in to lead the College as former president David Walls retires

Council approves new policy for reserve, surplus funds

Cranbrook city council has approved a new reserves and surplus policy, which… Continue reading

Jill Carley new vice-principal at Mt. Baker Secondary

Following the announcement of a new principal for Cranbrook’s high school, a… Continue reading

Council signals interest in interim national auxiliary constable program

Cranbrook city council has expressed interest in continuing with an interim national… Continue reading

Cranbrook city council approves agreement with RecycleBC for curbside collection

Cranbrook city council has taken another step towards curbside recycling collection, unanimously… Continue reading

21 new COVID-19 cases confirmed in B.C. as virus ‘silently circulates’ in broader community

Health officials urge British Columbians to enjoy summer safely as surge continues

Tough time for tree fruits as some B.C. farm products soar

Province reports record 2019 sales, largely due to cannabis

‘Let’s all do a self-check’: Okanagan mayor reacts to racist vandalism targeting local family

Home of Indo-Canadian family in Summerland was targeted on evening of July 13

Province agrees to multimillion-dollar payout for alleged victims of Kelowna social worker

Robert Riley Saunders is accused of misappropriating funds of children — often Indigenous — in his care

B.C. businessman David Sidoo gets 3 months behind bars for college admissions scam

Sidoo was sentenced for hiring someone take the SATs in place of his two sons

PHOTOS: Inside a newly-listed $22M mega-mansion on ALR land in B.C.

The large home, located on ALR land, is one of the last new mansions to legally be built on ALR land

Thousands of dollars in stolen rice found in B.C. warehouse

Police raid seizes $75,000 in ‘commercial scale’ theft case

COVID-19 gives B.C. First Nation rare chance to examine tourism’s impact on grizzly bears

With 40 infrared cameras deployed in Kitasoo-Xai’Xais territory, research will help develop tourism plan with least impact on bears

NDP wants Lower Mainland MLA removed from BC Liberal caucus for alleged homophobia

BC Liberal leader, some MLAs apologize for Christian magazine ads but Laurie Throness doubles down

Most Read