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.”

Related: 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.

Related: 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.”


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