FERNIE, B.C.—The City of Fernie, B.C., closed its operations for a day of mourning on Friday as colleagues and loved ones remembered three dedicated workers and devoted family men who died on the job following an ammonia leak at the local arena.
The provincial coroners’ service said the men who died Tuesday were Fernie residents Wayne Hornquist, 59, and Lloyd Smith, 52, and 46-year-old Jason Podloski of Turner Valley, Alta.
Mayor Mary Giuliano said Hornquist was in charge of running facilities at the Fernie Memorial Arena and had recently been given an award for 25 years of service.
Hornquist was born and raised in Fernie and loved to spend time in the garden with his wife. He was also an avid builder, crafting display cases for the arena and intricate frames for his daughters’ degrees, Giuliano said.
“He claimed to be the best Zamboni driver around because he could finish the rink using one less lap than everyone else — something his daughters confirm was true.”
Smith was also a senior instructor with the Alberta Association of Recreation Facility Personnel and its incoming board president, executive director Stuart Ray said.
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Ray called his friend of 10 years a “gentle soul” who was generous with his time.
“He’s a very intellectual individual. He’s very quiet and it takes a long time to get to know the man,” Ray said.
“But once you do, you find out that he’s a bit of a joker. He always has a kind word to say.”
Ray said Smith was adventurous and flew planes as a hobby.
He was from High River, Alta., and lived in nearby Okotoks before taking the job three hours away in Fernie.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper’s wife, Laureen, tweeted Thursday that Smith was a childhood friend who taught her how to drive a Zamboni at a rink in High River.
A spokesman for the parent company of refrigeration business CIMCO confirmed the third victim worked for its Calgary branch.
Carmen Weaver, a friend of Podloski’s, said he was one of the hardest-working people she knows.
“He had two kids, he was really making a go of it working for this refrigeration company out of Calgary and by all means he seemed to be living the dream.”
She said he liked to have a beer with friends, a good laugh and loved his two boys who are both under age five.
Authorities are trying to piece together a timeline leading up to the deadly incident.
Norm McInnis, Fernie’s city’s chief administrative officer, said an alarm went off at the 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 outside the building. That person died.
“Something went terribly wrong,” he told reporters Thursday.
Fire Chief Ted Ruiter said response crews originally entered the facility Tuesday afternoon and discovered the remains of the other two victims, but left for safety reasons. Emergency responders were able to re-enter the building and recover the bodies on Wednesday, Ruiter added.
Ammonia is commonly used in mechanical refrigeration systems, including those in ice rinks.
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety says ammonia is a colourless gas that is toxic if inhaled.
An evacuation order remained in effect Friday for homes and businesses around the arena. The city says about 95 displaced residents are being put up in a hotel.
“I know everybody’s frustrated with our timelines, but we can’t rush this because it’s too dangerous to do that,” Ruiter said Friday.
A pressure vessel is en route from Edmonton, which crews will use to draw ammonia from the facility so the gas can safely be disposed of and they can gain access to the facility, he said.
Local coffee shop Mugshots Cafe was offering free food and drinks to anyone who has been forced from their homes, owner Shauntelle Nelson said.
She said the whole community is rallying to support first responders and those who have been displaced.
“That’s what Fernie is. That’s what Fernie does.”
— With files from Terri Theodore in Vancouver
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version had the incorrect age for Smith’s son, based on an interview with a friend.