Sullivan Mine tragedy, ten years later

Memories of that spring day still crystal clear for George Weitzel

BC Ambulance Honour Guard Ian Johnson stood in silence at the Kimberley Ambulance Station Wednesday

BC Ambulance Honour Guard Ian Johnson stood in silence at the Kimberley Ambulance Station Wednesday

Today, May 17, 2016, marks the ten-year anniversary of day four people lost their lives on the Sullivan Mine property in Kimberley.

Ambulance paramedics Kim Weitzel and Shawn Currier, water sampling contractor Doug Erickson, and Teck Cominco employee Bob Newcombe all died in an oxygen deprived atmosphere inside a water sampling shed near the top mine on May 17, 2006.

It was a tragic day that impacted everyone in Kimberley and area. As Mayor Jim Ogilvie said at the time, “It is one of the worst things our fire department has ever had to deal with. I spoke to some of the fire fighters this morning and they were visibly shaken.

“This incident is going to affect everyone in our community. Every individual in our community will know one or the victims. The sympathy of the entire community goes out to the families.”

Even ten years on the impact on the families of Kim, Shawn, Bob and Doug has not lessened.

George Weitzel, widower of Kim, spoke to the Bulletin of his memories of that day and week, and the long fight for an inquest that followed. In the years since the accident, Weitzel has become an advocate for workplace safety, work he continues to this day.

“It still goes on,” he said. “As memories fade, diligence about safety on the job fades. Every time I hear of a preventable accident, I find it difficult.”

Weitzel’s memories of that day 10 years ago are crystal clear.

“I can remember every bit of it. This season of warm, sunny days triggers my memories of that week. It was way above seasonable in 2006, just like this year. In fact they attributed warm weather as a factor in the breathing of the waste dump, which led to the atmosphere in the sampling shed.”

Weitzel says the days leading up to May 17 each year are always difficult.

“It is a reminder of how fast a person’s life can change,” he said. “Some people say, you’ll get over it. You don’t. You only learn how to carry it around.

“It may be ten years old but it’s still recent in my memory. It doesn’t seem like ten years. It’s a lot fresher than that for all of us (the four families).

“Kim was working that day, but then she had some days off and so did I.

“The plan was I was going to finish a job on a hot rod I was working on, then get our bikes ready for a ride. I was working on that when I heard on the radio that something had happened at the mine.

“My life has been changed since that moment. I felt like I was gut shot and kicked in the nuts.”

In the days and weeks that followed, Weitzel and members of the Currier, Newcombe and Erickson families waited for the Chief Mining Inspector’s report on the accident.

“We all trusted there would be some light shed on what happened,” Weitzel said. “Then the report came out and it was offensive to all of us. That’s what brought us together. My anger was at such a level that I called Penny Newcombe. We met for coffee and I said, ‘are you as angry as I am?’. Yes, she was. Then I phoned the Curriers and the Erickson family. We decided to fight for an inquest.”

It took time but Weitzel says sentiment in support of the families was building.

“We had the support of Jim Ogilvie. And Norm Macdonald, God bless him he pushed hard for us. Then the BC Federation of Labour put a motion forward to press government for an inquest. What a relief when we finally got it.

“Finally the truth will come out. And it did.”

Especially satisfying for Weitzel is that of 19 recommendations to improve workplace safety coming out of the inquest, 18 of them were implemented.

“That gave us something,” he said. “That has value.”

But it doesn’t change the weight of grief, although he will continue to advocate for workplace safety.

“My neighbour, who is a volunteer fire fighter, every May 17, he and his wife leave a white rose in my mailbox. He said that day changed his life too.

“I remember that when I have to speak at some event. I’m not a public speaker, but it’s about the message. It’s about how your life can change.”

Today an honour guard stood at the Kimberley Ambulance Station from 8:45 a.m. when the original call came in until 10 a.m. when victims from the Sullivan Mine accident were transported to hospital.