A Coroner’s Inquest began this week into the deaths of three Langley mushroom farm workers who died from inhaling toxic gases that had accumulated in a pump house they were working in four years ago.
Ut Tran, 35, Han Pham, 47, and Chi Wai (Jimmy) Chan died on Sept. 5, 2008 while working on now-bankrupt mushroom farm A-1 Mushroom Substratum Ltd. Two other employees have been left with permanent brain damage.
One survivor, Tchen Phan, is in a wheelchair and cannot hear, talk or walk . The other, Michael Phan, a Langley father of two, has been in a coma since the 2008 incident.
B.C. Coroner Norm Leibel and a jury will hear evidence from subpoenaed witnesses to determine the facts surrounding these deaths. On Monday, the paramedics who were first on scene to the farm and Langley Township assistant fire chief Rob Sewell were testifying, as well as a pathologist and toxicologist.
The paramedics testified that it was very difficult to not go in and help the men trapped in the pump house. They said a language barrier also made it difficult to explain to the other workers not to go in and help.
On Tuesday, the mushroom farm supervisor and bookkeeper, along with WorkSafe BC representatives were expected to testify. On Wednesday, the farm owner, Ha Quan Truong will take the stand.
The jury can make recommendations aimed at preventing deaths under similar circumstances in the future.
Last November, a provincial court judge in Surrey imposed fines totaling $350,000 on the owners of the farm, including $200,000 to the now bankrupt A-1 Mushroom and $120,000 to H.V. Truong Ltd.
Truong was given a personal fine of $15,000 and his wife, Van Thi Troung, $5,000. Joint owner Thinh Huu Doan will pay $10,000. All pleaded guilty to 10 of the original 29 charges, including failure to have an occupational health and safety program in place, failure to properly supervise workers and failure to make workers aware about confined space hazards.
There is currently a for sale sign on the property.
Five men had all inhaled toxic levels of hydrogen sulphide gas while attempting to unclog a plugged pipe in a composting shed on the South Langley mushroom farm at 23751 16 Avenue.
A plumber who tried and failed to unclog the pump on Sept. 5, 2008 told the owners to hire a sewer pump-out service. Instead, two employees of the mushroom farm tried to unclog it themselves under the supervision of one of the owners, Doan.
Ut Tran unbolted a pipe covering to get at the blockage and reached in with a screwdriver to clear the line.
Then Tran said something about a strange smell. Doan says he told Tran to leave. But Tran took one step toward a ladder and fell, face down, into 16 inches of waste water at the bottom of the shed.
The second man stayed with Tran, while Doan left the shed to get help.
In the next few minutes, three other men would enter the shed and be overcome by the fumes.
Later tests showed a fatal amount of hydrogen sulphide gas had built up behind the blockage.
The first paramedics to arrive had been told they were dealing with a drowning.
They quickly realized it was a confined space situation, and that they didn’t have proper breathing equipment to safely enter.
The two paramedics put in a call for assistance and fought to keep other workers from entering the shed, where they could hear one of the men was still conscious and screaming for help.
The paramedics knew that allowing other unprotected people into the shed would only add to the casualty list.
B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair is scheduled to testify on Thursday. He hopes the government will enact any jury recommendations, but is doubtful.
Sinclair noted that a jury made sweeping safety recommendations after the inquiry into the farm workers killed in a van crash. But those recommendations have not been implemented.
“Unfortunately, recommendations only matter if the government has the will to act on them,” said Sinclair.