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A Crane Collapsed. Five People Died. After Two Years, No Answers

Families of those killed in the Kelowna disaster want to know what went so wrong.

Zak Vescera 26 Jun 2023The Tyee

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Almost two years after his son was killed on the job Steven Zook is no closer to answers.

Zook’s son Jared was one of five men who died when a 90-metre tower crane in Kelowna collapsed in July 2021.

The disaster sparked an outpouring of grief and promise of change. But Zook and families of the other victims still don’t know what caused the crane to fall and who might have been responsible. They haven’t even seen the official autopsy reports.

All of that information has been withheld by the RCMP as it works on a criminal investigation with no set date for completion.

Now, with the two-year anniversary coming July 12 and plans for a permanent memorial, Zook says he wants to know how and why his 21-year-old son died.

“Ultimately, we just do not want to see this washed under the carpet,” Zook said. “We want to know what happened, what errors were made, and we want to know how that’s not going to happen to another family again.”

The day of the crash

Cailen Vilness wasn’t supposed to be working on the tower that day.

He had moved to Kelowna years before on an art school scholarship. He ended up switching to study business and, then, to working in construction. One of his projects was the Brooklyn, a 25-storey condo tower being developed by Mission Group, a major Kelowna-area real estate developer.

His mom, Danielle Pritchett, said he had quit that job. She didn’t think he would be back on the site on the day the crane collapsed.

“My thought was, I’m so glad he’s not working there.”

But Cailen went back to the job that day. A little over two hours into his shift, the top portion of the crane fell 25 storeys and smashed into an office building next door.

Vilness was 23. Brothers Eric and Patrick Stemmer were 32 and 28. Zook was 31. All four were working for Stemmer Construction, a subcontractor owned by Eric and Patrick’s parents. The falling crane also hit another building, dealing fatal injuries to Brad Zawislak, 43, who left behind a wife and two young children.

Since that day, Cailen’s father Chris Vilness has regularly called the RCMP and WorkSafeBC, the regulator that enforces workplace safety rules, hoping for an update on what happened to his son.

“There hasn’t been any information provided that gives us some clear direction on what happened,” said Vilness, who runs a roofing company in Kitimat. “And I understand they’re in a full investigation. They’re not going to give you the meat and potatoes of what’s going on. But we deserve something.”

WorkSafeBC announced earlier this year that its inquiry into how the crane collapsed is complete.

But it is withholding that report, it said, until the RCMP have finished their criminal probe.

In a statement, RCMP confirmed that it has completed a production order to obtain WorkSafeBC’s report. The force said it was combing through “thousands of pieces of evidence and seized documentation.”

Family members interviewed for this story said they support the police’s investigation. Many want accountability, they said, for any company or person found criminally responsible for the disaster.

But they also said the delay and the lack of any kind of public information was making closure impossible.

“I want the investigations to be done thoroughly, obviously, no matter how long that takes to make sure it’s done right,” Pritchett said. “But at the same time, it’s unacceptable. I want to know what physically happened to my son. Because he fell over 300 feet tied to the crane. He was still in his harness. And I don’t know physically what happened to him, so I can’t get closure.”

Unions have questions, too. Many believe the delay is unacceptable, given the number of lives lost and the profound impact it had on the people of Kelowna.

“It takes some wind out of our sails and makes us think there aren’t real consequences for potentially injuring workers or having unsafe standards,” said Kelly Hutchinson, the vice-president of the North Okanagan Labour Council. Hutchinson said he understands the investigation will be complex: Stemmer Construction, the firm that operated the crane, was ultimately a subcontractor of another company, which in turn reported to the developer, Mission Group.

“There’s a saying that justice delayed is justice denied,” Hutchinson said. “It feels like we're still battling today.”

Pat McGregor, the president of the United Steelworkers Local 1-423, says there are grim parallels between the case and other worker fatalities in the province.

In 2009, a falling boulder killed 24-year-old Sam Fitzpatrick while he was working on a hydroelectric project north of Powell River. In their initial report, WorkSafeBC described the company’s safety planning as “heedless” and “wanton.”

Ten years later, prosecutors charged the company under the Westray law, a bill named for the Nova Scotia mining disaster that killed 26 workers. The Westray law amended the Criminal Code to allow prosecutors to charge companies with criminal negligence if their workers are killed at the job and if the government can establish those companies failed to take “reasonable steps” to keep their workers safe.

But that standard has proved difficult to meet. In the Fitzpatrick case, prosecutors suddenly stayed charges in 2021. In total, across Canada, there have been only nine cases where companies or supervisors have been successfully prosecuted under the Westray law. Of those, only one prosecution involved prison time.

McGregor and the USW have argued prosecutors are not doing enough when workers die on their watch.

Pat McGregor sits in an office chair looking at the camra and wearing a black T-shirt that says “STEELWORKER. And proud to be.”
Pat McGregor of the United Steelworkers say many in the labour movement are frustrated by the slow progress on the crane investigation and the lack of consequences when workers die on the job. Photo by Zak Vescera.

“People want to know answers,” McGregor said. “They want to know what happened and how to prevent reoccurrence. And in this case, it doesn’t seem like they’re getting those answers.”

Pritchett said it’s not about compensation, but accountability for any company that might have let safety standards slip or failed to do its due diligence. “I want there to be accountability legally. I want restitution for those men. Not just my son but all five of them. It’s not about finances for me, but accountability,” Pritchett said.

“I want there to be accountability legally. I want restitution for those men. Not just my son but all five of them. It’s not about finances for me, but accountability.”

Earlier this month, Helen Furuya, the widow of Zawislak, filed a civil claim in B.C. Supreme Court. The claim names Stemmer Construction as a defendant, but all of the other named defendants are unspecified John and Jane Does — companies or individuals that have not yet been identified. The Tyee reached out to Furuya’s lawyer seeking comment but did not hear back by publication time.

The only public report completed so far on why the crane collapsed was done by Oak Forensic Engineering, a Calgary-based company that did that analysis for ClaimsPro Canada, an insurance adjustment firm.

That forensic report said the collapse occurred when the crew was removing a segment of the tower crane, which consists of stacked modular parts, as part of the process in taking it down. The report, based on analysis of the remaining crane parts, concluded that the crew had attempted to lift that part of the crane before it was fully detached, sparking the collapse.

The report also found that the crane’s jib — the long arm from the tower — wasn’t properly balanced as it was being disassembled.

The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115, which represents crane operators in B.C., has said it wants mandatory qualification requirements put in for workers who assemble and disassemble such cranes.

In B.C., workers need certifications to operate tower cranes, but not to take them apart, which can be one of the most dangerous parts of the process.

“The industry should regulate that, and they haven’t. And they killed five people,” Chris Vilness said.

In a statement, B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains said he understands the frustration families feel as they wait on the report.

“Complex investigations take time, but they are essential for determining exactly what happened and how similar incidents can be prevented in the future,” Bains wrote. He pointed out his ministry and WorkSafeBC had begun an inspection initiative on cranes with a goal of eliminating “unsafe work practices and equipment hazards that have the potential to cause death, serious injury and/or catastrophic equipment failure.”

Pritchett says her son, Cailen, was constantly worried about safety at construction sites he had worked at. He said he sometimes came to her crying when talking about the laissez-faire attitudes to proper protocol.

“He would talk to me almost daily about it,” Pritchett said. “I know it’s a culture, right? It’s a culture in construction.”

The memorial

On a cloudy day, Pritchett is driving to the place her son died. There, tucked behind the completed Brooklyn tower, is a small bronze plaque mounted three metres off the ground on the site where the crane stood. It bears the names of the four construction workers who died that day. Zawislak, killed in the adjacent building, is not mentioned.

It’s the only physical memorial in Kelowna for the men who died.

The plaque was installed by Mission Group, the developer of the tower. The company continues to build in Kelowna’s downtown, where cranes fill the skyline. It recently received a building permit from Kelowna city council for a $140-million project.

The plaque was unveiled at a small ceremony with the family members of the men killed. Some said the tribute felt underwhelming.

“You would get run over if you actually stand and look at it,” Zook said. The plaque is tucked into a fire lane, in a place someone would be unlikely to find it unless they were looking for it.

Pritchett said the memorial fell short.

“It’s upsetting to me. Really upsetting, I’m not going to lie,” she said.

Mission Group did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story.

In the days after the accident, a makeshift memorial sprung up at the corner of Bernard and St. Paul streets, near the tower. Men hung safety vests on the fence. Syber Concrete Forming, a Langley-area company, paid for vinyl placards with photos of the men. People left flowers and a clock with hands set to the time of the disaster. That memorial was eventually moved and then dismantled, leaving families without a space to grieve.

Kelly Hutchinson, in a black T-shirt, looks at plans for a memorial for the workers.
Kelly Hutchinson says a planned memorial to those killed should be a place for families to grieve and the community to come together. Photo by Zak Vescera.

Plans are now underway for another memorial. Earlier this year, the City of Kelowna agreed to let the North Okanagan Labour Council build that project at Knowles Park, a short walk from the scene of the accident. The design work is being led by Ecora, a Kelowna engineering firm that also helped design a memorial for the victims of the Las Vegas mass shooting in 2017.

Hutchinson says the preliminary design includes dedicated space for each of the families to grieve their loved ones. But he says he also wants the memorial to be a place the community can come together.

“I think it’s to provide some peace and grieving for the families, but also to provide a place for the community — something to uplift them,” Hutchinson said. He says they plan to launch a fundraising campaign once the families have approved a final draft. He expects the project will cost between $300,000 and $400,000 total.

Steven Zook says he wants it to be a space where Jared’s name can be remembered. But he also hopes it provides solace for anyone who has lost a loved one in a workplace accident.

“Our five guys are not the end of workplace accidents. I think in a sense it needs to be a place that other people can find some solace in,” Zook said.

Zook remembers Jared as a friendly, hardworking kid. As a young man, he got the nickname “Jer Bear” and it stuck. “To his nieces and nephews, he was Uncle Bear,” Steven Zook said. “And he never got tired of that name.”

Chris Vilness and Pritchett remember Cailen as a fearless, outgoing kid. He always put his best foot forward. “He was the kid that was always ready to try anything, whether he was good at it or not,” Chris Vilness said.

“He had a lot to live for, and the world was a better place with Cailen in it. I’m sure the world was a better place with all those individuals in it.”

Hutchinson says he wants the final space to be an anchor for the community — and a tribute so those five men are never just names on a plaque.

“This would be something that labour and the community owns,” Hutchinson said. “We think it’s important to highlight that their lives are not for nothing. And they built this city.”  [Tyee]

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