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Families Are Still Waiting for Answers in a Deadly Kelowna Crane Disaster

Two and a half years later, the RCMP has recommended criminal charges.

Brishti Basu 22 Feb 2024The Tyee

Brishti Basu reports on labour for The Tyee. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative. Follow her on X @brish_ti.

Almost three years after a crane collapse that killed five people on a Kelowna construction project, the RCMP have recommended at least one charge of criminal negligence causing death.

But Kelowna RCMP told The Tyee in a statement they would “not be identifying whom we have recommended charges against.”

Chris Vilness, the father of one of the victims, has been told the same and is unhappy about the lack of information.

“I want to understand who is responsible for making the decisions that were made that day,” Vilness said. “I want to know the technical mishaps that caused that tower to collapse.”

Chris’s son, Cailen Vilness, was a construction worker on the Brooklyn, a 25-storey condo tower being developed by Kelowna-area developer Mission Group.

On the morning of July 12, 2021, Vilness and his colleagues Jared Zook and brothers Eric and Patrick Stemmer were killed when the Stemmer Construction crane they were working on collapsed. It crashed into an office, also killing Brad Zawislak, who was working there.

In August, Vilness said WorkSafeBC told him its investigation had been completed and handed over to the RCMP. At the time WorkSafeBC said it was not revealing any details about its inquiry until after police had finished their probe.

Now that the RCMP’s investigation is complete, WorkSafeBC said in a statement to The Tyee it will still not be releasing its investigation report “to ensure it does not affect the charge assessment process.”

Vilness said he’s hoping the RCMP investigation is thorough and was done with a lot of effort. “I’m optimistic that that is the case,” he said.

“At the end of this I just really hope that this industry can learn from this and make sure that there’s not another group of five families that are sitting here having to relive it every couple of months, for the rest of our lives, really.”

Josh Towsley, a representative of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115, said the union has been seeking regulatory changes to how tower cranes are operated since the Kelowna crane collapse, but have yet to get answers.

Towsley said he was recently part of a WorkSafeBC consultation process for changes to one part of B.C. tower crane regulations. Stakeholders were not given any information about changes made due to the Kelowna collapse during that process, despite his repeated requests for that information.

“In particular, we’re looking for the licensing of contractors that erect, climb, reposition and dismantle tower cranes, and we’re looking for mandatory training for the people that do that work,” Towsley said.

“There’s no mandatory training that is required in that industry at all; there’s no licensing required for the contractor.”

In its statement, WorkSafeBC said that even though it has not released its report, “key learnings from the investigation” are being incorporated into “crane safety initiatives.”

More incidents since Kelowna

According to the union, there were two tower crane malfunctions in Burnaby and Surrey earlier this year, in which there were fortunately no injuries.

The boom of a crane collapsed at a work site in Surrey in the early morning of Jan. 30 while construction crews were starting their day, Towsley said. This happened just days after an incident in Burnaby where part of a crane boom was “hanging out” over a highway due to an unknown technical failure, he said.

The details of what happened aren’t known because WorkSafeBC has not completed its investigation. And in Vancouver Wednesday, one person was killed when a construction crane apparently lost its load.

Towsley said it’s “abnormal” that the agency is withholding the results of its Kelowna investigation more than two years after it happened.

WorkSafeBC did not answer The Tyee’s question about how many tower crane accidents have taken place in B.C. since July 2021.

Vilness had been in contact with both WorkSafeBC and the RCMP since his son’s death in an effort to find answers, so the charge recommendation did not come as a surprise to him.

“The RCMP had originally said it would be probably closer to the end of November but that didn’t happen,” Vilness said. “It’s February now and it’ll be another three months or so before the Crown actually decides.... I won’t get closure until I know the details of what happened. Right now we still have a lot of unknown.” The decision on charges is made by Crown prosecutors.

The charge recommendation was an important step in the process for the families of the victims and also a win for workers in a rare move to hold someone accountable for workplace deaths in B.C., Towsley said.

“Now that that recommendation has been made, WorkSafe should immediately release their investigation and start working on the regulatory change that needs to happen in our industry.”  [Tyee]

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