A Yukon coroner's jury looking into the deaths of five people in a Whitehorse home last year from carbon monoxide poisoning is recommending immediate government action on safety in homes with oil-fired appliances.
Bradley Rusk, 45, his wife Valerie, 37, along with their children Gabriel, 13, and Rebekah, 11, died in their rented Porter Creek home in January 2012. Donald McNamee, 47, a family friend who lived in the home, also died.
The inquest heard there were a dozen documented chances to prevent their deaths. Evidence also showed the Yukon government was warned by an industry expert years before the deaths occurred that unless improvements were made to safety standards regarding installation, maintenance and inspection of oil-fired appliances, a tragedy would be likely.
The jury made nine recommendations Friday to improve safety in homes with oil-fired appliances such as furnaces and hot water heaters.
They include more public education about carbon monoxide detectors. The jury also wants government to launch a campaign that would advise anyone with a masonry chimney in the territory to have their chimney inspected on a priority basis.
Cameron and Greg Rusk, who lost their brother and three other family members, said they’re relieved something is being done and want the Yukon government to be more proactive.
Both Rusk brothers said they'll be watching carefully to make sure the jury's recommendations are followed.
The six-member coroner's jury was sworn in Monday morning in Whitehorse.
They heard that a few days before the deaths, Valerie Rusk had gone to her doctor’s office reporting that the family all had headaches and were feeling weak and nauseous. An appointment was made to see the entire family the next day, but the Rusk family was too sick to get to that appointment.
Firefighters testified that the moment they entered the home, their toxic gas detectors went off the scale with lights flashing and bells ringing. They said there was no sound from any carbon monoxide detectors in the home, and even though firefighters found the curtains and bedding coated in soot, there was no sound from any smoke alarms.
Blood tests confirmed the five had died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
The fire marshal's report said the home’s chimney was falling apart and parts of the furnace had not been properly installed. Bits of the masonry chimney that had fallen inside contributed to the chimney freezing over and blocking the vent, allowing the toxic gas to build up inside the home.
A contractor who repaired the chimney more than 20 years ago testified that he put a new metal liner into the brick chimney because a ceramic liner was crumbling and blocking the pipe. But investigators looking into the deaths couldn't find any trace of the metal liner. A retired city employee said he didn't see a liner when he inspected the work, and essentially took the contractor’s word that it had been installed.
The contractor landlord Craig Tuton hired to install a used boiler in the home didn't obtain any permits and isn't familiar with the building code governing boiler installations. The contractor Tuton hired to do regular maintenance on the boiler noted the system did not have a switch which would shut the boiler off if the chimney was blocked — even though since 2007, the building code requires those switches.
Tuton told the inquest he doesn't know about building codes, city bylaws, building permits or inspections and that he hires contractors who are supposed to know them.
Case draws attention to chimney maintenance
Bob Norwegian, a contract worker in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., who cleans chimneys, said while maintaining a chimney may seem daunting — especially in the winter — homeowners can do it safely.
He said to start by looking at the outside of the chimney while a fire is burning, to make sure the smoke is flowing properly.
Norwegian said he has seen some extremely blocked chimneys.
"All I could see is about a three-inch hole at the top, and on the outside was all with soot," he said.
"I wanted to touch it with my finger and I did, which was a terrible mistake. The whole thing avalanched right on top of my face and I was just covered with soot from head to toe."
Norwegian said when soot builds up on the inside of the pipe, the smoke moves very slowly towards the opening of the chimney and the exhaust condenses by the time it gets to the chimney's opening.
That condensation can freeze, blocking the chimney with ice and causing carbon monoxide gas to build up to dangerous levels inside the house.
Norwegian said it's important for homeowners to install a carbon monoxide detector low to the ground to get a proper reading.