British Columbia

'It was like an animal trap': homeless woman's death in clothing donation bin spurs calls for change

A woman has died after getting stuck in a used clothing donation bin early Monday morning — prompting a call to make the receptacles safer.

'If this were a stroller or a car, [these bins] would be recalled,' says resident who tried to help

Saskia Wolsak lives near where the woman died after she got trapped in a used clothing donation bin on Vancouver's West Side. (Nic Amaya/CBC)

A woman in her 30s has died after getting stuck in a used clothing donation bin on Vancouver's west side early Monday morning — prompting a call to make used item receptacles safer.

Saskia Wolsak was one of several neighbours who tried to help the homeless woman who got stuck. 

"If this were a stroller or this were a car, [these donation bins] would be recalled," Wolsak said. "This cannot be what these charities actually want." 

Wolsak lives near the West Point Grey Community Centre where the woman died. She said she woke up at about 4 a.m. when she heard a man shouting, "Somebody help!"

"It didn't sound like partiers or people at the beach. It sounded like a real problem," she said.

'It was like an animal trap'

By time she found the man, a few neighbours had arrived as well.

The man told them his girlfriend was stuck halfway in the donation bin, and he asked them to call 911. 

"She was just utterly pinned in there, and she was not responsive," Wolsak said.

A 34-year-old Vancouver man is the second person in Metro Vancouver to die in 2018 in a charity clothing bin like the one pictured above in Vancouver's West Side where a woman died in July. (Saskia Wolsak)

A few people tried "very, very gingerly" to pull the woman out, Wolsak said, but one of the neighbours said the design was clearly made to keep items — and inadvertently, people — inside. 

"It was like an animal trap that was designed not to release her," Wolsak said.

'I can't leave that man'

When police arrived, they called an ambulance and a fire truck. They then told the neighbours to disperse. 

But when Wolsak got home, she realized she had left the woman's boyfriend behind, alone and crying. 

"I got home and then I thought I can't leave that man if he needs company," she said. 

When Wolsak came back, the man was sitting by himself. She stayed with him until the fire truck showed up.

She says it took 10 officers and several power tools to try to extract the woman.

When CBC News returned the next day to where the woman died, her boyfriend was there writing her a letter. (Denis Dossman/CBC)

The man told Wolsak that he and his girlfriend, whose name was Svetlana and was originally from Russia, had been together for eight years.

"He was really distraught, he was crying," Wolsak said. 

They had recently been going through a tough time. He told Wolsak they had been evicted from their home and had been couch surfing. 

A police officer came up to them and told the man he was sorry for his loss, and offered help from victims' services. 

Eventually, the man told Wolsak he couldn't stand to watch as his girlfriend's body was being extricated from the bin. 

'A social issue on multiple levels'

When Wolsak returned home, she went online to research deaths caused by being trapped in donation bins — and came across several cases from across North America.

In Metro Vancouver, a Surrey man was found dead after getting caught in a clothing donation bin near Guilford in 2016. The year before, homeless advocate Anita Hauck died in a clothing donation bin in 2015 after she was trapped upside down.

Wolsak thinks the deaths aren't treated as seriously because they often involve people who are homeless or otherwise disadvantaged.

"I realize this is a social issue on multiple levels," she said.

"I think it's important obviously to treat all lives and deaths equally and with equal amount of respect and to raise a flag if there's a systemic problem."

Saskia Wolsak placed a vase of flowers at the scene where the woman died. (Nic Amaya/CBC)

She wants to see the design of the bins reviewed so they're not as dangerous.

The B.C. Coroners Service said it's in the early stages of its investigation into the death of the woman, who was in her 30s.

Wolsak returned to the community centre later that day to lay a bouquet of flowers in honour of the woman who died.

By then, the bin and its surrounding contents had been removed. 

Innovative solutions needed

In a written statement, the Development Disabilities Association, which owns the bin, said it worked with the community centre to have it removed.

"Community safety is very important to us. We've made efforts to prevent people from entering the bins and will continue in these efforts with other charities and bin manufacturers," the charity said. 

Union Gospel Mission spokesperson Nicole Mucci said the bins needs to be redesigned. 

Mucci suggested a project like the one from UBC Okanagan engineering students, who recently redesigned shopping carts for homeless people

"That provided a bit more safety and security for their possessions," she said. "That kind of innovative thinking when applied to the clothing donation bins could save lives."

On Tuesday, CBC News returned to the location where the woman died. The woman's boyfriend was there writing her a letter. 

"My dearest darling, I can't believe you're gone. I've never ever imagined a life without you," he wrote. 

With files from Meera Bains