Mayor breaks down at Walkerton inquiry

The mayor of Walkerton started sobbing as he testified Thursday at a judicial inquiry into the E. coli outbreak that killed seven people in his community.

Mayor David Thomson put his hands over his face and cried when asked to describe how he felt during the outbreak in the spring.

Unusually heavy rains in May washed animal waste, and a deadly strain of E. coli, into a well that supplied Walkerton with its drinking water. The tainted water killed seven people and made more than 2,000 others sick the worst outbreak of its kind in Canadian history.

After a 25-minute recess, the mayor regained his composure and started answering questions again.

Thomson was on the stand all day Wednesday and most of Thursday morning. The stress took its toll, as he tried to talk about the province taking over the water system from the local utilities commission and its manager Stan Koebel.

"Yes, I was upset," said an emotional Thomson who then broke down. The judge called a short recess.

Thomson has refused to blame Koebel, even though the manager of the water supply appeared to admit he knew about the bad water days before it was made public.

The mayor said Koebel didn't believe the situation was that bad. Koebel followed his standard procedure of flushing the system and increasing chlorination, believing it would fix the water.

Koebel is expected to testify next week, the first time he will speak publicly about what happened.

Thomson's testimony is also revealing a tense relationship between the mayor and the area's medical health officer, Dr. Murray McQuigge.

On Wednesday, Thomson gave startling testimony about a meeting in late May with McQuigge and Koebel, who appeared "extremely broken up."

A "very agitated" McQuigge told the mayor they were looking at Canada's worst outbreak of E. coli and warned him to expect national media attention. Already, 11 people were in hospital, a two-year-old girl was dying and hundreds were sick.

The men talked about possible sources of the contamination and an action plan.

Then as the meeting was ending, Thomson testified McQuigge leaned over and said: "Don't you blow the whistle on me or Brockton will . . ."

Thomson said the doctor trailed off. Brockton is the name of the region, which includes Walkerton. The mayor said he believes McQuigge meant he didn't want people blaming the health unit.

All in all McQuigge's behaviour "was not very professional," Thomson said.

McQuigge has been praised as the first person to warn the public about the water. He has criticized municipal officials for not acting quicker in a tragedy he said could have been prevented.

The inquiry has already heard that the utilities commission didn't properly test the water, or ensure there was enough chlorine to get rid of bacteria.