Walkerton marks tragedy with 'River of Tears'

A small Ontario community that raised alarm bells over the safety of the country's water supply held one minute's silence Sunday to remember the start of the worst E. coli outbreak in Canadian history.

Exactly one year earlier, in the middle of Victoria Day weekend celebrations, local health officials issued a warning that continues to haunt residents today: don't drink the water unless you boil it first.

The advisory came too late for some. Seven people died from the deadly strain of E. coli bacteria; dozens spent that first weekend in hospital with severe stomach pain and bloody diarrhea. In the end more than 2,000 people became ill.

About 150 gathered in a high school cafeteria Sunday for an hour-long memorial service to remember the victims many so sick they had to be flown by helicopter for treatment in distant hospitals.

"In contrast to the whirring, awful sound of the choppers, today we want silence," said Len Kraemer, a local teacher. People walked up and tied ribbons on a small tree.

A 45-metre banner, called River of Tears, spanned the room. It was made out of hundreds of tear-shaped messages signed by people from across the country. Strangers sent words of sympathy, as well as a promise that they will not forget what happened in Walkerton.

"It's not the people of Walkerton alone who are the victims of this tragedy, but all Canadians," said Ann-Marie Davis, of Enterprise, Ont., who presented the town with the banner.

A Water Litany, written by the area's religious leaders and delivered in several churches earlier in the day, was also read at the service: "We took Your water for granted. We polluted it. We wasted it. In places like Walkerton, we have become sick because of it, and some even died from it."

Anger, distrust lingers

Although the water has been declared safe again, many families in the community won't drink it relying instead on the bottled water provided for free by the provincial government.

Mayor David Thomson predicts that public confidence in Walkerton's water supply will eventually return.

Investigators believe that strong rains last spring washed manure into at least one water well. The problem was compounded by a water treatment system that wasn't working properly.

When a judicial inquiry into the epidemic began last fall, the man in charge of managing the town's water supply gave disturbing testimony.

Stan Koebel admitted that crucial results from tests on the water languished on his desk last May because he was preoccupied with another project.

He also admitted to regularly faking documents concerning the safety of the water and chlorine levels.

The inquiry is scheduled to hear final testimony, and closing arguments from lawyers, at the end of the summer. A final report is expected by the end of the year.