Petition calls for work at site of Kelowna crane tragedy to halt immediately

Journal of Commerce | Russell Hixson | October 28, 2021

Friends and family of those killed during a crane collapse at a Kelowna construction site this summer are urging the project team to pause work with new cranes.

The group has started an online petition, which as of Oct. 27 had more than 600 signatories, who are calling on Bernard Block developer Mission Group to pause new crane work until the investigation is concluded and prioritize memorial planning for the fallen workers.

“While the families have set about picking up the pieces of their lives left shattered by the sacrifice of their loved ones to earn profit for the owners of Mission Group, it would seem it is business as usual for them,” wrote the group. “We are giving Mission Group an opportunity to prove us wrong.”

Chris Vilness, who lost his 23-year-old son Cailen in the collapse, is no stranger to the construction sector. He is a construction manager for 101 Industries in Kitimat and started his career as a roofer. He has worked in nearly every part of the sector.

“It was my son and four others that died,” said Vilness. “I wasn’t really prepared to hear that there was more crane activity on that site so soon. I do understand that the show must go on and the build will continue. I do understand that, but there is still an active investigation. So until the investigation has a cause for what happened and what the gaps were, I don’t think two new tower cranes should go up. One, to protect the workers, and two, to protect the public.”

Vilness added despite his concerns, his interactions with Mission Group have been sincere and heartfelt. The developer even mentioned planning a green space or memorial at the project site for the fallen workers. But with cranes going up and work on the project continuing, Vilness is now questioning if that is still a priority.

“The cranes and construction and deadlines and the money should not take precedent over what happened with these boys and what they are going to do to remember them going forward,” said Vilness. “I did feel that they were sincere, the conversation was engaging, and I do feel they are very sorry for our loss and ultimately it is a big hit for them because it was their worksite.”

Mission Group announced it has been working with Emry Formworks Inc. to develop a safety deployment plan to assemble two new tower cranes.

It was shocking that the cranes would go up before the investigation was completed,

Jason Wickner, Petition Organizer

In a release, the company states the cranes are required for the construction and completion of the Block office tower and Bertram condo tower at Bernard Block and were to be assembled at the site on Oct. 26. The tower cranes will be assembled and serviced by Morwest Crane & Services Ltd. The safety deployment plan includes comprehensive procedures for crane assembly and dismantling including operator qualifications and safety training.

Mission Group also stressed the Bernard Block project consists of three separate towers: Brooklyn, Bertram, and The Block.  The new cranes being assembled are on Bertram and The Block, not Brooklyn where the deadly collapse occurred.

“Our compassion and concern for those impacted by the tragic events of July 12 has not changed and we continue to think of the families and members of our community who lost loved ones,” said Mission Group in a statement after the petition was announced. “Mission Group is in discussions with family members of the victims and is working towards plans for an appropriate memorial at the Brooklyn site.”

Vilness said the tragedy has been a devastating blow that he and his family continue to struggle with.

“They were all young men just starting families,” said Vilness. “Grandkids? Won’t get to experience that with Cailen. Watch him get married? Won’t get to experience that. I pushed him to get into the trades. Was that a mistake? Maybe. Because the construction industry failed to protect him. That is a tough one for me to swallow as well.”

Vilness said he believes more should be done to regulate the complex task of erecting and dismantling large cranes. He noted while is son had some experience working with the crane, it was his first time taking it down and he had no certifications for that type of work.

“I don’t think he was qualified and there was so much more that should have been done to regulate who gets on these tower cranes and who does not. It is not your average job. I think they industry allowed them to operate, and the industry failed to have the proper regulations in place.”

Vilness said he does believe the industry has gotten safer over the years, but the increasing costs of safety make it tempting to push things.

“I do believe the industry is safer, but I also see that different worksites have different levels of safety.”

Vilness’ current work at LNG Canada in Kitimat has intense safety requirements he says can make work very slow.

“It can take weeks and weeks to get work done but when I look at what happened to my son I think it’s not a bad thing,” said Vilness. “I would rather it take days than to have someone go through what we are going through.”

Jason Wickner, one of the petition’s organizers, was close friends with collapse victim Eric Stemmer. The pair met in Grade 8 and were in each other’s wedding parties.

“It was shocking that the cranes would go up before the investigation was completed,” said Wickner. “We don’t know what happened because it is still being investigated. We don’t know if it was caused by a site-specific condition. It’s premature.”

Stemmer added he believes the project team could be focusing on planning and building a memorial for the workers.

“These were sons, husbands and fathers,” said Wickner. “The impact is very big. It’s an ongoing thing and it takes time to get over it. It seems too soon to be opening the wound that was created that day.”