Fernie Mayor Mary Giuliano. File photo

Fernie Mayor reflects on arena tragedy

Mayor Mary Giuliano speaks about how she felt following the arena tragedy in an exclusive interview

In the days following the Fernie arena tragedy, Mayor Mary Giuliano would park her car outside the facility and pray.

She would sit there for hours, grieving for the victims whose bodies remained inside as authorities waited until it was safe to re-enter.

Giuliano didn’t personally know refrigeration technician Jason Podloski and she wasn’t close friends with City workers Wayne Hornquist and Lloyd Smith, but she felt their deaths deeply.

“I can honestly tell you that it affected me so strongly that for several evenings, I would sit in my car a block away because,” said Giuliano, pausing as her eyes well with tears, “because I knew Lloyd and Jason were in the building, and I didn’t want them to feel alone. Isn’t that weird?

“I had such empathy for the families and what they were going through. I used to think if I’m feeling this strongly, imagine what the families must be feeling, imagine the loss they must be experiencing.

“Even now, a year later, I still feel for the families and for those three guys. They had hopes, they had plans and it all disappeared.”

Just two months prior to the incident, Giuliano was working with Smith and the Bossio family, who wanted to donate memorabilia to the arena, including a newspaper clipping about the 1959 fire at the arena.

The blaze destroyed the facility and claimed the life of junior hockey player Dominic Ferrarelli, a family friend of Giuliano’s.

“I remember sitting at my desk looking at that and thinking how sad that was, that Dominic was gone and how sad for his mother,” she said.

“I thought that will never happen again then two months, when tragedy happened at the arena, it was like I cannot believe it, how could that happen? I think that’s why it affected me so strongly because I had the connection to the first one and then to the second tragedy.”

Time has done little to dim the events of October 17, 2017, when Hornquist, Smith and Podloski died after being exposed to ammonia at Fernie Memorial Arena.

Giuliano admits she still thinks of the three men daily, recalling the moment she learned of their deaths.

“I walked into Suzanne’s (Garand) office and the Fire Chief was there and I was standing and I said ‘what is going on?’ because I had no idea,” she said.

“They said ‘we had an incident at the arena and we lost two of our workers’ and I remember feeling my head had just bubbled out or burst, and I said ‘who?’ and when they gave me the names, I remember I fell into the chair because I was so shocked.”

Immediately after the incident, an emergency meeting of council was called with Giuliano offering to help contact councillors. She tried to put on a strong front while on the inside she was falling apart.

“I remember I grabbed my phone and I couldn’t seem to press the numbers… I was so shocked I could barely call,” she said.

“We gathered everybody together and then we were told there was another death, and I remember thinking ‘oh my God’.”

Giuliano said Hornquist came from a well-respected Fernie family and was a valued member of the City. Just months earlier, he had received his 25-year pin for long service to the City.

Giuliano had a closer working relationship with Smith, who was Director of Leisure Services and regularly presented to council.

“He had confided in me that his long range plans were to become a CAO at some point,” she said. “Lloyd and Wayne were really special.”

The past year has been challenging for Giuliano and her staff as they grapple with the loss of their co-workers, while facing scrutiny from authorities. She has reflected on the lessons she has learned as the first anniversary of the arena tragedy approaches.

“Certainly I’ve always known that life can change in an instant and it does,” she said.

Giuliano emphasized that the council’s role is to set policy and to govern.While she is not allowed by law to be involved in the day to day operations of the City, she said safety has and always will be paramount in the organization.

“I do know that our workers were trained to the best knowledge that we had at the time and certainly I think to move forward, I need to say that the organization is definitely even more committed to the health and safety of the employees, and the community too,” she said.

“This is one of the most tragic accidents to happen to our community here, it really is. We still feel the loss so deeply.”

Investigations by WorkSafeBC and Technical Safety BC found decisions made by City staff contributed to the incident, and the organization violated workplace health and safety laws in the lead up to and during the response to the gas leak.

Giuliano said with the agencies’ findings, the City now has the benefit of hindsight.

“We continue to reflect on the learnings of this terrible accident,” she said.

“It compels us all to think about how to improve. While we can’t change what happened, we can do more to look holistically at all aspects of how our City functions in a way to make safety not just a goal we meet, but a culture we embody.”

The City has flagged two areas for improvement – documentation and internal communications – while also renewing its focus on safety and asset management. Giuliano said these will be presented to the next council as strategic priorities.

“I just know that nobody understood or realized that there was any danger, no one,” she said.

“Because if anybody had, changes would have been made. It’s not an excuse. It’s just a statement of fact.

“I know we wish we could go back and know what we know now, but certainly moving forward, every decision that is going to be made will be made with… more awareness.”

Support continues to be available to City staff in the wake of the tragedy and as the first anniversary approaches.

On Wednesday, they will gather for a moment of remembrance and silence in a private event hosted by the City.

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