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We were helpless: paramedics recall deadly farm incident

BURNABY (NEWS1130) – Paramedics first on scene at a deadly mushroom farm incident in Langley almost four years ago have told a coroner’s inquest they had to watch men die and keep others from trying to save them.

A lawyer for the inquest suggests their deaths could have been prevented.

Toxic gas seeped out of a pipe in a pump shed at the farm on 16th Avenue in September 2008.

Ut Tran, Han Pham and Chi Wai Chan died when they were overcome by the fumes.  Michael Phan and Thang Chan were left with severe brain damage. 

Paramedic Vincent Ford told the inquest the farm was a scene of chaos and injury that afternoon.

He says they were first dispatched to the farm for a report of one person drowning, but when he arrived a man was outside struggling to breathe.  Ford looked into the pump shed and saw two men floating in water, a man hysterically calling for help as he tried to keep the pair afloat, and yet another man lying on some pipes barely breathing.

Ford says he eventually spotted another man under the water.

He says no one on scene spoke any English and he had to keep other people from trying to go into the shed.  Ford declared it a HAZMAT incident and didn’t go in because of how many men were hurt.

“We were helpless,” says Matthew Nasseri, Ford’s work partner.

“I’m pretty sure those workers had no idea what they were dealing with,” he adds. “All they were going to do was try and get in and help their own co-workers, that’s all they were trying to do.”

Firefighters eventually arrived and pulled the men out.  Questions have been raised as to why firefighters were not dispatched sooner.  Nasseri thinks a language barrier slowed dispatchers from sending more help.

Nasseri says equipping paramedics with oxygen masks is an idea for some situations, though it may not be the best solution to such emergencies in the future.

“We were dealing with a contaminated liquid,” he explains. “There was a brown, greenish liquid at the bottom of the shack. Even if you want to go in there, forget about the gas.  Our skin’s touching the chemicals.”

“The…type of calls we get, a small percentage of it [are] dealing with a situation like this,” Nasseri contends.  “I don’t think really you can justify to have all this equipment inside an ambulance and doing all the training, update everybody to make sure they have proper equipment.”

Meanwhile, inquest lawyer Chris Godwin suggests the deaths may have been avoided had workers known the risks and the company had put safety measures in place. 

“This was a tragedy that perhaps could have been prevented,” he says.

Michael Phan attended Monday’s proceedings, sitting in a wheelchair with a breathing tube in his throat and being tended to by a nurse.  His wife and children were also there.

The owners of the farm were fined hundreds of thousands of dollars in court, although it’s unlikely they will pay because their company went bankrupt.

The inquest jury will also hear from firefighters, WorkSafe BC staff and the farm owners and managers to try to determine how the victims died.  The jury may make recommendations to prevent future incidents.