If confined spaces regulations had been properly followed at a Langley mushroom farm in 2008, a build-up of toxic hydrogen sulphide gas in a plugged-up pipe would have been fixed with no deaths or injuries, prosecutor Ron Kockx told a provincial court sentencing hearing Friday (Sept. 16) in Surrey.
If the rules had been "imperfectly" applied, there still would have been fewer casualties, Kockx said.
But the rules were not applied at all, and that is why Ut Tran (a Surrey resident), Han Pham and Jimmy Chan were killed and co-workers Tchen Phan and Michael Phan of Langley suffered permanent brain damage.
The prosecutor detailed the sequence of events that led to the tragedy at the mushroom composting and growing operation at 23751 16 Ave. on Sept. 5, 2008 at the sentencing hearing for the three people who owned and operated the farm.
In May, guilty pleas were entered by Ha Qua Truong and his wife Van Thi Troung along with Thinh Huu Doan and the companies they operate -- A-1 Mushroom Substratum Ltd. and H.V. Truong Ltd. -- to 10 of 29 charges, including failure to have an occupational health and safety program in place, failure to educate workers about safety, failure to properly supervise workers and failure to make workers aware about confined space hazards.
The Friday hearing was the first time many of the victim families heard how their husbands and fathers died.
Prosecutor Kockx said the deaths and injuries occurred because a butterfly valve had become plugged with chicken manure, straw and gypsum in the pump house that served the mushroom composting operation.
The pumps used to be in the open, but after they froze up during one winter, the owners build a shed around them. It had no proper ventilation.
A plumber who tried and failed to unclog the pump on Sept. 5 told the owners to hire a sewer pump-out service.
Instead, two employees of the mushroom farm tried to unclog it themselves under the supervision of one of the owners, Doan.
When Uut Tran unbolted a pipe covering to get at the blockage, he reached in with a screwdriver to clear the line.
Then Tran said something about a strange smell.
Doan says he told Tran to leave.
But Tran took one step to a ladder, then fell face down into 16 inches of waste water at the bottom of the shed.
The second man stayed with Tran, while Doan left the shed to get help.
In the next few minutes, three other men would enter the shed and would be overcome by the fumes.
Later tests would show a fatal amount of hydrogen sulphide gas had built up behind the blockage.
The first ambulance paramedics to arrive had been told they were dealing with a drowning.
They quickly realized it was a confined space situation, and they didn't have the proper kind of breathing equipment to safely enter.
The two paramedics put in a call for assistance and fought to keep other workers from entering the shed, where they could hear one of the men was still conscious and screaming for help.
The paramedics knew allowing other unprotected people into the shed would only add to the casualty list.
"It was extremely difficult both as paramedics and human beings ... to watch helplessly as these men died before our eyes," one told WorkSafe investigators.
Prosecutor Kockx said the owners had not even read the mandatory safety regulations and had no idea of their responsibilities.
"None of the precautions that should have been taken with a confined space were taken," Kockx said.
There was no training for employees and no procedures were in place.
Workers "were essentially asked to be careful" and that was it.
There had been warnings signs of a gas buildup in the days leading up to the Sept. 5 tragedy, he added.
Under new worker safety laws the three accused face a possible maximum maximum fine of $600,000 and up to six months in jail.
However, previous court decisions have not come anywhere near the maximum.
Outside court the families of the victims said that anything short of a jail term for the three would be an injustice.
Tracey Phan, whose father Michael Phan remains in a coma, said allowing the farm owners to escape with only a fine would not be right.
"We've lost the most important people in our lives," she said.
Her mother Phoung Le said she personally witnessed the events of that day and she believes her husband and the other men did not volunteer, but were ordered into the shed.
Speaking through an interpreter, she said she hopes the judge will consider how it would feel if he lost his loved ones under similar circumstances.
BC Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair attended the hearing.
"What we want is justice and jail time for people who flagrantly disregard the law," said Sinclair, who has called for a coroner's inquest into the tragedy
The sentencing hearing will resume Sept. 22 in Surrey Provincial Court.
Photos: (top) accused arrive for hearing, (middle) Tracey Phan, (bottom) Jim Sinclair with Phoung Le
Dan FERGUSON/Langley Times