Faulty chimney led to deaths

The tragic death of the Rusk family and their friend could have been prevented, said Juergen Korn. "So many places along the way of this process could have been interrupted," the engineer for Yukon Housing Corp.

The tragic death of the Rusk family and their friend could have been prevented, said Juergen Korn.

“So many places along the way of this process could have been interrupted,” the engineer for Yukon Housing Corp. told the coroner’s inquest this week.

On Jan. 29, 2011, Bradley Rusk, 45; his wife Valerie, 37; their son Gabriel, 13; daughter Rebekah, 11; and their family friend, Donald McNamee, 47, were all found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The chimney of their rented home on Centennial Street had become completely plugged with ice, causing exhaust from the oil-fired boiler to spill back into the basement, filling the house with toxic gas.

From the amount of snow that had accumulated on the rain cap on the chimney, Korn concluded that the chimney had to have been plugged up for at least nine days before the bodies were found.

Both the Rusks and McNamee had been experiencing weakness and nausea in the weeks leading up to their deaths.

Valerie and McNamee both went to the emergency room on Jan. 22 and Jan. 25 respectively, but neither one of the two doctors that saw them even considered carbon monoxide poisoning as a possibility.

Their symptoms were general, and it was flu season.

“The entire neighbourhood had the flu,” said family friend Ed Lockington.

When the old masonry chimney was cut open during the investigation, a four-foot block of ice was found plugging it up.

The chimney was falling apart.

At the bottom, a pile of debris made up of pieces of old ceramic liner, mortar and brick had been accumulating for years.

There should have been a stainless steel liner running the entire length of the chimney, but all that could be found was a two-foot piece of badly rusted galvanized steel pipe at the very top.

John Whitney installed the pipe in 1991.

He testified that he installed a metal liner down the entire length of the chimney, but was at a loss to explain why there was no traces of it found – other than the two feet at the top – all these years later.

Stan Dick, the since-retired building inspector who approved the work in 1991, told the inquest that he never actually saw the liner in place.

By the time he did the inspection everything was already sealed up and he took Whitney at his word.

“I know the contractor, and they did good work,” said Dick.

Not only was there no trace of a metal liner found in the chimney, but the mortar between the bricks was protruding, which would have made it difficult to put a liner of that size down the chimney, said Korn.

When Craig Tuton bought the house in 2001, he didn’t have a building inspection done.

“I didn’t have any reason to,” he said.

In 2006, Tuton had a wood stove installed in the house.

No one told Tuton that the building code required at least three carbon monoxide detectors to be installed along with the stove, not even the building inspectors who approved the work.

In 2007, Tuton hired Certified Heating to do the yearly service on the oil-fired boiler.

After it broke down in December 2008, Lance Couch, an oil-burner mechanic and the owner of Certified Heating, told Tuton that the boiler needed to be replaced.

He also recommended that the chimney be cleaned.

Tuton said he remembered Couch telling him about the boiler, but he has no recollection of him saying anything about the chimney.

While it was written on the invoice, Couch also said he couldn’t remember if he had mentioned the chimney to Tuton when he called to follow up.

In all the years that he owned the house, Tuton said that he never had the chimney cleaned.

He did, however, replace the boiler. In 2009, he hired Steve Thrower to do the work.

Thrower installed a new burner and a second-hand boiler in the house.

The boiler, which dated from 1993, had some rust on it but was in good working order.

Thrower, a plumber by trade, testified that he has installed close to 100 boilers over the years and had never had one fail inspection.

But this one was never inspected. Neither Thrower nor Tuton got a permit for the installation.

“I don’t know what happened,” said Thrower.

While he did check the chimney with a mirror to make sure there were no obstructions and did a flue gas test to ensure that the exhaust was going up the chimney, Thrower admitted that he wasn’t familiar with the building code governing oil-burning appliances.

A proper inspection of the chimney should have been done along with the installation, said Korn. That would have revealed the lack of a metal liner, said Korn.

Thrower assumed that because the replacement boiler was of a similar size to the old one, everything would be OK. It wasn’t.

The newer, more efficient boiler released exhaust at a lower temperature. This meant that the chimney which already wasn’t lined properly was now “grossly oversized,” testified Paul Christensen, the chief mechanical inspector for the Yukon government.

As a result, the flue gas took longer to go up the chimney, allowing water vapor in the exhaust to condense and freeze, forming the ice that would eventually plug the chimney.

Tuton told the inquest that he knows nothing about chimneys, or oil-fired appliances, and that he trusted the people he hired to know what they were doing.

When Couch came to service the boiler the following year he had to repair a leaking fuel filter, but the flue gas test showed everything was working fine.

In the fall of 2011, one of Couch’s technicians, David Wells, did the annual servicing. But because the fuel tank was empty he wasn’t able to do any of the proper tests.

He replaced the nozzle on the burner, shut the power off and told someone in the house to call when they got fuel and they would come back to turn everything back on and check things out properly.

But they never got that call.

At some point the Rusks got fuel and someone turned the boiler back on.

By Jan. 20 the chimney was completely plugged with ice and deadly carbon monoxide had started to fill the house.

The inquest is expected to wrap up today.

Contact Josh Kerr at

joshk@yukon-news.com

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