Inquest into carbon monoxide deaths begins

John Klemenz fought back tears as he described the last conversation he had with his friend, Bradley Rusk. "Brad was quite enthusiastic about work and really looking forward to seeing me," he said.

John Klemenz fought back tears as he described the last conversation he had with his friend, Bradley Rusk.

“Brad was quite enthusiastic about work and really looking forward to seeing me,” he said.

Klemenz was coming to Whitehorse from his home in Calgary to visit his kids, who live in Whitehorse. He always stayed with the Rusks at their house on Centennial Street.

“It was pretty much my home away from home,” said Klemenz.

When he arrived on Jan. 25, the whole family was sick with what they thought was the flu. Klemenz decided to find somewhere else to stay.

It was a decision that may have saved his life.

The entire household – Bradley Rusk, 45; his wife Valerie, 37; their son Gabriel, 13; their daughter Rebekah, 11; and their friend Donald McNamee, 47, who rented a room in the basement – were found dead four days later from carbon monoxide poisoning.

The coroner’s inquest into their deaths began Monday with a harrowing account from those who arrived first on the scene on Jan. 29, 2012.

Family friend Ed Lockington drove to the house that morning to check on the family.

He knew they had been sick, and while it wasn’t uncommon for them to go into “lock-down” when they were ill, he started to worry when they didn’t answer the phone.

As soon as he got to the door, he knew something was seriously wrong.

“I smelled this acrid smell,” he said.

He had already knocked on the door but wasn’t waiting for an answer now. Running around to back of the house he kicked in the basement door.

The smoke was thick

“You couldn’t see five feet,” he said. “It smelled like burnt diesel.”

Lockington dashed inside and up the stairs to find his friends Valerie and Bradley dead in their living room.

By the time the fire department arrived, RCMP and paramedics were already on the scene.

Three firefighters, Capt. Morley MacKay, Scott MacFarlane and Paul Taylor, entered the house first.

As soon as they stepped through the basement doorway, MacFarlane’s gas detector went into high alert.

“I’ve never seen the alarm go off like that,” said MacKay a 24-year veteran of the Whitehorse Fire Department.

As MacKay and MacFarlane made their way upstairs they noticed leaves littering the floor. All the plants in the house were dead.

So were the Rusks and McNamee.

Soot covered everything in the house.

The fire marshal’s report into the deaths found the old masonry chimney had been completely blocked by ice, causing exhaust from the oil-fired burner to flow back into the house.

It’s not clear how long fumes had been seeping into the house, but everyone who lived there had been feeling ill for weeks.

When Bradley’s mother, Jane Rusk, came to visit over the holidays, McNamee, Gabriel and Rebekah were all sick with what they thought was the flu.

Jane ended up becoming so ill that she spent nine days in Whitehorse General Hospital before returning to Alberta on Jan. 11.

Valerie went to the emergency room herself on Jan. 22.

Dr. Gunnar Tirschmann treated her.

The symptoms that Valerie complained of, headache and nausea, were very “non-specific,” he said. And during flu season, very common.

She wasn’t showing any of the telltale signs of carbon monoxide poisoning, like difficulty speaking, said Tirschmann.

Even if he had suspected it, at the time, the hospital lacked the equipment to test for it.

Sending a blood sample to Vancouver probably wouldn’t have shown anything, since carbon monoxide dissipates very quickly, said Tirschmann.

Other visitors to the home experienced similar symptoms.

On Jan. 23, Lockington’s kids spent the afternoon at the Rusk’s home.

They went there every day after school, he said.

When he came to pick them up at 5 p.m. both felt sick.

His daughter was light-headed and unbalanced, but he chalked it up to the flu.

“The entire neighbourhood had the flu, it was hard to recognize the difference,” he said.

By 11 p.m. his kids felt better, but the Rusks weren’t.

It had become so bad that Valerie Rusk called the doctors office in tears on Jan 24.

“She was incredibly upset,” said Shellie Young, the office assistant at Dr. Shoshtari’s Horwood’s Mall Medical Clinic. “(Valerie) said he had never been this sick in her entire life.”

In the background, Young could hear Bradley say that they had tried to take Rebekah to the emergency room but left because there was a six-hour wait to see a doctor.

They made an appointment for 4 p.m. the next day but the Rusks never showed up.

When Young called the house at 4:45 p.m. it was McNamee who answered.

He said that everyone was asleep.

She told him to let them rest and they would reschedule the appointment.

They never did.

The inquest is scheduled to wrap up by Thursday, after which the six-member jury will determine the manner of the deaths and have the option of making recommendations to prevent similar deaths in the future.

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