Toxic gas likely cause of tragic Whitehorse deaths

Valerie, her 45-year-old husband, Bradley, their 13-year-old son, Gabriel and 11-year-old daughter, Rebekah, were found dead in their home Sunday along with an adult boarder, Donald McNamee. They lived in a home on Centennial Street in Porter Creek. Firefighters put on breathing apparatus before entering the home after a family friend reported finding the five bodies.

Whitehorse resident Valerie Rusk called in sick to work last Tuesday.

The 37-year-old woman told her boss she was “feeling better, but not good enough,” said Pierre Lacasse, the branch owner of Assante Financial Management.

“I said, ‘Don’t come in here and give us what you’ve got. Stay home until you’re well. We miss you and come back soon.’ And that was the last time we got to speak to Val.”

Valerie, her 45-year-old husband, Bradley, their 13-year-old son, Gabriel and 11-year-old daughter, Rebekah, were found dead in their home Sunday along with an adult boarder, Donald McNamee. They lived in a home on Centennial Street in Porter Creek.

Firefighters put on breathing apparatus before entering the home after a family friend reported finding the five bodies. When they tested the air, they found the level of carbon monoxide to be 10 times more than the level that would have set off a carbon monoxide detector, said fire Chief Clive Sparks.

The family did not have a carbon monoxide detector in their rented home. The house was built in the 1960s, said Sparks. The National Building Code only requires detectors in homes that were built in 2005 and later.

While the RCMP have finished their investigation, Yukon’s fire Marshal Dennis Berry is still looking into the incident. He is focused on the oil-fired boiler heating system. The home also has a wood stove.

It wasn’t just Valerie who had been feeling sick in the days leading up to their deaths.

The whole family was experiencing illness and flu-like symptoms, said RCMP Sgt. Don Rogers. The children had been absent from school for the week before their deaths.

Valerie hadn’t been to work since Jan.19.

On Sunday – exactly a week before the family was found dead – she called Lacasse and could barely speak, he said.

“She couldn’t get her breath, she had headaches and she was heading off to the hospital,” he said.

McNamee, the 47-year-old tenant, had also been in the hospital the previous week for unrelated reasons, said Rogers.

Common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include nausea, dizziness and disorientation, said Sharon Hanley, the Yukon’s chief coroner.

It would be a fair assumption that as the family began to experience symptoms of the carbon monoxide poisoning, they may have simply associated it with their previous illnesses, said Rogers.

Officials are not sure how long the toxic gas had been filling up the home.

The last time anyone spoke with the family was Wednesday night so no one can be sure when the five died, Hanley said.

“The friend that eventually discovered them had talked to them and I believe that also somebody had driven by and didn’t see smoke from the chimney on Thursday,” said Hanley.

“So it could be anytime from Thursday night. We’re looking more at maybe Friday that it happened and then they were discovered Sunday.”

Officials said if the family had gone to school or work and left their house at times, the carbon monoxide levels in their bodies would have decreased.

Police do not suspect foul play or criminal activity in this tragedy, said Rogers.

That includes any suspicions of deliberate negligence by the property owner, he said.

The home heating systems had recently been inspected by qualified technicians, although he was not able to provide the dates of those inspections, he said.

Because carbon monoxide poisoning appears to be the likely cause of death, autopsies will not be done on the bodies, said Hanley.

Instead, blood samples have been sent to Vancouver for toxicology tests to confirm it was carbon monoxide that killed the young family and a border.

More than a dozen family members of the Rusks, who are originally from Alberta, are expected to come to the Yukon this week, said Lacasse.

The family will always be remembered as a caring one, he said.

Valerie was one of the best workers he has ever had, he said, adding with a laugh that as her red hair warned, she was a “little firecracker.”

Lacasse remembers that when Rebekah was younger, she used to come by the office to practise her French with him. Bradley had actually worked for Lacasse at one time a few years back, as well, he said.

“The office folks here are my extended family,” said Lacasse. “I’ve been very fortunate to work with a lot of great people over the years.

“We’re missing (Val) a whole lot right now. I feel really bad. It’s an unbelievable feeling of what her parents and Brad’s parents are going to go through right now, with the loss of not only their children, but their grandchildren.”

Valerie had worked as an administrative assistant for Lacasse for six years.

Bradley had a number of health issues and was on and off work quite a bit, he said.

On Bradley’s Facebook page, which now stands as he left it except for the culminating messages from friends and family, he wrote these words:

“I enjoy the peace of nature, the camaraderie of good friends and the feel of a dog’s hair running through my fingers as I rub its head on my lap by the campfire,” it says. “Peace to all.”

The Rusk’s “Yukon family” has opened the Rusk Family Memorial Fund at the Bank of Montreal in Whitehorse to help the family with the costs of travel, funeral services and other expenses.

A lesson in preventing carbon monoxide poisoning

Just hours after the Rusk family’s tragic death hit the news on Monday, both Canadian Tire and Home Hardware had sold out of carbon monoxide detectors, said store managers Tuesday.

Both stores carried a variety of detectors, ranging in price from $20 to $80. And both have put in emergency orders for more detectors to be flown up by the end of this week.

While buying a detector may help to prevent another tragedy like this, much more needs to be done, said John Matheson, an oil burner mechanic in Whitehorse.

A common problem is that new appliances are being fitted with older chimneys, he said.

These newer appliances have lower “stack temperatures,” meaning the temperature of the exhaust and water vapour flowing up and out of the chimney is lower than what the chimney was built for. This causes the water vapour to freeze inside of the chimney and eventually clog it up.

This may have been what happened at the Rusk’s house, he said.

Matheson actually worked on the system at that residence years ago, he said. He doesn’t know what appliance is in there now, but confirmed it does have an old masonry chimney.

“It’s scary,” he said. “I’ve had probably half a dozen masonry chimneys in Whitehorse that have collapsed on themselves because a new appliance has been hooked up to an old chimney.”

When the chimney freezes up and gets blocked off, the exhaust comes back into the home, he said.

“A properly-tuned oil furnace doesn’t give off CO (carbon monoxide),” said Matheson. But after some time, the exhaust will be reburnt. That means it will be sucked back into the furnace at which point it will have quite a bit of carbon monoxide in it, he said.

New appliances come equipped with a $150 pressure-switch called a blocked-flue sensor. It will turn off the system when it detects the chimney has clogged up. As well, it is mandatory that a stainless steel liner be put in old chimneys to help prevent them from freezing up. This costs about $1,000 to $1,200, said Matheson.

But many homes in Whitehorse aren’t equipped with these precautions, he said.

Matheson believes it is because his industry isn’t well regulated or legislated in the Yukon.

To gain his certificate as an oil-burner mechanic, Matheson went back to Nova Scotia. Few people who do the same work here have the same training because they don’t have to have it, he said.

Neither do most home inspectors, building inspectors or people who install the systems for contractors, he added.

Most people working in the Yukon’s building and inspection industry are tradesmen, such as carpenters or plumbers, not qualified oil-burner mechanics. It’s a particular specialization and it’s a lot to expect from someone who needs to know a lot of other things as well, said Matheson.

“I’m not pointing fingers,” he said. “It’s a safety issue.”

Wood stoves, another extremely popular way of heating homes in the Yukon, have huge amounts of carbon monoxide in their exhaust, said Matheson. Unfortunately, poorly-done work on these systems is rampant as well.

It’s especially problematic when duct work from the stove is added to heat throughout the home.

This is extremely unsafe because of the high levels of carbon monoxide, Matheson said.

“Way too much stuff is getting passed through city inspections,” he said, including poorly-installed carbon monoxide detectors.

Like smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors should be installed on or close to the ceiling, said Matheson.

Carbon monoxide is extremely light and odourless.

Matheson remembers an instructor telling him it tends to take a tragedy to get officials to pass laws.

In Ontario, it took the death of a family of five to require certification of technicians and pass a law of mandatory carbon monoxide detectors.

For the Yukon, there are no more excuses. Especially considering a 2008 government investigation into oil-fired appliances showed that not a single one of 124 systems inspected passed building code checks. The infractions ranged from not having annual maintenance to incorrect installation.

That report can still be found at the Yukon Housing Corporation’s website under the publication section.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at