Grieving families mark one year since crane collapse killed 5 men in Kelowna

·4 min read
Danielle Pritchett holds a photo of her son Cailen Vilness, who was killed in the July 2021 construction crane collapse in Kelowna, B.C. (Tom Popyk/CBC - image credit)
Danielle Pritchett holds a photo of her son Cailen Vilness, who was killed in the July 2021 construction crane collapse in Kelowna, B.C. (Tom Popyk/CBC - image credit)

One year after five men were killed in a crane collapse on a construction site in Kelowna, B.C., police and workplace safety investigators are still combing through evidence about what happened and why.

As the families of the dead workers marked the sombre anniversary, some said while the wait for answers has been frustrating, they're prepared to be patient if a long investigation also means a thorough one.

"I'm more than willing to wait," said Chris Vilness.

His son, 23-year-old Cailen Vilness, was killed on his first day back on the job after a vacation spent visiting family in his hometown of Kitimat. B.C.

Vilness said he just wants all the facts.

"We know the mechanics of what happened on that tower, but we are still uncertain about much of the rest of it," he said.

"I want to know who's accountable."

Police say investigation is 'complex'

On the morning of July 12, 2021, the arm of a crane fell about 25 storeys as it was being dismantled at the site of a residential tower under construction by the real estate company Mission Group. It smashed into a neighbouring office building and a seniors' home.

Four construction workers were killed: Cailen Vilness, Jared Zook, and brothers Eric and Patrick Stemmer. Brad Zawislak, who was working in the office building, also died. A fifth construction worker was injured in the collapse.

Kelowna RCMP say their investigation into what happened has been handed over to a dedicated team within the serious crimes unit.

"This is a complex investigation of what is being described as one of the largest workplace fatalities in B.C.'s history. There is a significant amount of technical evidence for my team to analyze," Kelowna RCMP Insp. Beth McAndie said in a news release.

Winston Szeto/CBC
Winston Szeto/CBC

WorkSafeBC says its investigators have spent the past year consulting with experts and engineers and reviewing evidence from the scene.

There's no timeline for when that will be complete, but Jessica Berglund, WorkSafe B.C.'s director of occupational health and safety investigations, said Tuesday that a majority of the work is done and investigators are "getting very close to completion."

A parallel B.C. Coroners Service investigation also remains open.

The North Okanagan Labour Council held a memorial service for the victims on Tuesday, with a moment of silence to mark the time of the collapse, at roughly 10:45 a.m. PT.

Mission Group said it would stop work on all of its construction sites for an hour at the same time, and commemorated the dead workers with five blasts from an air horn.

Speaking at the memorial, Kelly Hutchinson, the labour council's vice president, encouraged everyone to wait for the investigations to wrap up before drawing any conclusions. But he said that when the investigating bodies release their results, everyone in the construction industry needs to take them seriously.

"This could have been any single one of you at any point of your life. Accidents do not discriminate and you end up paying the ultimate price for just going to work," Hutchinson told the crowd.

"That's unacceptable, and so we need to do better. I call on all the industry and its workers to do so."

'My heart is broken; my mind is trying to catch up'

The last year has been a difficult one for the families of the men who died.

Zook's parents, Pam and Steven Zook, spoke at the memorial on Tuesday and described how their Christian faith has helped them get through the loss of their 32-year-old son.

"It is against the natural order of life for a parent to have to bury a child, whether that child is a baby, 10, 23, 28, 32 or 44. They're still your child. The heartache is still the same," Steven Zook said.

"When your child is taken, your soul takes a hit that many parents find hard to recover from. Statistics will show that some do not."

Vilness's mother, Danielle Pritchett, said she doesn't believe she'll ever come to terms with what happened, and she struggled to find the words to describe what it's like to realize her son has been gone for a year.

"There's no words to say what goes through your mind, because it's more what goes through your heart. The mind doesn't really engage in the fact that my son is gone forever. My heart is broken; my mind is trying to catch up to everything that's happened," she said.

Submitted by Danielle Pritchett
Submitted by Danielle Pritchett

Chris Vilness said he hopes the tragedy results in changes in regulation and training, to ensure workers are always kept safe.

"I understand there's always money and schedule constraints, but it should never be at the expense of worker safety," he said.

"People don't go to work to give their lives."

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