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Father of Kelowna crane collapse victim calls for better safety standards

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Mounted to the wall of Chris Vilness’ office is the harness that was strapped to his son Cailen Vilness’ back during the final moments of his life, a harsh reminder of the tragedy that unfolded on July 12, 2021.

"You just re-live that forever and then you kind of become numb to it all,” Vilness told CTV News.

Twenty-three-year-old Cailen was one of five men killed when a tower crane collapsed at a downtown Kelowna construction site that day.

Vilness, Jared Zook and brothers Patrick and Eric Stemmer died at the scene, and Brad Zawislak was killed while working in a nearby office when part of the crane crashed into his building.

On Tuesday, Kelowna RCMP announced it was recommending a charge of criminal negligence causing death in the incident, but did not disclose who it’s attempting to charge. 

“I want somebody, or a group, whoever is responsible, to be held accountable,” Vilness said.

Vilness says Cailen was part of the crew dismantling the crane that day, but feels neither he nor the others on that crew should have been in that position.

He says that was Cailen’s first day back at that job after a six-month absence.

"They didn't have, and weren’t given enough training to be a competent operator or installer or what not of that piece of equipment,” he said.

Both Vilness and the union representing British Columbia crane workers are calling on the provincial government and WorkSafeBC to make regulatory changes to improve tower crane safety.

According to the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115, as it currently stands, contractors that erect and dismantle tower cranes don’t need a license to do so.

“B.C. missed the opportunity to lead immediately following the Kelowna crane collapse. Now we must be leaders in tower crane safety across Canada to ensure this never happens again,” said IUOE Local 115 business manager Brian Cochrane.

WorkSafe has also concluded its investigation, but says it won’t release the findings yet to avoid affecting the charge assessment process, adding measures will be stricter for companies who work with tower cranes.

B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains says WorkSafe will likely make changes to regulations in the spring.

"They will have to give notice to WorkSafeBC, so WorkSafeBC will have opportunity to review their work plan to make sure there's no flaws,” he said.

Court records show that Cailen’s common-law spouse, Jaydean Braham, was one of several people who filed lawsuits against the several branches of the machine’s manufacturer, Liebherr Corporation, citing negligence.

Vilness’ employer, Stemmer Construction, is among that group, claiming Liebherr's crane and related manuals may have "contained a dangerous defect, which led to the accident."

Stemmer themselves are also facing several lawsuits in relation to the incident.

None of the allegations against either company have been proven in court.

Meanwhile, Chris is hoping changes will be made quickly, to help ensure no other families have to go through something like this.

“It’s not something Cailen should have ever experienced,” he said.

“All of these individuals, hard working family men, every single one of them, none of them deserved that fate,”

With files from CTV News Vancouver’s Todd Coyne and The Canadian Press

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