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RCMP recommend criminal charge in fatal 2021 crane collapse in Kelowna, B.C.

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Mounties are recommending a charge of criminal negligence causing death after a 2021 crane collapse killed five people in downtown Kelowna, B.C.

In an update on the case Tuesday, the Kelowna RCMP said the detachment's serious crimes unit had completed its investigation into the collapse and submitted a report for charge assessment to the B.C. Prosecution Service.

"This is an extremely complex investigation that needed to be done methodically and thoroughly in order to protect the integrity of the investigation," the detachment said in a news release. "The Kelowna RCMP will be working closely with the BCPS to ensure they are best equipped on the facts of the case to make an informed decision on charges."

The local RCMP did not say who the charge was being recommended against.

Four of those killed on the morning of July 12, 2021, were workers at a construction site on St. Paul Street, while the other fatality was someone working in a nearby building. 

Construction workers Cailen 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.

'Unusual and inappropriate'

Stemmer Construction, the company owned by Patrick and Eric's parents, and whose workers were dismantling the crane at the time of the collapse, criticized the RCMP's announcement of a charge recommendation through the media Tuesday.

"The decision of the RCMP to publicize the result of their investigation while remaining unwilling to name the parties who they say are criminally responsible or the basis upon which they have reached the decision is, in our opinion, both highly unusual and inappropriate," Kevin Westell and Graeme Hooper, lawyers for the company, wrote in a statement to CTV News.

"We have had extensive contact, on behalf of our client, with WorkSafeBC, the RCMP and the B.C. Prosecution Service since the date of the incident and for that reason had hoped to receive some informal notice."

The fatal collapse has spawned a number of lawsuits involving Stemmer Construction and multiple divisions of the Liebherr Corporation that manufactured the heavy equipment.

"We can only speculate as to why the RCMP have proceeded this way," the lawyers added. "Obviously, any attempt to place public pressure on the BCPS to approve charges would be inappropriate. In any event, we trust that the BCPS will conduct their charge assessment process appropriately and in accordance with the law and the Crown counsel policy manual."

In one lawsuit filed in July 2023, Stemmer is alleging Liebherr's crane and related manuals may have "contained a dangerous defect, which led to the accident."

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

'Stark reminder' of dangers

The union representing 13,000 British Columbia workers, including commercial crane operators, says the charge recommendation gives workers "some confidence" that steps are being taken to answer the questions of what happened in the incident.

Josh Towsley with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115, says the crane collapse was a "stark reminder" of the dangers faced by workers during crane disassembly and other duties of the occupation in general.

"My initial thoughts, of course, turn to the families of the of the five people that died," Towsley said.

"But our industry in general are one step closer to getting the answers that you know that everybody deserves, on what happened that day and what caused the deaths of five people."

The crane's fall knocked out power to most of Kelowna’s downtown core and forced an evacuation of the area as the city declared a state of local emergency.

The evacuation order for nearby residents was lifted a week after the collapse. 

"This investigation included dozens of police officers and countless hours of evidence gathering and analysis," Supt. Kara Triance said in the release. "The gravity of this incident and the associated work to understand what happened has been tremendous."

The detachment said it would not provide additional details on the investigation or its findings Tuesday.

With files from The Canadian Press

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