‘He is pretty much a dead person stuck in a live body’

Families conclude testimony at Coroner's Inquest into mushroom farm deaths.

Tracey Phan

Tracey Phan

Standing in front of a swarm of media, 16-year-old Tracey Phan spoke eloquently about her father Michael Phan who is now living out his days in a care home, unable to walk or talk after he was permanently injured by toxic gas in a pump shed at A-1 Mushroom farm in 2008. The tragedy killed three workers.

“My dad was a hero, and he watched Spiderman . . . Superman . . . heroes don’t get into such serious injuries when someone they love can lose them,” said Phan, after the the Coroner’s Inquest wrapped up on Tuesday afternoon.

Phan was one of three family members who testified.

The family members were the last to testify in the inquest. It will now be up to a jury to come back with recommendations that would prevent a similar tragedy from happening again. They will begin their deliberations on Wednesday morning.

When a pipe was unclogged in a shed used to mix gypsum, chicken manure and water, it released noxious fumes that killed farmworkers Ut Tran 35, Han Pham, 47, and Chi Wai Jimmy Chan. The discharge of toxic fumes permanently injured Tchen Phan and Michael Phan.

Tracey said her dad was the bread winner and the “perfect dad, coming out of a TV show . . . he was a soccer mom coming out to all my games and my track and field to cheer me on.”

She said her dad played soccer back in Vietnam and continued to play when he wasn’t working on the farm. He loved Karaoke too and the family would sing together.

“Now he is pretty much a dead person stuck in a live body,” said Tracey.

His care home is across the street from her school, so Tracey and her younger sister visit him daily. Her mother goes there twice each morning and every night.

Going from being a straight A student, now she struggles in school and has a tutor.

She said the family scrapes by on the $2,200 they earn each month from Canada Pension Plan and WorkSafe BC, among other government supports.

Crying on the stand, Phan said this is their new life without their dad and her mom’s “second half.”

“We can’t turn a new chapter. This is forever. This was preventable,” she said.

Speaking through an interpreter Nga Trieu, widow of Han Pham, said she is worried about how she will care for her five children, one who is autistic. She is working as a hairdresser from home in Langley to try and make it. She testified that she is speaking out for all the mushroom workers who don’t speak English and fear their bosses.

“I don’t want this to happen again. I know how much it hurts,” she said.

Widow Hong Dang, whose husband Ut Tran was killed, said her father left her family at the same age her children lost their father. She worries her children won’t get the proper education because she is a struggling single mom.

“I worry they might not end up with a good job and have to take a job like their dad,” said Dang.

B.C. Federation of Labour President Jim Sinclair took the stand before the family members but has been a big support to them right from the tragic day. They all thanked Sinclair and his assistant while at the inquest.

Sinclair said the owners of the mushroom farm in Langley “got it all wrong.”

“With the owner’s own evidence, he did not do his job as required by law to protect his workers,” said Sinclair.

This is a vulnerable workforce that feel they have no rights to speak about safety concerns, he said.

In the last decade or so, 13 people in B.C. have died in confined spaces. Most are those were rushing in to help others. Tracey Phan’s mother said her husband was told by the mushroom farm supervisor to go in to the shed and help the three men who were already dead.

“When workers attempted to raise issues at the farm, they were told if they don’t like it they can leave,” said Sinclair. But not speaking any English limits these workers’ job prospects, making them feel trapped.

He recommended that it be mandatory that all farm workers get two days of safety training and a certificate, just as food workers have to get their Food Safe certificate. Supervisors would be obligated to do more than two days. But enforcement and consequence are the keys to change, said Sinclair.

There are 4,700 farms registered in B.C., but 19,000 according to StatsCan, he said. There are around 47 inspectors in the province. He said it would be impossible for all farms to be inspected yearly, and many workers don’t speak English, so inspectors need to speak the languages like Spanish, Tagalog, Punjabi and in this case, Vietnamese.

He believes Crown is resistant to prosecute farm owners criminally.

He said the courts fine the owners, they claim bankruptcy and not a dime is collected. They basically get away with it.

“This sends a message to farm owners that there are many ways to get out of this,” said Sinclair.

The owners of A-1 Mushroom were fined $300,000 in court but haven’t paid a penny of it and continue to operate a mushroom farm, but not the composting aspect.