It took only 11 minutes for carbon monoxide to kill.
That’s all the time, authorities believe, that Sarah MacDermid, 31, and her boyfriend Casey Bussiere, 37, had after they were were accidentally – and unknowingly – exposed to carbon monoxide from an inadequately-ventilated propane water heater in a shower building in Tulameen, B.C.
The tragedy took place on Aug. 3, 2020, over the B.C. Day long weekend, and it’s one that White Rock’s Fiona MacDermid – Sarah’s aunt – will never forget.
It’s a grim lesson she wants to bring to public attention, to prevent similar tragedies from occurring, particularly as B.C. residents head into summer camping and cabin season.
“People don’t know how easy it is, how simple it is, to die of this,” MacDermid said, describing carbon monoxide as “a silent enemy that can be found in fumes produced by furnaces, stoves, lanterns, barbecues and gas ranges, or by burning charcoal and wood.”
She also urges holidaymakers to make sure that vents in campers or cabins are clear of debris, such as leaves or even the corpses of small animals that might have accumulated.
The best way people can protect themselves and their families is by purchasing a carbon monoxide detector, MacDermid said.
“It’s a simple little device can save your life,” she added. “They ought to be as common in our campers and cabins as smoke detectors are in homes.”
According to Technical Safety BC, carbon monoxide is a colourless, odourless and tasteless gas that is produced when fuels are burned incompletely, and interferes with the body’s ability to absorb oxygen.
The most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion MacDermid said – but by the time anyone realizes they are suffering from them it’s likely too late, she warned.
High levels of carbon monoxide inhalation can swiftly cause loss of consciousness and death, as was the case with Sarah and Casey – who were both pronounced dead at the scene, after being discovered by friends and neighbours who had desperately attempted to revive them.
“You just go unconscious,” MacDermid said. “You’re non compos mentis – you need to get out, but you can’t.”
It was a beautiful summer day when the fatal incident occurred, MacDermid said.
Sarah and Casey, residents of Pitt Meadows, were beginning to build a new cabin, on the property at Otter Lake, Tulameen – just north of Princeton – which had long been in his family.
“It was their dream, but it came to a terrible end for both of them,” MacDermid said.
Her brother Stuart (Sarah’s father) is still devastated by the tragedy, she added, noting that her own relationship with her niece was closer to that of a parent.
“Me and my brother brought her up, because my brother got divorced very early,” she said.
“Sarah was a beautiful, vibrant girl – she’d just graduated from nursing school and had just got her first full-time job.”
A Technical Safety BC investigation found that a tankless, on-demand propane water heater had been improperly installed in a shower building on the property.
It was mounted on a wall adjacent to the shower, while the safety notice on the unit warned that it should be mounted in a well-ventilated place outside of any bathroom or similar facility.
The case highlighted the perils of do-it-yourself installations presenting a greater risk of carbon monoxide exposure in recreational and off-the-grid situations, the report concluded.
But rather than assigning blame for one specific tragedy, MacDermid said she is most interested in helping raise the public’s awareness of carbon monoxide, and the value of having a carbon monoxide detector close at hand, which could save others from a similar fate.
“I want to make sure that nobody’s the next victim of this,” she said.