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Report says Norwich rink evacuation delayed

By Claire Bessette

Publication: The Day

Published February 22. 2013 4:00AM
Operation continued for hours despite smell of ammonia

Norwich - The first equipment alarms at the Norwich Municipal Ice Rink went off in the early morning of Feb. 13, but the operation continued through late evening, when a "strong ammonia smell" was detected and the ammonia alarm went off.

But the rink was not evacuated for another nearly three hours.

An investigation report by the Ice Rink Authority, released by the authority Thursday, said Rink Manager Mia Sanca first called Authority Chairman Francois "Pete" Desaulniers at 8:20 p.m., and although Desaulniers told her to call 911 and evacuate the building, she hadn't done so when he called back 17 minutes later.

"Mr. Desaulniers demands Ms. Sanca evacuate building and call 911," the chronology entry for 8:37 p.m. stated. According to the authority's report and a separate chronology report submitted by Sanca, the East Great Plain Fire Department arrived and ordered the evacuation at 8:50 p.m. The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection arrived at 10:30 p.m.

The rink's compressor unit broke down that day in what Sanca described as a "catastrophic mechanical failure," freezing the system and making it impossible to make ice for the evening hockey game.

At 4:38 p.m., gauges showed the first mid-to-high ammonia level readings. The ammonia odor was detected starting at 6 p.m. in the back hallway, and staff used fans to ventilate the air. The ammonia alarm light started blinking between 7 and 8 p.m., and events started to be canceled for the night. The compressor seal "blew" at 8 p.m.

Authority member Cheryl Ritacco read the incident report in public session Thursday night after the authority emerged from an hourlong executive session to discuss personnel, rink management and vendor contracts to repair the rink.

Desaulniers said the investigation is ongoing, as the authority awaits reports from DEEP and the fire department, which are expected to include ammonia levels in the building.

"At that time, the appropriate action will be taken," Desaulniers said.

Desaulniers said one immediate change was made to wire the ammonia alarm to a buzzer in the front lobby, where patrons could hear it.

The authority, however, voted unanimously to restructure rink management and put out a request for proposals for either a director of rink operations or a rink management firm to oversee all rink functions.

"We're looking for an outside management firm to run this rink," Desaulniers said. "We are not, I repeat not, going to sell this rink or close it or privatize it."

After the meeting, Sanca said she had no comment on the rink management search process and did not know whether she would apply for the rink director position. Sanca had been assistant rink manager until last June, when she was appointed for a six-month period to replace her husband, Jim Sanca, who resigned abruptly as rink manager. In January, the authority voted to retain Sanca until management restructuring decisions were made.

The authority dealt with numerous issues stemming from the mechanical failure Thursday.

Desaulniers told about 15 rink patrons who attended Thursday's meeting anxious about when the rink would reopen that temporary equipment would be installed. Desaulniers said the rink should reopen by March 6 - nearly a month after the initial incident - and in time for a planned hockey tournament March 7.

Mike McCullough of Sprague, a member of the board of directors with the Seahawks youth hockey team, said the rink closure has brought hardships to the many teams that rely on the facility.

"Every customer here understands what it means if this building weren't here," McCullough said. "It's been a nightmare these past couple weeks trying to get ice time, rearranging schedules."

The authority was poised Thursday to consider a proposal from a Michigan company for a $1.1 million geothermal heating and cooling system. But Desaulniers read a letter from city Corporation Counsel Michael Driscoll saying the authority would have to go through city channels and the competitive bid process before committing to any plan to repair or replace the rink's cooling system.

The request for proposals on the equipment would include proposals to either repair or replace the current equipment or for entirely new heating and cooling systems, including geothermal plans, other innovative technology as well as conventional rink systems.

c.bessette@theday.com

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