January 15th, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 2
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Remembering the Ostash Tragedy
Looking Back
courtesy of Lethbridge Herald CNP Bureau and Mrs. Mundie
Lethbridge Herald front page coverage of Ostash tragedy
I have dipped into Mrs. Mundie’s scrapbooks once again and will take you back to the era when natural gas conversions were going on in the Pass. It was an amazing time in which the old coal furnace and the continuous chore of feeding and banking it was replaced by a burner that only required a thermostat. No shoveling coal, no cut wood and no ashes. In this particular scrapbook are two full pages of clippings about a 1964 tragedy.

I was sixteen that year; two years after these conversions had begun and actually worked digging shallow gas lines for the town as a part-time summer job. In October of that year there was a disaster that unfolded connected to this conversion that was unprecedented in Pass history. On Tuesday, March 24 of that year the Ostash family in Coleman were overwhelmed by a deadly colorless, odourless gas in their home. An investigation later revealed that the house’s chimney had been partially blocked with soot that had accumulated before the furnace was converted. That day in was -28 centigrade outside so their furnace was probably running quite heavily.

I remember my father, who was fire chief here at the time, talking about it to me. He said he got a call from Chief Corson that something was wrong at the Ostash home on 19 Avenue in Coleman. Jack Ostash, who had been elected town mayor the previous October, had not come that morning to open up the Coleman Hotel.
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Something was not right. The phone kept ringing busy. The Coleman Hotel, where the new Country Encounters Bed and Breakfast building stands, had been owned by him for some time. Police Chief Corson and my father both broke into the house to see what was wrong.

What they found was the whole family, scattered through different parts of the house, overcome and unresponsive. Chief Corson recognized it could be a gas issue and they immediately smashed out some windows to get more air into the house. A call went out for more help. Jack Ostash’s 18- year-old son Eddie was found dead in his bed. His mother Marie was found draped over his body and it appeared she was trying to rouse him when she collapsed herself.

Jack was found unconscious on his bed and responded somewhat when shaken, as did his wife Marie. Jack’s 16-year-old son Allan and 11-year-old daughter Mary Jane also responded somewhat when shaken and were immediately taken to hospital where it was assumed they would recover. I recall my father telling me about their flushed red blotchy faces and surmising that gas could be the cause.

This red flushing is a listed symptom of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning but does not necessarily occur in all instances. What is known though is what happens when CO enters the body. It bonds with the hemoglobin in our blood more readily than oxygen does. The result of high levels of CO is reduced oxygen in the body eventually causing dizziness, shortness of breath, fatigue, drowsiness, nausea and vomiting and ultimately death.
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Apparently the family had had a dinner of liver, corn and peas on the Monday night. That was March 24th, 1964 and at that time their youngest daughter Noella was in hospital suffering from a stomach ailment. It is not clear if Noella was taken there on the Monday or earlier in the week. Noella had been born the previous Christmas Day and was four months old when they took her to the hospital where she stayed for observation. It is not a stretch to suggest that the insidious carbon monoxide (CO), swirling unnoticed throughout the house, could have been at play there in Noella’s sickness. It is also sobering to realize that being there and not home probably saved her life.

It appears that the hospital’s doctors may have also suspected that some other toxin might be an issue. They had a special anti-toxin for botulism flown in to Fort Macleod and then driven directly to the hospital to be administered. The belief that Allan and Mary Jane would survive was tragically not to be. Mary Jane died at hospital at 5 pm that night and Allan passed early the next morning.

Jack Ostash had moved here from New Westminster in 1959 and had just bought the house in which this heart-breaking disaster had occurred. His wife Marie, who was 37, recovered from this bizarre brush with death and was released the following Monday. I cannot imagine for the life of me what it must have been like for her to take the news that her three oldest children were gone.

Jack remained in critical condition in hospital and didn’t regain consciousness until Friday when he was moved to University Hospital in Edmonton where, it was reported, he underwent some kind of kidney treatment. When so much of your bodies oxygen is displaced in such a manner all kinds of short term and long term damage can result. In Jack’s case I am assuming this was the issue.
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I remember helping decorate the gymnasium for graduation that year at Horace Allen High School. We placed black silhouettes of all the grad’s face profiles up on the gym wall and there was one also for Eddie who would have graduated that year. While looking at this silhouette when it all hit home to me. Eddie was gone. An autopsy of Eddie was done in Lethbridge that very Tuesday night of the disaster which verified carbon monoxide poisoning. An inquest was ordered by then Coroner F. S. Radford.

On every occasion that I go to the Coleman Catholic Cemetery to visit with my brother Alex, I take the time to walk to the very west end of the cemetery and pay my respects to Eddie, Allan and Mary Jane. The whole family are all there now in that special plot with a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary on a pedestal towering over Mary Jane’s marker. Mother Marie passed in the year 2000 and is on their right and Jack who passed in February of 2018 at the age of 96 is on their left. Jack was a remarkable man who managed to live his life to the fullest for another 54 years despite enduring the terrible loss of his three children all at once.
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I recall seeing Jack walking around town years after the accident and noticed his right leg was rigid when he walked . I believe someone told me back then that he had lost it because of the carbon monoxide poisoning. Some research revealed to me that it can happen that the CO damage is so bad that doctors are forced to amputate to save the person’s life.

The Ostash parent’s plots frame their children’s resting place. It struck me that this is symbolic in a way, of parents always being beside their children. In this case in life and in death. But what of the four month old Noella? I finally found her obituary in the Calgary Herald. She unfortunately passed away on November 1, 2015 at the age of 51. Her full name was “Noella Joy Eve”. A child born on Christmas Day indeed!
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January 15th, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 2
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