Embarrassing opening ceremony could have been worse

By BOB MACKIN, QMI Agency


Opening ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics at B.C. Place stadium on Friday, Feb 12, 2010. (ANDRE FORGET/QMI AGENCY)

VANCOUVER -- Instead of embarrassment, the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics could have ended in chaos.

Wayne Gretzky, Nancy Greene Raine, Steve Nash and Catriona Le May Doan stood awkwardly with their lit torches after three of the four cauldron arms in B.C. Place Stadium emerged from the false floor. A $20 encoder failed, preventing a trap door from opening. All, except Le May Doan, eventually stepped forward to light the centrepiece on Feb. 12, 2010.

The head of the company that engineered the indoor burner and a permanent replica outside the Vancouver Convention Centre told QMI it was fortunate his staff had prepared for a malfunction.

"If nothing had been done there would have been gas coming out (of the fourth arm)," said Con Manias of FCT Flames, a company based in Sydney, Australia.

"We had considered the possibility of perhaps not being able to operate one of the arms for one reason or another. It required our technicians to be able to make some changes to the gas systems to allow the three arms to operate in isolation."

Had the Olympic flame gone out of control, the Vancouver Olympic committee and B.C. Place Stadium management were unprepared to evacuate the 60,000 people at the ceremony, documents obtained by QMI show.

Minutes of the stadium's March 5, 2010 Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee said no fire drill had been conducted "for over two years."

"VANOC did a full bell test but there was no evacuation drill. Only a test of the fire alarm system," said the document, obtained via Freedom of Information. "This test needs to be conducted. Senior management please read this and proceed with scheduling the annual evacuation drill. The employer is in violation."

B.C. occupational health and safety regulations say annual fire drills are required "to ensure awareness and effectiveness of emergency exit routes and procedures."

Other documents obtained by QMI show that three days before the ceremony, WorkSafeBC accepted an engineer's report that said the cauldron would be extinguished if the surface temperature of the stadium's fabric dome exceeded 107 C.

Crews were stationed on the roof around the clock to prevent rainwater from pooling because the weight of speakers and lights already was flattening the inflated roof.

In a break from Olympic tradition, the stadium cauldron was turned off after spectators left so it would not melt the roof. Gretzky was shuttled in a pickup truck to light the outdoor cauldron beside the Vancouver Convention Centre.

The cauldron blaze again Saturday at 4 p.m. PT when Olympic workers, volunteers and torchbearers hold a reunion and first anniversary ceremony.

The 1983-built B.C. Place is scheduled to reopen on Sept. 30 from a $563-million renovation that includes application of a retractable roof. The air-supported roof, which ripped and collapsed under snow in 2007, was deflated last May.

bob.mackin@sunmedia.ca