WALKERTON, Ont. — About three dozen people turned out Sunday to mark the 10th anniversary of the E. coli tragedy in a tribute to those afflicted by one of the country’s worst public health disasters.
The commemoration in the form of speeches, a walk, guitar music and prayers began at the now defunct Well 5, where cow manure from a nearby farm washed into the town’s water system after heavy rains.
Speakers, including Mayor Charlie Bagnato, remembered the horrific consequences — seven dead, 2,500 others ill.
“We have to reflect on that and remember that people actually lost their lives drinking tap water in a town in a first world country 20 miles from the second largest fresh-water body in the world,” Bagnato said.
“It’s still mind-boggling but it happened.”
Among those in attendance were several people who themselves fell ill over the May 2000 long weekend.
Bridget King, who was seven at the time, remembered how her elementary school was shut down over fears the drinking water was contaminated.
She recalled her neighbours being airlifted to hospitals in London, Ont., how people had to go to the town’s arena to pick up bottled water because their tap water had turned lethal.
She also recalled the outpouring of support for the grief-stricken, traumatized town.
“There were cards from people all across Canada and even overseas just letting our community know they were thinking of us,” King said.
“That really stuck in my mind. The whole world was thinking of us.”
An exhaustive judicial inquiry would later pin the catastrophe in part on the town’s water managers, Stan and Frank Koebel, who falsified records and failed to notify anyone as the water slowly poisoned the town.
The inquiry also cited shoddy oversight by the provincial Ministry of the Environment and steep cuts by the Conservative government of then-premier Mike Harris as contributing to the disaster.
Its recommendations prompted far-reaching changes in the rules pertaining to drinking-water in Ontario.
Almost as many reporters as local people turned out for Sunday’s event, an echo of how the town was besieged by the media during the darkest days of the crisis.
Bruce Davidson, who helped organize the event, attributed the low turnout to the fact that some people in town simply prefer not to be reminded of the tragedy, while others have made peace with it and moved on.
That feelings can still run high, though, was perhaps reflected in the newspaper pictures of the Koebel brothers someone pinned to a tree a few days ago at Well 5, now just a concrete block with a memorial plaque in front.
Below the pictures was the line: “Largely to blame.”
Both brothers pleaded guilty to common nuisance. Stan Koebel was jailed for a year; his brother spent nine months under house arrest.
“I just don’t know what’s to be gained by revisiting that,” Davidson said.
“Blame doesn’t restore a kidney. It doesn’t restore a life.”
The commemoration also paid tribute to how far the town has progressed in the decade since it became a notorious symbol of failure.
“We’ve moved along way from it,” Bagnatto said, noting the town’s new economic bustle.
“But just for a few minutes, we have to stop and remember — just like November 11.”