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Winemakers in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley vowed yesterday to step in and help complete the winemaking process at Silver Sage Winery after the owner and a local winemaker accidentally drowned in a vat of fermenting wine.

"Take me out," winery owner Victor Manola, 47, screamed after he fell through an opening at the top of the 2,300-litre tank on Sunday while standing on a ladder to reach in for a sample, according to a relative's account of the accident.

"I'm coming after you, to get you," Frank Supernak, 41, shouted back as he reached into the tank to help.

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However, Mr. Supernak also fell into the tank, two-thirds full of crushed grapes fermenting in their own juices, and neither could get out. They were removed by the fire department and pronounced dead at the hospital.

"To tell you the truth, we cannot believe it is true," Mr. Manola's sister-in-law, Elena Dudlettes, said yesterday. "We think this is just a bad dream. We'll wake up soon and everything will be normal again."

The winery is just outside the town of Oliver, about 35 kilometres south of Penticton. The Silver Sage Winery was a long-time dream of the Manola family, who had come to Canada from Romania 20 years ago.

The family acquired the 10-hectare property in 1996 and brought in their first harvest in 1999. Silver Sage has been earning a reputation for its experimentation with a variety of ingredients, including sage brush, which grows wild in the region. The winery specializes in fruit wines: a pinot blanc with a subtle hint of peach and apricot, a late-harvest merlot with raspberry flavour and a blueberry dessert wine.

Linda Larson, mayor of the town of 4,400 people, said the entire community was grieving after the two deaths.

"Oliver is not a large place and everyone knows everyone else," she said in an interview. "Just about everyone has been touched by this tragedy."

Patrick Tibando, a director of the chamber of commerce, said area winemakers vowed that Silver Sage's harvest would reach the market.

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"The whole community is shocked and saddened. They are going to work out a program to make sure that every task gets done."

Everyone will take on a different job to move the process along, from fermentation to processing to bottling to getting it out to the market, he said.

Immediate-family members were unavailable for interviews yesterday.

Mr. Manola, his wife, Anna, and their two sons came to Canada from Romania in 1982, Ms. Dudlettes said.

Mr. Manola established a plumbing business, New Style Plumbing & Heating Inc., in the Vancouver suburb of Coquitlam, but his dream was to run his own winery, Ms. Dudlettes said.

Mr. Supernak, who lived in Osoyoos, B.C., was a highly respected wine consultant who worked for Silver Sage and others in the region.

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Some people have speculated that the men were unable to pull themselves out because they were overcome by carbon dioxide in the tank.

Linda Franklin, president of the Wine Council of Ontario, said the concentration level of toxic fumes in fermentation tanks is fairly high. The openings in most tanks are quite small, she added.

"I'm very surprised this could happen," Ms. Franklin said. "I've never heard anything remotely like this happening.

The two deaths are under investigation by the RCMP, the coroner's office and the Workers Compensation Board of B.C.

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