Workers to be remembered

Forty-eight years later, one Squamish widow still mourns her husband's workplace death

Every working day, four Canadians die for their job.

For Squamish resident Georgina St. Laurent, that's more than a statistic - and with National Day of Mourning for Workers Killed on the Job fast approaching, she agreed to explain why.

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Forty-eight years ago St. Laurent abruptly lost her husband of 15 years, and the love of her life, in the boiler room explosion at the Woodfibre pulp mill.

"I was in shock, I think, for two weeks," she said. "I didn't shed a tear. It just didn't seem to penetrate."

One of the worst parts for Georgina is that fact that she believes the accident could have been prevented - there was talk weeks before the explosion about the boiler not working properly.

"Jimmy [James] Fortier, who worked at Woodfibre, boarded at my mother's place and he was good friends with Laurie [Lawrence]," she said.

"He said, 'You know, one of these days that boiler will blow up - it sure isn't working right,' and that was only about a week or two before it happened. But with the chief engineer on holidays, nothing was done about it."

A wife and mother of three, Georgina wasn't listening to the radio when the terrible news was broadcast to Squamish residents.

"I was expecting company that day and was busy cooking, so I didn't hear it on the radio and then my brother-in-law came over and told me what happened," she explained while sitting in the same home she lived in with her late husband Lawrence (more commonly known as Laurie) St. Laurent.

"They knew right away he had died. It blew the walls out and I think my husband was thrown out on the ground and he was dead when they came to him."

The blast, which happened shortly after 3 p.m. on Aug. 18, 1963, demolished part of a 120-foot building housing the 80-foot boiler and turned a section of the plant into a shapeless mass of steel, concrete and timber, according to media at the time.

Georgina keeps a scrapbook of all the newspaper clippings, photos and sympathy cards, although she rarely pulls them out because she doesn't like to think about it. After the accident, she heard several disturbing details of the accident.

"The liquid [nicknamed black liquor] inside is a very caustic acid, so they said that it was even hard to identify the dead because they turned black and it started to eat away their flesh," she said.

Georgina said she wasn't the only one who suffered. Eight other men died in the blast, leaving widows and children behind.

"For a while, myself and the other widows got together and we were going to sue the company because the boiler apparently wasn't working very well for quite a while," she said. "But nothing ever came of it."

She said her 11-year-old son took St. Laurent's death particularly hard, as he and his father were very close.

"He's the one who was hit most of the children because his dad used to take him fishing and ump his Little League games," she said.

Dealing with her own grief, her children's grief and the unexpected responsibility of running a household made the years afterward quite difficult for Georgina.

In 1963, worker's compensation gave each widow $250 in cash and a $90 a month pension, but she said that's all the money she had to raise three kids.

Georgina has never remarried and she acknowledges that worksite safety is key to making sure others don't suffer the same tragedy she did.

On April 28, the National Day of Mourning for Workers Killed on the Job, Lawrence St. Laurent's name will be added to the memorial in Pavilion Park. His name, along with seven others, will be inscribed on a plaque and honoured.

Georgina will attend the Day of Mourning for the first time this year.

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