Nova Scotia

'I often think of them': Marking 40 years since deadly explosion killed 5 at Point Tupper mill

Former workers and loved ones of the victims remain haunted by the memories of a deadly explosion at the Point Tupper paper mill 40 years ago that killed 5 and left others injured.

Explosion at the paper mill on Feb. 8, 1982, claimed 5 lives and injured others

Pat and Lorraine King with their children, Jennifer, Kelvin, Ronnie and Chris. (Submitted by Lori King)

It was around 3 p.m. on Feb. 8, 1982, that Lorraine King got the call from her brother-in-law.

There had been an explosion an hour and a half earlier at the paper mill in Point Tupper on the shores of the Strait of Canso between Cape Breton Island and mainland Nova Scotia. 

King was told that her husband, Pat, a 37-year-old instrument mechanic at the mill, was being taken to hospital for observation but that he seemed fine.

"So I didn't take it too serious," said King, who got supper for her four children before heading over to the nearby Strait Richmond Hospital to see her husband.

"I didn't hurry, I didn't rush. But when I got over there, everybody was rushing around."

Noxious fumes

It turns out that Pat wasn't fine. He had inhaled noxious fumes from the explosion and was being sent to the Halifax Infirmary.

After arranging for her sister to take care of her children, who were between the ages of seven and 13, King rode with her husband in the ambulance to Halifax.

"And then everything just went crazy after that," said the Evanston woman.

"They were rushing around. They took him to be X-rayed. But I knew he had pneumonia. He was just … very sick. And after they took him, I never saw him alive after that."

Hugh Arnold Campbell of Mabou was 29 years old when he died in the explosion. (Submitted by A.J. Campbell)

Pat King was one of five men who died as a result of the explosion that day. The others were Glen Anthony Sampson, 20, of Louisdale; Hugh Arnold Campbell, 29, of Mabou; Paul St. Pierre, 43, of Port Hawkesbury; and James Charles Mason, 48, of Ashdale. Several other men were injured but eventually recovered.

The explosion happened in the mill's steam plant.

John Dan (Smokey) MacNeil of Creignish was a 32-year-old water treatment operator working at the steam plant in 1982.

'Black liquor'

Leading up to Feb. 8, he was worried about a plan to use nitric acid to wash heat exchangers in the steam plant while the plant was running. He was concerned about the acid mixing with a steam plant fuel known as "black liquor."

"I had a big concern about that," said MacNeil, who warned other workers about the potential for disaster. "I was told by senior people in the plant that if liquor and acid mixed, it was very likely an explosion could happen."

On that fateful day, MacNeil said workers were filling a storage tank with nitric acid when black liquor inadvertently got into the tank because it was tied into the same system.

He too received a call at home about the explosion. He was on a scheduled day off at the time.

"When I got the call, I remember it just brought me right to my knees," said MacNeil. "It was heavy going. It was heartbreaking. Of course, on Feb. 8, I think of the guys that lost their lives, I think of their families, and it's not easy. I often think of them. We all do."

5 killed in explosion 

Campbell and Mason were killed instantly when they were struck by a large piece of concrete from the blast. Pat King, Sampson and St. Pierre died later in hospital as a result of inhaling nitric acid fumes.

Nova Scotia Forest Industries owned the mill at the time. The explosion was investigated but the company wasn't penalized.

Former paper mill employee John Dan (Smokey) MacNeil at home in Creignish. (Submitted by John MacNeil)

MacNeil, who retired about five years ago at the age of 67, spent the years since 1982 trying to improve workplace safety across Nova Scotia. He was involved in everything from a safety committee at the mill to the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour's health and safety committee.

"I said to myself, 'I'll never let this happen again,'" he said. "It haunted me. I spent a lifetime trying to improve things in health and safety. Policies and procedures and lockouts and permits — a lot of that wasn't in place, and the reason why they all came in place, those men lost their lives."

Lorraine King with 3 of her 7 grandchildren. (Submitted by Lori King)

In the meantime, Lorraine King raised four children on her own in the house she and her husband built, and never remarried.

"Who has got time to get married?" she said with a little laugh, adding that all her children are now grown with families of their own, although none live in Cape Breton. She has seven grandchildren.

"He was a wonderful husband and father and he loved his job," said King of her husband. "It was 40 years ago, but it's something that stays in your mind. Your life changes so quickly after that."