Ottawa

Missing Eastway Tank manager said his daughter was his everything

Russell McLellan is one of five missing employees who are presumed dead after an explosion at Eastway Tank on Merivale Road last week. A sixth employee was taken to hospital after the blast, where he succumbed to his injuries. A seventh remains in hospital at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.

Russell McLellan among 5 missing employees presumed dead after explosion on Merivale Road

Russell McLellan, 43, was the shop manager of Eastway Tank. He is missing and presumed dead after last week's explosion and fire on Merivale Road. (Supplied)

Russell McLellan just kind of grew on Tom Burant and his family.

"He's my unofficial adopted nephew," Burant told CBC News.

The best friend of Burant's own nephew, McLellan became a "larger-than-life" fixture in his life.

McLellan, 43, was the plant manager at Eastway Tank. He is one of five missing employees who are presumed dead after an explosion at the company's Merivale Road location last week. A sixth employee was taken to hospital after the blast, where he succumbed to his injuries. A seventh remains in hospital at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.

On Thursday, when news of the explosion and fire on Merivale Road broke, Burant almost jokingly sent his pal a text: "Hey is that you guys?"

"He never responded," Burant said. "We just assumed that he was busy with the evacuation and everything."

Then time wore on and no one had heard from the "gentle giant." It started to sink in for Burant and others that there was a problem.

"I was in shock," he said. "If I'm being honest, I'm still in denial."

Recovery efforts to continue this week

A tangle of agencies is now investigating the fatal explosion. Ottawa police said Sunday the human remains of four people had been located by officials, but those bodies have not yet been recovered from the still unstable site of the fire, or positively identified. Recovery efforts are expected to continue this week.

In his heart of hearts, Burant hopes it's all somehow, despite the odds, just a bad dream and his buddy shows up at the lake this weekend.

"We all know it's true and we're all devastated." That little bit of lingering hope helps to make it easier.

"Russ was a gentle giant," Burant said. "Russ was the guy who was always unobtrusive and in the background and the only time you really knew he was there is if you needed something, or needed help with something, or you just wanted to shoot the breeze with someone, Russ was there."

He was one of the hardest working men Burant had ever known. They fished together, hunted together, rode ATVs together.

Daughter was his 'raison d'être'

The Burants have property on a "little lake in the valley," where McLellan had a trailer. He was there nearly every weekend with his 15-year-old daughter — his "raison d'être."

There wasn't anything or anyone more important to him, Burant said. "She was his reason for living."

His daughter and wife are now crushed, Burant said. 

The children at the lake loved him, too. He carried with him a "big bag of candy" he happily doled out to the kids, hyping them up with sugar.

He, too, took great pride and satisfaction in his work as both a customer service representative and shop manager.

"He just loved it," Burant said. "He loved the guy he worked for, he loved Neil, the owner of Eastway. He just loved it, he found it very interesting and challenging."

There was never a dull moment and there was always a new problem to solve.

"He was involved in the day-to-day handling of clients," Burant said. "He loved that because he was a people person. Everybody who dealt with Russ was very happy and glad to have known him."

An explosion and fire at the company's site on Merivale Road in Ottawa on Jan. 13 killed one, and five additional workers are still missing and presumed dead. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Just want to 'bring him home'

Burant doesn't know what happened on Thursday afternoon, while witnesses reported hearing what sounded like an earthquake and repeated loud booms before the sky-high flames were spotted.

"All I know is Russ never expressed any trepidation, any fears about any sort of hazards at work. Yes they were in an industry that dealt with some volatile stuff but never did I hear him say, 'I'm worried about this,'" Burant said.

McLellan's daughter and wife are struggling to sleep as they wait for officials to locate his body so they can get some semblance of closure, even if it means eliminating the hope that's making it bearable right now.

"We're all sitting on pins and needles, we'd all like to know," he said. "We'd just like to find Russ and bring him home."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shaamini Yogaretnam

CBC Ottawa reporter

Shaamini Yogaretnam is CBC Ottawa's justice, crime and police reporter. She has spent nearly a decade covering crime in the nation's capital. You can reach her at shaamini.yogaretnam@cbc.ca or 613-220-2486. You can find her on Twitter at @shaaminiwhy

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