United in death, Ottawa explosion victims all stood out in life

Some were just entering the workforce, while others were approaching retirement. The six people who died in the Jan. 13 explosion and fire at Eastway Tank in Ottawa may be united by the tragic circumstances of their deaths, but in their lives they were individuals, through and through.

6 people died in Jan. 13 explosion, fire at south Ottawa tanker-truck manufacturer

Victims of the Jan. 13 explosion and fire at Eastway Tank, Pump & Meter Ltd., clockwise from top left: Matt Kearney, Etienne Mabiala, Danny Beale, Rick Bastien, Russell McLellan and Kayla Ferguson. (Submitted photos)

They were the sort of folks who escaped to the Ottawa Valley on the weekend, danced to cheesy pop songs with their nieces, channeled years of expertise into helping with their kids' homework.

Some were just entering the workforce. Others were approaching retirement. Most were men, but not all.

It's true that the six people killed in the Jan. 13 explosion and fire at the south Ottawa headquarters of Eastway Tank, Pump & Meter Ltd., a local tanker truck manufacturer, will forever be united by the tragic circumstances of their deaths.

But in their lives, they were individuals through and through, each bringing their own experiences to their difficult, dangerous jobs.

Kayla Ferguson, 26, was the sole woman among the victims. She'd only been at Eastway since 2020, her cousin said, but was excited to get a job there as a welder after graduating from college.

On the opposite end of his career was 57-year-old Rick Bastien, who trained Ferguson after she started and was the first victim whose identity CBC News confirmed.

A former Eastway supervisor and skilled craftsman, Bastien was nearing retirement when he died.

The grandfather of two had just put the finishing touches on a home in the Outoauais region of Quebec where he and his wife, Louise, were planning to enjoy their twilight years.  As Louise wrote on his Facebook page, "we had 10 wonderful years together and believed we had at least 30+ more to come."

Several, like low-voltage electrician Danny Beale — a native of Deep River, Ont., with a deep and abiding love of the outdoors — grew up in the region. He spent the weekend before his death ice fishing with his father, Mike, at the family's hunting camp near Calabogie, Ont., just west of Ottawa.

Others, however, made great journeys before arriving at Eastway: Etienne Mabiala, described by coworkers and family as a shy but friendly engineer, was born in the Republic of Congo and worked on airplanes in Senegal for Air Afrique before immigrating to Ottawa.

Smoke billows into the air following an explosion on Jan. 13 at Eastway Tank, Pump & Meter Ltd. in south Ottawa. (Submitted by Ty Littleton)

Pride in the work

Despite their differences, the victims did have certain things in common: they took pride in what they did, and loved and were loved by those around them.

Plant manager Russell McLellan was a "gentle giant" whose teenage daughter was his "raison d'être," his friend Tom Burant recalled.

The 43-year-old was one of the hardest working men he'd ever known, Burant said. He loved toiling for Eastway and owner Neil Greene and never expressed any fear about being surrounded by volatile fuels and chemicals.

Ferguson worked hard too — just as hard as any man at Eastway, her cousin Maria said. In her off-hours, though, she was beloved "Auntie K" to her nieces and goddaughters and served, as Maria put it, as the family's "rock."

Service technician Matt Kearney, who survived the initial blast but succumbed the next day in hospital, had both a "relentless regard for the well-being and safety of others" and "unwavering love and dedication to his family and friends," according to a family statement.

As for Mabiala, he was a "genius" so adept at engineering that he didn't need manuals to do his work, his daughters Celeste and Darlene told CBC. But he was also a family man who'd call his wife every lunch hour and would drive his kids from store to store in search of a sold-out toy. 

They weren't just employees. They were, as Bastien's son Josh put it, friends and "good people."

A photo of Rick Bastien is seen amid a tribute outside Eastway Tank in Ottawa on Jan. 20, one week after the fatal explosion and fire. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Investigations underway

On Wednesday, nearly one week after the fatal blast, crews finally recovered the remains of five people — their identities still not officially confirmed — from the still hazardous scene.

Now, the focus will shift to figuring out how such a devastating disaster could have torn through the Merivale Road truck plant in the first place and who, if anyone, bears responsibility. The long list of investigating agencies includes the Ottawa Police Service's arson unit, the Ontario fire marshal, the Ministry of Labour and the provincial fuel safety regulator.

And that's where, perhaps, one more difference will now manifest: in the attitudes and expectations the victims' loved ones take toward the complex, overlapping investigations.

WATCH | Friends, family speak about loved ones killed in the Eastway disaster: 

Father, son, friend, cousin: The victims of the Eastway Tank explosion

2 years ago
Duration 2:34
Friends and family members spoke to CBC News about loved ones who were killed in the Jan. 13 explosion and fire at Eastway Tank, Pump and Meter Ltd.

For Josh Bastien, who previously worked at Eastway alongside his father and is among the former workers who have alleged a history of safety lapses at the Ottawa plant, the scrutiny will be intensely personal.

"My dad rang alarm bells for a long time and he's gone now, and I feel like he would want the truth told finally," he told CBC this week. "His death, it has to mean something. Because this can't keep happening."

(Eastway, for their part, has called the allegations by Bastien and two other former employees "unfounded," while also acknowledging in a statement that people are feeling "immense pain, sadness and anger.")

Other family members have hinted at a more philosophical approach — although it's possible, as details emerge about the blast's circumstances, that those feelings may change.

"If there was an error made, people make errors," said Jean Schade, Danny Beale's mother, not long after the family made their own pilgrimage to the Eastway site and left flowers and photos of their son at the gate.

"The only reason I would care [for an investigation] is to help others, but not for me moving on," she said. "It doesn't bring Danny back."

The sign for Eastway Tank pictured on Jan. 18, five days after the explosion and fire ripped through the south Ottawa tanker-truck manufacturer. (Francis Ferland/Radio-Canada)

Files from Alistair Steele, Shaamini Yogaretnam, Joseph Tunney, Guy Quenneville and Travis Dhanraj