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Wednesday, October 12, 2016
Monanton Explosion 50 Years Ago
Another event that happened while most of us were growing up in Verdun (Montreal) is covered in a story in today's Montreal Gazette.
Victims still grieve for fathers killed in 1966 Monsanto plant explosion in LaSalle
Published on: October 12, 2016 | Last Updated: October 12, 2016 7:54 PM EDT
Among the 11 male victims, some burned beyond recognition, was Henry “Scotty” Caldwell, a native of Paisley, Scotland, who was 46 and a father of three boys, then between the ages of eight and 20.
“He was just entering the prime of his life,” said his oldest son, Brian Caldwell, now 70.
The night of the explosion, which shattered windows in the area and was heard for miles around, Brian Caldwell was sound asleep at his parent’s home in Montreal North.
“I remember my mother waking me up. We spent the rest of the night up listening to the radio for reports.”
Although listed among the dead in newspaper reports, it wasn’t till several days later that Henry Caldwell was officially identified.
Brian Caldwell, who accompanied his mother and a cousin to the morgue, said an accurate identification was difficult due to the badly burned condition of the corpse.
“There was nothing really to identify anyway … . There was just a hunk of charred meat,” he said.
To this day, Caldwell is not even sure it was his father’s remains he saw.
“It was mostly a process of elimination. The other families went in first, and then us. To this day I believe we just picked somebody. I couldn’t be 100 per cent certain.”
Caldwell was in a haze at his father’s funeral, but he took some solace after his father’s co-workers told him his father had died heroically.
According to their accounts, Scotty Caldwell was among a group of workers who re-entered the plant that fateful night in a bid to rescue others after the initial blast.
“We understood that he got out, but had gone back in to see about getting someone else out, and it went off. We never got confirmation but that was the story that was told … that Scotty went back in.”
Indeed, an eyewitness to the tragic act of heroism was quoted in a front page article of the Oct. 15, 1966, edition of The Gazette. “We never saw them again,” the eyewitness said. “I had to tell someone how brave they were.”
A coroner’s jury later ruled the blast — caused by a spark that ignited polystyrene gas — was accidental.
Caldwell said his father’s death had a shattering affect on his bother Colin, who was eight years old at the time.
“Colin had a real hard time with it. I know my mother had to take him to a psychologist for a while. He was close to my Dad.”
As for financial compensation, Caldwell said his mother, Winifred, received a pittance following her husband’s death. “If I recall right, we got his two weeks salary and that was about it.”
The sudden loss of the family patriarch and bread-winner also meant that Caldwell’s mother had to find a job to support the family. She found work “packing” at a Zeller’s warehouse.
Brian also helped with the bills and became a kind of father figure to his youngest brother. But Colin Caldwell suffered another traumatic life experience as a cadet in 1974 when a grenade exploded during a training lesson at the Canadian army base in Valcartier. Six teenaged boys were killed and dozens more injured.
Colin survived the grenade blast, but suffered from hearing loss and post-traumatic stress disorder, said Brian Caldwell. “My mother was just devastated after that,” he added.
Alex Kouzouloglou was only nine when his father Panagiotis Kouzouloglou, a 33-year-old maintenance worker at Monsanto, was killed in the 1966 blast.
Alex visited the plant with his father the night before the explosion, and remembers the smell of chemicals permeated the air. His father’s death was devastating for the family, which included his two-month old brother Peter.
“It was horrible,” said Alex, 59, who lives in New York now. “My father had come from Greece just two years earlier to start a new life for us.”
In a twist of fate, one of Alex’s sons, Andreas Peter, was born on Oct. 13, 1997. “I prefer to celebrate my son’s birthday and not my father’s death on Oct. 13th,” Alex said.
While many Montrealers recall the 1965 natural gas explosion at the LaSalle Heights apartment block that claimed 28 lives, Caldwell said the Monsanto victims and their families fell between the cracks.
“We never even got an invite to the Monsanto Christmas party after the explosion,” he said. “None of the families did. We were sort of forgotten.”
Last year, the borough of LaSalle held a public exhibit and erected a plaque to commemorate the victims on the 50th anniversary of the tragic LaSalle Heights explosion. But there are no plans to do the same for victims of the Monsanto tragedy.
Brian Caldwell and Alex Kouzouloglou both said they would like to see a commemorative plaque erected on the site of the former Monsanto plant, with the names of the 11 explosion victims.
“They do it everywhere else,” said Caldwell. “Why not for that?”