COTEAU-DU-LAC, Que. (Canadian OH&S News)
Workplace health and safety officials in Quebec are investigating an explosion at a fireworks factory that left two workers dead. The blast happened a day before the weekend leading up the province’s annual St-Jean-Baptiste Day celebrations.
“We have to find out what was going on in the minutes just prior to the accident and what ignited the explosion,” said Jacques Nadeau spokesperson for the province’s workplace health and safety commission.
“Interviewing the witnesses is going to be one of the things that are most important for us, because that’s possibly when we’re going to be able to find out what happened,” he said.
Shortly before 9 a.m. on June 20, the first of several explosions began to rip through the B.E.M. Fireworks Coteau-du-Lac plant located off Highway 20 about 50 kilometres southwest of Montreal.
Nadeau said investigators did not find any evidence of wrongdoing after the initial inspection and does not expect a criminal investigation but said officials “are in for a long and thorough” probe which could take six months to complete.
The bodies of Francine Lacroix, a 47-year-old resident of Riviere-Beaudette, and Nicole Brisson, 58, of Les Coteaux were pulled from the debris about four hours after the initial explosion. Nadeau said the powerful blast had hurled the workers out of the building.
Firefighters exercised caution when they first approached the almost one-kilometre wide explosion site as fireworks continued going off while the production plant and storage facility were engulfed in flames, said Nadeau.
The Coteau-du-Lac fire department said an additional 13 fire departments responded to the blaze and were forced to drive about a kilometre from the factory site to fill up at hydrants in a newer part of the town.
Area residents felt the impact of the series of blasts while thick plumes of black smoke could be seen as far as Ste-Anne-de-Belleuve, a distance of more than 20 kilometres from the factory which also included a retail outlet.
“It is a sad day for Coteau-du-Lac,” said Mayor Robert Sauvé in a statement. “This is a business that has been here since 1970, and there were about 20 to 25 employees. So it was a business that was very respectable. We’ll figure out exactly what happened as the investigation progresses.”
In a statement released by B.E.M., the company said they are “working in collaboration with police to understand what happened.” The blast is “beyond our comprehension,” said the company.
A five kilometre stretch of an adjacent highway was shut down for several hours shortly after the first explosions went off while Montreal authorities issued an immediate evacuation for Coteau-du-Lac residents who gathered at a local community centre as a safety precaution.
Via Rail announced on Twitter that one train travelling between Quebec City and Ottawa had been delayed because of the explosion but that it had reopened the tracks shortly after the delay.
YouTube videos posted by passersby show fireworks exploding as a smoldering inferno destroyed the production plant and storage facility which contained fireworks — many of them destined for St-Jean-Baptiste Day celebrations around Quebec and for upcoming Canada Day fireworks displays sold around the country.
There have been three workplace explosions in Quebec over the last 12 months which have killed five people and injured more than two dozen.
In November, an explosion at the Neptune Technologies and Bioresources Inc. factory killed three chemical plant workers at Sherbrooke Industrial Park. Almost two dozen people were hospitalized for burns.