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This article was published 12/9/2017 (996 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Before a heap of bricks dropped from the sky and punctured the building below, eyewitnesses say the 40-metre smokestack that towered over Brandon seemed to lift in the air.
It was like the brick chimney levitated, before it tumbled, causing 30 metres of bricks and mortar to collapse without warning 60 years ago tomorrow. The tragedy killed two people who worked at the Manitoba Power Commission’s steam plant and badly injured three other employees.
"The one thing that sticks out in my mind was the white dust, it was everywhere," said Jack Tennant, The Brandon Daily Sun photographer whose still images captured the tragedy unlike the city had ever known.
He remembers there being a calmness to that late afternoon, in spite of soot radiating from the building on 10th Street and Lorne Avenue.
"I don’t think people really understood the magnitude of the explosion at first, that it actually killed people," Tennant explained. "One of the reasons was all the dust, you couldn’t see the wreckage."
Tomorrow, Manitoba Hydro will acknowledge the tragic day in the city’s history at a ceremony and barbecue open to the public at the same location where the chimney stood, at the energy utility’s 10th Street office.
A plaque commemorating the tragedy will be unveiled at the event, starting at 11 a.m.
According to interviews with survivors about that day, most office staff finished their last coffee break of the day shortly before 4 p.m., when five latecomers entered the canteen.
As Lewis Stouffer began pouring himself a cup of coffee, Kelvin Gerry moved to the front of the cupboard, leaving Tom Tawes, Fred Morden and Irv Powers waiting for their turn at the urn.
That’s when a massive explosion blew out the bottom of the smokestack, showering the canteen with bricks and mortar.
Stouffer was thrown to the floor and scalded with coffee. Gerry was knocked off his feet before a cupboard door fell on his back, protecting him from serious injury. Powers’ spine was crushed after a heavy beam landed on him.
The falling bricks claimed two lives: Morden, 51, and Tawse, 32, both fathers of young children at the time.
An inquest into the explosion determined there was no carelessness or dereliction of duty on anyone’s part.
The accident occurred when a pocket of gas built up near the base of the smokestack and ignited. The operator was not aware how much oil vapour and fuel had gathered when he went to reignite the boiler.
Tennant grasped the magnitude of what unfolded soon after arriving on scene.
The place was crawling with police and firemen. Emergency personnel were rummaging through wreckage to find bodies, he said.
"It was like, ‘Holy God, how many more are in here?’" he said.
He took pictures from the same floor where the canteen was. He saw up-close personnel scouring the rubble for signs of life.
"That day is stuck in my mind from some 50 odd years of journalism."
At 72 years old, Lorna Saddler is the last surviving member of Fred Morden’s immediate family, after her brother Stan and mother Hilda passed away. The family moved to Celina, Ohio, about a decade after the 1957 accident when Stan found work at a uncle’s newspaper.
"I often wonder what would have happened if that whole situation had not been a part of our lives. I would still be there, I suppose," Saddler said of Brandon, which she left at the age of 21.
For years, Saddler, who was 12 when the accident happened, and her younger brother were shielded from news clippings of their father’s accident, until their mother deemed them old enough.
"She was very much a protector, as most mothers are."
Saddler’s memories of her father consist mainly of what her mom shared: that he was a caring man, who worried about his two children and longed to see them grow up as teenagers and adults.
She remembers Christmas shopping as a young child and grabbing onto her father’s thumb, which was sliced because of a construction injury.
"He told me that I needed to hold onto his thumb to keep his thumb warm," she recalled.
Saddler’s nephew, Todd Morden, said it’s kind of ironic he, like the grandfather he never met, worked in the energy industry. Morden is now employed with Husky Energy in Ohio.
For a while, all he knew about one of Brandon’s worst tragedies was that his grandfather — a man he knew about through stories about his tall stature and love for hunting — died at work.
"I didn’t know what kind of an industrial accident. It was really never talked about a lot in the family," he said. "I just picked up bits and pieces over the years."
Although he cannot attend the memorial in person, Morden will be thinking about it.
"I think the tribute is important. It’s not sweeping the dust under the carpet, so to speak," Morden said. "I’m just sorry that two of Brandon’s citizens lost their lives in this accident. That’s a tragedy, they were serving their city by providing power."
The lives of Tom Tawse’s family were also changed by the freak accident, including Linda McKellar, then a nine-year-old girl from Montreal.
At the time, to her, Tawse was more than an uncle.
Since McKellar’s father often travelled for work, her "uncle Tom" was there when her father wasn’t.
"He was always up for dragging me along with him," she said.
McKellar only lived in Brandon until the age of four, but those early years were formative. She remembers driving in Tawse’s truck and seeing baby chicks through the windows of the Manitoba Power Commission building around Easter time.
And as she grew up in Quebec, cards and letters aplenty mailed by her uncle were addressed to her.
"For a long time, it was not real," she said of being told her uncle had died. "And because I couldn’t come back to the funeral, there was a piece of that that remained unreal."
It took a visit to Brandon the following summer for the truth to finally hit her.
"I was nine when it happened, but he was a big part of my life and clearly had a big hand in it," she said. "His death had a fairly significant impact on me."
Now in Winnipeg, McKellar will return to the location of the accident tomorrow for the first time in more than 60 years.
Since she never attended the funeral, she portrays the event as her opportunity to finally "acknowledge who he was. What he did. And how he died," McKellar said.
She’ll be sure to bring Kleenex along, she said.
To the best of Joe Slawinsky’s knowledge, tomorrow’s plaque unveiling will be the first time the energy utility has commemorated the tragedy in a permanent fashion.
The idea came from Westman Hydro-X, a group of retired Hydro employees from the area who meet monthly.
"I think it’s a lot of the retirees recalling a number of these things who feel that there should be some recognition to memorialize this," Slawinsky, president of Westman Hydro-X, said. "It shows the newer people this is what happened and it should be something that isn’t forgotten."
Slawinsky was working for the Manitoba Power Commission in McCreary at the time of the accident when he heard the notice on the company’s two-way radio.
It was his district supervisor who understood the seriousness of what happened.
"For myself, it was a little bit of wonderment," Slawinsky said, "like what is this and what’s going on?"
The tragedy has stood out for him because of the day it happened: Friday the 13th.
Considered an unlucky date in Western superstition, Slawinsky said one of the employees closely affected by the tragedy no longer came to work when the 13th day of the month landed on Friday. The absence was broadly known and accepted by staff, he said.
"People suffered pretty heavily from that accident."
Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen said marking the occasion recognizes the sacrifices of company employees, then and now.
"The chimney was the tallest feature in the Brandon skyline for its day, and for this to happen, the suddenness of it, there’s a part of it that shaped a little bit of Brandon history," he said.
In addition to the memorial, Wednesday’s public event will celebrate 60 years of Manitoba Hydro’s Brandon Generating Station and four decades of the Brandon Customer Service Centre. A time capsule buried at the 10th Street office in 1990 will be opened.
Now living in Cochrane, Alta., Tennant, the newspaper photographer who took images of the explosion’s aftermath, remembers the day as an impactful juncture in the "pretty laidback" city’s history.
He remembers, too, the community spirit that was indisputable amid the tragedy. As dust began to dissipate, neighbours offered their helping hands and gave coffee and doughnuts to the rescuers and MPC employees.
"I always thought that was neat," Tennant said.
» firstname.lastname@example.org, with files from The Brandon Daily Sun and Manitoba Hydro
» Twitter: @ianfroese