Re­mem­ber­ing Ben­nie Benoit

One of two Cape Bre­ton­ers killed in 1992 Westray Mine ex­plo­sion

Cape Breton Post - - Front Page - BY EL­IZ­A­BETH PAT­TER­SON

When Shirley Benoit first learned that her hus­band was trapped un­der­ground in the Westray Mine 25 years ago, she couldn’t re­mem­ber what he looked like.

“I was mar­ried to him for 23 years but in my mind, I couldn’t see his face — I could see the rest of him but not his face, ” she re­called re­cently at her Glace Bay home.

But hours be­fore it was an­nounced that ev­ery­one un­der­ground had been killed in the dis­as­ter, Benoit awoke in the mid­dle of the night and fi­nally could re­mem­ber her hus­band’s face. But it would bring her no peace.

“When I saw his face, I knew he was gone.”

Benoit doesn’t re­mem­ber much from those fate­ful days a quar­ter cen­tury ago when all of Canada waited for news of whether any­one had sur­vived what be­came one of Canada’s big­gest min­ing disas­ters.

“It’s all a com­plete blur now,” she says of a mo­ment that killed 26 peo­ple but for­ever changed the lives of their im­me­di­ate and ex­tended fam­i­lies.

Benny Benoit was two years older than Shirley when they first met at Arichat High School

in Isle Madame. At first, she didn’t re­ally like him but then she got to know him and their love blos­somed. They mar­ried when she was 17 and he was 19. By the time Shirley was 22, she had al­ready had three chil­dren and her hus­band had worked in fish­ing and con­struc­tion be­fore de­cid­ing on a ca­reer in min­ing. It was a de­ci­sion that would take them across Canada, from Ura­nium City in north­ern Saskatchewan back to Cape Bre­ton where he worked at the Donkin Mine

and then onto Westray, where the hard rock miner would work as a fore­man. He, along with An­gus Joseph Mac­Neil, were the two Cape Bre­ton­ers killed there in 1992 when an un­der­ground methane ex­plo­sion took place on May 9, 1992, killing all 26 min­ers work­ing un­der­ground at the time. Benoit was 42 at the time of his death.

Even be­fore his tragic death, min­ing had been hard on the fam­ily, in­jur­ing Ben­nie Benoit sev­eral times. He had just re­turned to work from an in­jury when the Westray dis­as­ter took place. Be­cause of his re­silience, his wife fully ex­pected him to make it out alive, even dur­ing the dark­est hours of the mine dis­as­ter.

“I never thought he would not come up,” she said. “He would have died get­ting some­one else out.

“He was a very de­ter­mined man. Noth­ing got him down.”

One of the big­gest hur­dles she and her fam­ily faced was coming back to their Glace Bay home, filled with a life­time of mem­o­ries.

“I still to this day can­not put my­self there. I have blocked out that pe­riod of time. I don’t want to re­mem­ber it.

“It was very hard time.” Benoit cred­its the sup­port of fam­ily and friends for help­ing her get through that time and ad­mits that it took about 10 years be­fore she felt con­tent with her­self again.

“But you can’t cry all day and all night — you have to live your life.”

Shirley Benoit has never re­mar­ried al­though she has a close male com­pan­ion. She lives alone and works part-time at Glace Bay’s Savoy Theatre. She en­joys her job and meeting new peo­ple; she even worked while fight­ing colon cancer last year. She likes to stay busy.

She at­tends all the Westray events and says it’s im­por­tant that no one ever for­gets what hap­pened there 25 years ago. She be­lieves it’s im­por­tant that this prov­ince’s labour laws are strength­ened and im­proved as well as en­forced but she has no anger about what hap­pened to her hus­band. She be­lieves anger, in the end, doesn’t ac­com­plish any­thing.

“It should not have hap­pened and I don’t want it to hap­pen again but we can’t change things. No mat­ter what we do, we won’t get our hus­bands back. But I do want the laws en­forced so it can’t hap­pen again. My be­lief is that in time, you will get what you de­serve.”

While life goes on with­out Ben­nie, her eyes still get misty when she talks about him.

“He loved his fam­ily, he loved fish­ing, hunt­ing, he cooked — he liked to do ev­ery­thing. If there was a movie on and a hockey game, he would watch the movie be­cause I wanted to see it.

“There will never be any­one to re­place him.”

EL­IZ­A­BETH PAT­TER­SON/CAPE BRE­TON POST

Shirley Benoit looks at an al­bum con­tain­ing photos of her hus­band Ben­nie Benoit, who was killed in the 1992 Westray Mine ex­plo­sion.

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO

Ben­nie and Shirley Benoit are shown to­gether in this photo taken more than 25 years ago.

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