“My sister Kayla was an amazing woman," said Tara Henderson, right, of her sister, Kayla Ferguson, left.

Two graduates of Algonquin College are among the victims of Eastway Tank, Pump and Meter Ltd.’s deadly explosion and fire in Ottawa on Thursday, Jan. 13.

What should have been a normal day at work for the victims ended tragically in the worst industrial accident since 1966 when the Heron Road bridge collapsed, according to the Ottawa District Labour Council.

The Ottawa Police Service has yet to release the names of the Eastway workers who died in the blast on Merivale Road. Six victims have been publicly identified by family members and friends on social media.

The Algonquin College community is mourning the loss of 26-year-old welder, Kayla Ferguson of Carleton Place, and 43-year-old plant manager, Russell McLellan.

Ferguson was a recent graduate of the welding and fabrication techniques program. McLellan studied auto body collision repair and sheet metal technology.

An initial statement was released by Algonquin College a week after the accident.

According to an Ottawa Police update on Jan. 18, the Office of the Chief Coroner, in conjunction with the Ontario Forensic Pathology Service, are continuing their investigation and identification process into the Jan. 13 explosion on Merivale Road,” said the college. “Along with the entire Ottawa community, the Algonquin College community is mourning this tragedy and the lives lost.

Current staff and students are feeling the impact of this loss, especially those teaching and training in the same fields as the victims.

Welding instructor, Jeff Ross, remembers Kayla Ferguson as a strong woman and advocate for other females in her trade.
Welding instructor, Jeff Ross, remembers Kayla Ferguson as a strong woman and advocate for other females in her trade. Photo credit: Magan Carty

Welding instructor Guy Seguin taught Ferguson over multiple semesters. He said he was devastated to hear about this event.

“The news of the explosion shocked everyone in and out of the welding community,said Seguin, who was out of the country on annual leave when he received the news.

“I think everyone would agree that Kayla was a great person with a positive attitude towards school and life,” Seguin said in an email. “She brought a level of calmness to the room that was contagious. She was a dedicated student and knew exactly what she wanted to do in a career as a welder. We lost a great tradeswoman. Kayla will be forever remembered and missed.”

Wade Foster is relatively new to the auto body program as coordinator. “I did not know McLellan personally,” he said, “but this is truly a tragedy for those who lost their lives along with their families.”

Jeff Ross, professor of welding and fabrication techniques, also taught Ferguson. He does not live too far from Eastway and heard about the explosion shortly after it happened. It was not until three days later, however, that he learned one of the victims was a former student of his.

“I woke up Sunday morning and my wife asked me if I knew her,” he said. “It’s just so sad for the industry and sad to hear that this happened to someone who was such a positive role model and such an ambitious individual.”

Ross remembers Ferguson as a student who was really involved and keen on helping out in the college community.

“At the time we were running welding camps and she volunteered for those,” he said. “I remember her as a strong female character advocating for other females in the male-driven trades.”

Ross says it is important to understand welding-related accidents are extremely rare. Many of his current students pursuing a similar career path to Ferguson had a lot of questions relating to Thursday’s tragedy during an online class the following Monday.

I am a dinosaur when it comes to the trade, and the main lesson I had to offer in that moment,” said Ross, “was that accidents are just that: accidents. They are horrible when they happen, but they happen very rarely.”

In his 20 years of experience, Ross says female welders are rare. “I would say five per cent, maybe ten per cent at the absolute highest, are women.”

“But when we do get women going through our program here, they are often actually better than the men, especially at certain tasks. That’s why having someone like Kayla in your class is so memorable.”

Ferguson’s mother, Janet, said in a post on Facebook that while her daughter and the other Eastway employees are gone, they will never be forgotten. Tara Henderson, Kayla’s sister, agreed to speak on behalf of her family.

“My sister Kayla was an amazing woman, who at the young age of 26 was quite accomplished,” said Henderson. “She completed college and landed her dream job. She found her fairy tale love. She knew what she wanted and went for it.”

“I will never forget the special relationship we shared. [Kayla] was only with us for a short time, but she had a big impact.”