“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.
FULL COVERAGE: Remembering Westray: 25 years
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.”
April 26, 2017 - Number of events to mark 25th anniversary of Westray
May 8, 2012 - Area will commemorate those lost in mine explosion
May 6, 2012 - The day their dad wasn't coming home
Jan. 12, 2006 - Book chronicles Westray through media
May 9, 2002 - For the wives it's still difficult to grasp
Nov. 2, 2001 - Long awaited film to air
May 10, 1992 - Community prays for miracle