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Tearful widow of blast victim suing B.C. Gas

Tina Alec's body is wracked by sobs as she struggles to control her sorrow.

Her fingers trace the deep scars etched into her leg, as she haltingly describes how her life was blown apart in 1997 when her husband was killed in Quesnel in a horrific gas explosion that left her badly injured.

"It's too hard . . . why did it have to be?" says the 38-year-old widow, wiping her eyes. "I still miss my husband."

Alec is one of 27 people who are suing B.C. Gas in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit that opens in B.C. Supreme Court in

Quesnel on Tuesday.

She was in the Cariboo Closet, a downtown Quesnel thrift store, with her husband, Marcien Laliberte, 63, and their two kids, Amanda and Pamela, on the afternoon of April 16, 1997.

Suddenly, after what some witnesses have described as the "fierce sound of wind rushing against the walls," two stores were reduced to flames and rubble.

Six people died and 20 were injured in the blast, which left a crater where the building stood.

The explosion blew some people a dozen metres clear of the flattened building. Firefighters battled an intense blaze that melted nearby roof tiles and set cars ablaze.

Alec was knocked unconscious and cannot remember much about what happened.

She knows she was in the back of the store and her husband, a hunter and sawmill worker, was at the front, buying a hide-a-bed.

He was standing beside Amanda when the blast killed him. Pamela, who was in the bathroom, suffered broken bones in her leg and a deep scar to her lip.

The roof fell in on Alec and a heavy beam crushed her ankle. She also suffered burns to her scalp, a fractured elbow and a fractured vertebra in her lower back.

"I've had at least five surgeries on my leg," she said. "I moved here to be close to the hospital."

The family was living in a trailer in Quesnel and enjoyed hunting moose, camping, fishing and goldpanning at weekends.

"I was with him the whole day, until the kids got out of school, and we went for a walk," said Alec. "We went by that building and we went in and that's where it happened."

Her children are now in foster care, looked after by her younger sister Edith in Quesnel.

Alec rents a room in a house on the outskirts of Prince George, which she shares with two local taxi drivers. She says she lives on a welfare cheque and disability pension totalling $597 a month, including a $10-a-month widow's pension from the federal government.

After paying $325 in rent and buying her share of groceries, she says she has only $60 a month left for other expenses.

Alec says she still suffers pain in her leg and back and can't walk far without discomfort.

Her Vancouver lawyer, Ray Chouinard, one of five lawyers representing victims of the blast, said that key arguments in the case will revolve around the source of the gas.

The victims are claiming that the gas leaked out of a defective weld at an underground T-junction in the gas pipe some metres away from the building.

B.C. Gas blames a furnace in the building for the initial explosion and argues that this caused the subsequent leak at the T-joint.

Key evidence involves witnesses who say they smelled gas in the street prior to the explosion, Chouinard added.

Another of Chouinard's clients, roofer Brad Antonovitch, helped drag 15-year-old Nicholas Law out of the trading-card shop next door, which was also levelled in the blast.

Chouinard said Antonovitch, who suffered brain damage in the blast, described it under oath as like "looking into the jaws of hell."

Alec says her life is a living hell that shows no sign of disappearing. Her kids are still taking it very hard, especially Amanda.

"She saw everything that happened to her Dad," says Alec.

"She was right there beside him. It doesn't go away."

Alec says her children blame her, in some ways, for what happened and she can't get along with them.

While she doesn't know what to expect from the lawsuit, she says she holds out some hope for the future.

Alec was brought up as one of 12 kids and can only read up to a Grade 2 level. She said she'd like to go back to school.

In the meantime, she spends her days going for walks, doing housework and watching soap operas on TV.

Alec met her husband in Quesnel when she was only 20. She was brought up on the nearby reserve and he was from Saskatchewan.

When she got pregnant with their first child, they both gave up alcohol for good, she says.

Four years after the tragedy, she's still mourning for her dead husband.

"We were together for 14 years," she said. "They flew me down to the Prince George Hospital and the next morning they told me he was dead.

"As soon as they told me he was gone, I just started screaming. I will never get over him. I still miss him."

vancouverprovince.com