Westray, Sydney River, and Losing Our Innocence

Tomorrow will mark 20 years since what I've always known as the Westray Disaster. It was one of the markers of my childhood, or more accurately one of the transitions from childhood to adulthood.

I am a May baby, as were several of my friends. The weekend after the Westray explosion found me and several of my classmates at a friend's house for a birthday sleepover. It was one of the last big ones we'd have. We were turning 13 and our core group of girls, who had known each other since first grade, was starting to splinter. We had reached the peak mean girl phase and were starting to turn on one another, as girls tend to do. We were separating and that weekend wasn't the beginning of that but it stays in my mind as when things really began to change.

I remember sitting in my friend's living room and instead of talking about things like boys and books and school were were talking about major events. We talked about Westray. We had all watched the news. We had all hoped that there would be survivors, but not one of the 26 men would be rescued.

It played large in our psyche because we were the right age to understand it. We understand that life would not be the same for those families or that community ever again. We lived in a small town and tried to imagine what it would be like if 26 men in our community did not come home from work. We couldn't. It was too devastating. Some of our number had parents that went into an office every day but we were also the daughters of fishermen and factory workers. We knew that there were sometimes dangers in our parent's jobs but it always seemed distant. It wasn't anymore.

The conversation branched off to more news. May 1992 was also the year of the Sydney River McDonald's murders. The perpetrators were not all that much older than us. Somehow 18 seemed much closer to us now that were were 13 than when we were 12. The victims were not much older than the perpetrators. Arleen MacNeil was the only survivor. She was only 20 years old and that too seemed all too close to us. I'd think of those fast food workers every now and then a few years later when I was working weekend nights at a fast food restaurant.

In a sense, we came of age in May 1992. We were aware that bad things happened in the world prior to that but they were in the past or far away. They didn't touch us. Westray and the Sydney River murders did. They made us realize that bad things happen to good people. Bad things don't always happen far away -- they can happen in our community. Bad things can happen to people just like us and our parents.

It's now 20 years later and I'm approaching my 33rd birthday. I'm older than anyone involved in the McDonald's murders. I'm the same or or older than one-third of the men killed in the Westray explosion. The other two-thirds are not that much older than I am. I look at their ages and think of how young they were. When I look back on the events 20 years later, I think of us sitting in my friend's living room losing a bit of our innocence. It was when the world became real.