The news that Shell Oil Co. is considering building a $12.5 billion gas-to-liquids facility in Ascension Parish has brought back traumatic memories from long ago to my family about a deadly explosion at a Shell plant that shattered our lives. …not only was my father dead, apparently blown to pieces, but was also the person blamed for the explosion and the appalling consequences. We were shocked when we found out years later that the information given to us by Shell about the accident was false, and that my father had nothing to do with the explosion. In the meantime, Shell had destroyed the evidence.
By Donna Caillet
The news that Shell Oil Co. is considering building a $12.5 billion gas-to-liquids facility in Ascension Parish has brought back traumatic memories from long ago to my family about a deadly explosion at a Shell plant that shattered our lives.
The area is across the Mississippi River from where my father, a WW2 Veteran, was working for Shell Oil at Bayou Sorrell Field in 1956. It was Dec. 21st and the last hour of work before the Christmas holidays. I was 10 and my two brothers were young teenagers. The night before was Thursday and the stores in large cities stayed open late on that night. My father and mother had taken us Christmas shopping and we parked our car at the levee and rode the ferry across the Mississippi River to downtown Baton Rouge, like most people did back then. My father took my brothers to a sporting goods store to buy them a shotgun for Christmas and I was given $20.00 to buy what I wanted. My mother took me and I bought a doll with no clothes and then headed to the third floor of JC Penneys where they sold fabric. I bought stacks and stacks of every color satin and tulle for my mother to make fancy dresses for my doll. There were piles of tickets and each half yard cost 17cents.We then met up and headed back to the ferry and the 25 mile trip home. As soon as we got back, I lined up my piles of goodies on my bed and called through the bathroom door for my father to come and see what I had bought. His job was about 12 miles each way and then after work the shopping trip was 50 miles round trip so I guess it was pretty late by then. His last words to me through the bathroom door was “Baby, daddy’s tired, I’ll see it as soon as I come home from work tomorrow.” I picked out the yellow fabric so my mother could have a fancy dress made for the doll sitting on my bed when he got home. Not only was he a full time certified welder for Shell, but from 1952 until he died, he had a home upholstery business that he worked at almost every night and weekends. He also played the trombone in The Merry Makers Orchestra and had played in the High School band as well as on the basketball team. They had just chosen a lot in a new development on which to build a new home. He loved his family, was a good provider and was working exceptionally hard for us to have a comfortable life with security and benefits from a company known to value good work ethics and family life.
Full of excitement in anticipation of the Xmas festivities, we were waiting for him to come home when we heard sirens and fire trucks going through our small town. My mother had made a huge yellow fancy dress for my doll from the fabric I had bought the night before and it and my other things were spread out on the bed waiting for him to come home. I was the baby and I guess you could say I was his pet.
Later the Sheriff came and said there was an explosion at Shell Oil and 4 men were involved and my father was one of 2 missing and thought deceased. My father’s middle brother drove us to the local hospital to look for him and then the hospital 10 miles S. of us and he wasn’t there with other burn victims and then to the other hospital 10 miles N. but then our hopes completely died when he wasn’t there either. They searched during that day and night after getting the fire out and through Dec. 27th.
That last day, Mr. Wintham from Shell came with my father’s knife and cigarette lighter that he said they had found and told my mother that he had cut through a pipe and caused the accident that killed him, his co- workers and had injured several others. Also, he said none of his remains were found.
So not only was he dead, apparently blown to pieces, but also was the person blamed for the explosion and the appalling consequences. We didn’t see a body and many nights I woke up from dreams screaming seeing him in the fire. We talked about him being lost and having amnesia and maybe one day he would keep walking and find his way back home. My oldest brother was the last to give up and said that he knew he was coming to his graduation. While he was on the stage, he said he looked from face to face looking for him and then said to himself, “I know if my daddy is alive he would be here.” A tear fell down his face but then he finally realized that he was not coming home. Shell should have insisted on counseling for our entire family but they offered nothing but lies.
Basically, our lives were destroyed. We never had Christmas again. Shell killed my mother as well because I can say that she also died and was never the same. The normalcy that I knew quickly became serious dysfunction. She didn’t know that she was pregnant at the time and the stress caused the miscarriage. The sadness of this time of year is still with me and is never easier. It does not go away.
During the entire time of the searching, even though my mother was in bed and sedated, Shell didn’t come one time to see if we needed any money, food, or even comfort. The Priest and doctor came more than once and all I remember Christmas Day was a coconut cake that my mother’s sister brought from out of town but she had left and was coming back for the funeral. My mother was from another area and the small town was so clannish and even THEY did nothing for us that Christmas. Shell Oil did not even bring a meal, nor did anyone else. They were so pro Shell because that was the only chemical plant in the area at the time and one of the few good jobs. I remember everything, but especially being alone and crying. Mr. Winham said he was going to come back later. My brothers always wandered off but I hung around and listened to every word.
About a month later he did return and told my mother that if she signed the papers, Shell would “state” to Social Security that a body was found or else she would have to wait 7 years to have him proven dead. My father had paid into the Social Security system and it was the only income she would have to support us, apart from $87 per month from the VA, so she agreed. She really had no choice. I was the youngest so after each of us reached 18, the check that we received stopped. Mine and my mother’s stopped the month after my High School graduation and her income was $87.00 a month for 12 years from VA. After then she would be age 62 and could receive Social Security retirement benefits of about $350. monthly . She had no money to rely on during those 12 years and besides us having to try to survive, we hadÂ to somehow help her also. This is what a company, Shell Oil, who prides themselves on being a family company did to my family. This is what my father received for his family from Shell Oil for giving his life?
During my teenage years, my mother was afraid that she would lose benefits or be held responsible for the deaths of the other men. Indeed, I hated when people asked me about the explosion because we were always embarrassed, thinking people blamed us. The town was very tiny and everyone knew each other.
In March 1957, Mr. Harold Winham and Mr. Homer Parsons came with the papers for her to sign and shortly afterwards a letter arrived from Bouwe Dykstra, Vice President of Shell with a $1,000 savings bond for each child. The letter read “Even though Shell has provided considerably more than the mere legal requirements, we know higher education is important, so we are inclosing these bonds.” I cashed mine at age 18 and the value was $866.00. Later we found that they had not even paid the Legal requirements. (LA Workers Compensation)
We were shocked when we found out years later that the information given to us by Shell about the accident was false, and that my father had nothing to do with the explosion. In the meantime, Shell had destroyed the evidence.
My mother wouldn’t let us talk about Shell because she was so afraid we were going to “rock the boat”, meaning she would lose her check, but after she died in 1986, I started thinking about it and about my father’s empty casket. I found the receipt from May 1957 where she had paid for their 2 cemetery plots and was shocked again that Shell had not even paid for my father’s burial plot. Veterans had provided his headstone. I was getting more upset so in July, 1990, I went to One Shell Square in New Orleans, LAÂ and spoke with Mr. Larry McKinney, Employee Relations, to ask what documents were signed on my behalf as a minor and what benefits were available back then. He would never call me with the information as promised or return my calls, but finally I reached him a couple of months later and he told me there were no benefits back then and all records had been destroyed. I thought such a big company would have fantastic benefits and probably why my father changed jobs two years before.
I called the Houston office and they told me they had archives and all records were available. I then called Workers Compensations to ask about the death benefit payable in 1956 and they explained that it was $14,000 and it would have to be approved and filed at the Iberville Parish courthouse. I went there and found that there were settlements for the 2 men who did not have minor children, but there was no settlement for my father and the other man that had 5 children. My assumption is that our “settlement” was Social Security benefits, but this was not from Shell but a Federal program that my father had paid into since he started working as a teen and a benefit that we were automatically entitled to. They couldn’t tell the other families that because their children were no longer minors and they were forced to give them Workers Compensation benefits.
Shell’s attorney prepared the document and he and Mr. Parsons presented it to Judge Dupont to be signed at the same time, so all parties knew there should have been 4 settlements. Everyone for hundreds of miles knew that 4 men were killed so it is obvious that the two from Shell Oil knew they were cheating us.
I confronted Mr. McKinney about it and he referred me to their attorneys at Adams and Reese, the largest law firm in the South, located also in One Shell Square.
I started researching and locating and talking to all of the eye witnesses who were in the explosion with my father and they told me that Shell’s supervisor, Byron Johnson had caused the accident. One employee told me that he warned Mr Johnson that the rig was going to explode and to please allow him to equalize the pressure. He told him that he was working late and not going to the company Christmas party that night and could make it safe. He also explained to us the faulty equipment and how it was locked up the next day and what actually caused the build up but he was denied the opportunity to testify. Mr. Johnson told him that it was his rig and to get the hell away and to not try to tell him how to do his job. He was late eating lunch and he worried but went back in the break room but then he heard the hissing sound. He opened the metal door outward and the blast blew the door against him so hard that it flung him out of the back window into the water and he was surrounded by fire. He first thought he was dead but then he swam for his life.
Mr. Johnson was a former LSU basketball player and was not experienced running an oil rig and was soon relocated to Mississippi. I think I remember my father saying that Shell wanted to start a basketball team so maybe that’s why he was hired.
Another witness told me that he pulled my father’s hip socket from underneath some burned pilings and then water started to leak inside of the drained area where they were searching and instead of stopping the leak so they could finish retrieving his remains, they told him to stop searching and they let the water fill up without attempting to get the rest of his body. Shell Oil, please have the decency to tell me where is my father’s grave-site? Did you sell it to Panaco? There was a five gallon bucket of human bones removed from the site by one of my witnesses. Which ones went into my father’s coffin and which ones went into the coffin of Mr. Elmer Bourgeois’? Shell, now with DNA, I expect you to verify this important issue.
During a period of about 6 years, we retained 4 attorneys to file suit on our behalf against Shell and none were a match for their 150 in-house lawyers which was Adams and Reese, namely William Gaudet. Shell exploited time limit loopholes to evade or minimize responsibility. They could never present any evidence or defense, even though we had many witnesses ready to testify about the lies and fraud. Between attorneys, we tried to represent ourselves. I wrote letters, attended meetings with them, cried my heart out to them, begged and pleaded and they still refused to right their injustice.
(1993) Mr. McKinney wrote me a letter that no records exists because the men handling the claims were dead (the courthouse isn’t dead) and
Mr. Gaudet wrote that I needed to accept that Shell acted with good faith and put it to rest.
Mr. McKinney, “You are a liar.”
Mr. Gaudet, “I will never put it to rest and you are also a liar.”
Shell continued to fight and file suit against us and eventually we each received less than $18,000. We received $5,900 in 1992 and $11,666 in 1997, nowhere near what we were entitled to in compensation. In 1956, $14,000 was enough money to buy a new home and several cars. Over 40 years later, the comparative value was much diminished. My father was 35 years old, had at least 30 more years to earn and retire, plus the ownership of his ongoing business. That, plus the lies and fraud that Shell committed against us is morally indefensible and still needs to be corrected and now it has been 57 years.
Unfortunately, our mother spent the rest of her life not knowing that our father was innocent of any wrongdoing. That terrible injustice can never be rectified. I have personally spent the past 20 or more years just trying to clear his good name that they also destroyed. Not only did Shell commit this atrocity against us in 1956, but they used the US Court System to perpetuate it. As a US War Veteran, he fought for this right and freedom but even so, Shell spent enough money to ensure that justice would never prevail.
I think before Louisiana gives any taxpayers money to Shell Oil Co, they need to be accountable for what they did to me as well as my brothers and to give guarantees for future conduct in treating workers and their families fairly and with integrity.
Please write, fax or phone Louisiana Governor Jindal and tell him to say NO to Shell Oil. Thank You.
(225)342-7015 or toll free (866)366-1122
Fax (225) 342-7099