John Gignac was just six months away from retiring as a fire captain with the Brantford Fire Department when his niece, OPP Const. Laurie Hawkins (nee Gignac), her husband Richard Gignac and the couple’s two children 14-year-old Cassandra and 12-year-old Jordan, were killed in the family’s home in Woodstock.
John, now 69 years old, said he still partly blames himself for the family’s accidental death and has dedicated his life to raising awareness about carbon monoxide safety.
“They didn’t realize that they should have their appliances checked on a yearly basis. The gas fireplace downstairs had not been checked for over 15 years. The carbon monoxide backed up into the house and it took the whole family,” he said.
“I was partially responsible for that because I was a fire captain and I didn’t warn her about the dangers of carbon monoxide and to this day, I feel guilty about what’s happened. But it pushes me forward to carry Laurie’s message to make sure people are protected against carbon monoxide.”
Less than a year after his 41-year-old niece, her 40-year-old husband and their two children were killed, John helped launch a non-profit organization called the Hawkins-Gignac Foundation for Carbon Monoxide Education.
He helped push Bill 77, also known as the Hawkins-Gignac Act, which became law in April 2015. The Ontario government made carbon monoxide alarms mandatory in every home or business in the province that has fuel-burning appliances and devices, fireplaces or attached garages.
With the May long weekend here, John said he wants to remind those opening their cottages for the summer to check and make sure they have working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
“We’ve had a lot of accidents, in boats, in RVs and in cottages. Carbon monoxide does not take a vacation,” he said.
“It’s such an easy thing to do. Buy a CO alarm, put it in your home or cottage, and away you go — especially now. We have ten-year, sealed battery CO alarms and smoke alarms.”
John also reminded cottagers and homeowners to have all their appliances checked annually.
In the case of his niece Laurie, the gas fireplace in the family’s Woodstock home had not been checked for over 15 years and they had just used for the first time. An investigation revealed the gas fireplace in the basement had a plugged exhaust ventilation pipe and the carbon monoxide backed up in the house.
The Hawkins family had all been complaining of tell-tale flu-like symptoms, but no one realized they had inhaled the colourless, odourless and tasteless gas.
John said he knows many Ontarians still do not know it’s the law to have a working carbon monoxide detector. He said Laurie’s legacy is preventing other senseless deaths.
“Not too many people knew about carbon monoxide until this accident happened. It was the worst (carbon monoxide) accident at the time and when we started the Hawkins-Gignac foundation we found a huge gap in information that the public did not know about carbon monoxide,” he said.
For more information on the foundation and how you can help, go to http://www.endthesilence.ca.
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