The blast that hit 18-year-old Eric Leighton in his shop class 3 years ago was so powerful he couldn't have survived it. A coroner's inquest into the death of the popular young hockey player is shedding new light on how and why he died. The photos at the inquest were graphic, the details sometimes too much for Eric Leighton’s mother. But this inquest is part of their healing process to understand what went wrong and hopefully prevent it from happening again. Sheri and Patrick Leighton came to this coroner’s inquest looking for answers to so many questions about that tragic day their son died.
“We’ve been in left I the dark, that's the sole purpose of the inquest,” said Sheri Leighton as she headed into the Federal Court building on Sparks Street.
For the first time, they are getting a detailed account of what happened inside the shop class at Mother Theresa High school 3 years ago. The inquest introduced graphic photos they've never seen before of the very spot Eric was fatally injured while making a BBQ from a 55 gallon drum.
The impact of the explosion was so strong that according to the forensic pathologist who did the autopsy “it fractured the skull, including the base of the skull,” said Dr. Christopher Milroy.
“The photos were hard to look at,” says Sheri Leighton, “the can looked like a coke can you could crush with your foot. That's the magnitude that my son took of a hit.”
The grade 12 student was weeks away from graduating. He and a few other students were cutting into barrels that had been previously filled with peppermint oil when vapors inside the barrel exploded. Those vapors were from a highly volatile de-greaser that had been used to clean the inside of the barrel.
William Hay is a fire and explosion investigator with the Ontario Fire Marshall’s Office. Hay testified that welding or cutting into a barrel or container is a violation under Ontario’s Fire code.
"It was clear to us right from the outset that there existed legislation to prevent this type of incident from happening,” says Hay, “cutting into an enclosed barrel is against fire code and if you utilize a solvent inside a vessel, in this case a barrel, you need to test to make sure there is no volatility left inside.”
Sixteen witnesses will be called over the course of the two week inquest, including Eric's shop teacher.
"The hope is that by looking at what happened here,” says Robert Wadden, the counsel for the coroner, “the jury can make recommendations to prevent this type of thing in the future.”
The Leightons says as hard as this inquest is, at least there is comfort in knowing their son died quickly.
“It's a lot easier to know he didn't suffer because if he did i don't think I’d be standing here right now.”
This inquest won't lay legal blame but the jury can make recommendations. The Leightons still have a $400-thousand lawsuit pending against the Catholic School Board.