A COAL COMMUNITY CLOSES RANKS IN THE WAKE OF A TRAGEDY—BUT TOUGH QUESTIONS BEGIN TO EMERGE
A TIME FOR MOURNING
A COAL COMMUNITY CLOSES RANKS IN THE WAKE OF A TRAGEDY-BUT TOUGH QUESTIONS BEGIN TO EMERGE
The mourners filled the white clapboard United Church in Eureka, N.S. Others, many with heads bowed, stood on the front lawn in mild spring weather as the strains of Amazing Grace sounded through two loudspeakers mounted outside. As birds chirped in the nearby trees, people listened to the voice of Rev. Marion Patterson eulogize Lawrence Bell, 25, whose body had been pulled three days earlier from the Westray coal mine in nearby Plymouth, 150 km northeast of Halifax. Patterson spoke of Bell’s love of hockey and the guitar, and his zest for life. “Let us not say goodbye to Larry,” she concluded, “just good night.” Then, the crowd of approximately 500 walked
to their cars and began the sombre procession to the cemetery—a grim journey that the friends and families of six other dead miners would also make later that day.
Eulogies and fresh graves, political recriminations and charges of unsafe mining practices—all are the legacy of the May 9 methane gas explosion that ripped through the government-subsidized Westray coal mine and left 26 men trapped at the end of a 1.6-km shaft, 350 m below the surface. A day later, searchers found the bodies of 11 of the men, who had ranged in age from 22 to 41. Gathered in a Plymouth fire hall, the families of the remaining trapped miners clung to the slim hope that the rescue crews working night and day in the pitch-black, rubble-strewn shaft would find their loved ones alive. But over the next few days, the rescuers, known as draegermen because of the 35-lb. Draeger air packs worn on their backs, discovered five more bodies. Finally, six days after the explosion, representatives of the company that had operated the mine, Curragh Resources Inc. of Toronto, announced that there was no further hope of finding survivors. They suspended the search indefinitely because conditions in the mine had become too dangerous for the draegermen.
As residents of the Pictou County area mourned, questions began to surface about the province’s and Ottawa’s financial involvement in the Westray mine. But the miners themselves responded to the tragedy stoically, with a mixture of grief and stubborn resilience.
Opposition MPS vowed to fight a government bill to establish the mechanism for a national referendum on constitutional reform because it permits unlimited campaign spending. For his part, Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow warned that a referendum could widen the rift between Quebec and the rest of Canada. In other developments:
• Former Parti Québécois premier Pierre-Marc Johnson said that he is no longer convinced of the need for Quebec independence. He added that “about 80 per cent” of the province’s requirements have already been met.
• A poll conducted between April 22 and May 2 suggested that 55 per cent of Canadians would accept a revised constitution that included recognition of Quebec as a distinct society, Senate reform and native self-government.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK “Quebec gets what they want, Ontario gets what they want, we accommodate the aboriginal people and to the West we say, ‘See you later.’ That’s foolishness.’’
—Alberta Premier Donald Getty on the response so far to the West’s constitutional demands
Even with the bodies of 10 of their co-workers still entombed beneath the rock and rubble, local miners—whose provincial MLA is Conservative Premier Donald Cameron, one of the mine’s foremost supporters—vowed to return to the labyrinth of underground tunnels if Westray ever reopens. “Coal miners are a breed apart from most people,” observed James Cameron (no relation to the premier), a historian who lives in nearby New Glasgow.
Nova Scotia’s coal miners take pride in performing a tough, dangerous job in conditions that others would find unendurable. Even today, they work long shifts in hot, dimly ht and dusty mine shafts. Many retire with workrelated ailments, including rheumatoid arthritis, a result of operating heavy machinery, and black lung disease, or silicosis, caused by inhaling coal dust. Since 1838, more than 500 Nova Scotia coal miners—270 in Pictou County alone—have died as a result of mining disasters. Last week’s tragedy confirmed that death is an occupational hazard for those who work the black seam. Said Joseph Burke, 55, who worked 27 years underground in the Cape Breton coalfields: “We bring the coal up with our own sweat and blood.”
Men like Burke have been descending into Nova Scotia’s coal mines for nearly 300 years. Many of today’s miners are direct descendants of the original lowland Scots, Welsh and northern English miners brought to Canada by British companies to work the rich Nova Scotian seams. For some, coal mining offers an opportunity to earn a decent living in areas of the province where there are few jobs. The unemployment rate in Pictou County is about 20 per cent, and jobs at Westray paid as much as $35,000 a year.
Many miners maintain that coal mining “gets in the blood”—particularly by the time that members of the third or fourth generation of a family are ready to go underground. “When I grew up, all I heard about was mining,” says John Thompson, 70, a retired miner living in Plymouth. Adds James Linthome, 50, a 15-year mining veteran whose father was the last man to die in a Pictou County coal mine before the Westray tragedy: “Mining has just been a way of life in my family. I never considered doing anything else.”
Coal miners are a clannish and insular group. They rarely complain about their gruelling and hazardous jobs—least of all to their wives, who live in constant fear for their husbands’ safety. Says Mildred Wright of Westville, whose husband, George, was a coal miner and whose 40year-old son, Carl, worked in the Westray mine before the accident: “It is hard on you. You always wonder whether they will be coming home.” Although fear is a constant companion in the shafts, the miners speak with quiet pride about their work—and about the spirit of camaraderie that develops among all men who toil at the coal face. Noted Robert Hoegg, 71, who used to manage a mine in Pictou County: “When you are working in the dark a couple of miles below the surface, everybody has to look after each other.”
That sense of brotherhood was obvious after
the methane explosion shook the Westray mine. Within hours, crews of specially trained miners arrived at the site from throughout the Atlantic provinces to begin their heroic race to find the trapped men. Working in fourhour shifts, the draegermen soon discovered the bodies of the first 11 men, who, a coroner said later, had died instantly from carbon monoxide poisoning. From then on, rockfalls, carbon monoxide and the presence of methane slowed the draegermen’s progress. In spite of the dangers, the rescue workers—who had to remain silent for fear that sound waves might trigger a cave-in—managed to haul four more corpses to the surface. “It was like a horror movie,” one draegerman said, “only worse.”
Already devastated by the tragedy, residents of economically depressed Pictou County now face the possibility that Westray could remain closed forever. Before the First World War, there were she mines operating along the coal seam that runs through the county. But one by one they shut down—victims of the declining worldwide demand for coal. The opening of the Westray mine in 1991 appeared to many miners as an act of economic salvation. Constructed at a cost of $140 million, the facility employed 241 people and was expected to produce a million tons of low-sulphur coal a year for 15 years.
It was also the beneficiary of government aid. In 1988, Cameron, then Nova Scotia’s industry minister, announced that the provincial government planned to sink $12 million into Westray. The government also became the mine’s main customer: in 1990, Nova Scotia Power Corp., the province’s electrical utility, signed a contract to buy 700,000 tons of coal each year from Westray. Ottawa also got involved, guaranteeing $85 million in loans to Curragh and providing interest subsidies valued at $8 million.
But the mine project encountered stiff resis-
Westray coal mine
AN UNDERGROUND TOMB
Eleven miners found dead on May 10,
30 hours after the blast. Bodies brought to surface.
One body found on May 14. Six more believed trapped in the area. None recovered before search halted later on May 14.
Four bodies found on May 13 and brought to surface. Four more believed nearby, blocked by rockfalls.
SOURCE: THE DAILY NEWS, HALIFAX
tance from some Nova Scotians, particularly federal and provincial politicians from Cape Breton. They vehemently opposed government funding for a new Nova Scotia coal mine that would compete with Cape Breton’s heavily subsidized mines. At the same time, some federal civil servants questioned the wisdom of sinking a new mine in a coalfield that was known to have a high methane content—and that had already claimed hundreds of lives. (In 1952,19 men died in a methane explosion at a mine in Stellarton.)
Controversy continued to dog Westray after it opened. Last year, after two cave-ins, the provincial Liberals called for the mine to be shut down until it could be given a clean bill of health. And even before the recent tragedy, the methane-ridden mine had been the target
of persistent reports of lax emergency safety procedures and unsafe working conditions. Blair Rankin, a 10-year mining veteran who lives in Sackville, worked for only four days at the Westray mine last fall before deciding to quit. “There was no training,” he told Maclean’s. “When I showed up for work the first day, they sent me down in the mine and had me operating a piece of machinery I’d never seen before.”
Westray officials deny such allegations. Colin Benner, the mine’s president of operations, responded that the rumors of unsafe practices are “unfounded allegations and an affront to our people.” The company also boasted of having won a mining industry award last month for safety. Now, it will be up to a public inquiry, announced by the premier, to investigate the tragedy. Said a clearly shaken Premier Cameron: “I want to tell you—if I could have in any way foreseen what has happened here, I’m t sure we all would have made different z judgments.”
Q So far, Nova Scotia’s opposition Liberals and New Democrats have heeded Cameron’s request to leave the finger-pointing until later. But when the mourning subsides, the premier’s role as the project’s champion will be hotly debated.
Last week, though, thoughts about politics were far from the minds of those left to bury— and commemorate—the Westray dead. The heavy human price exacted by the Pictou County coal mines is marked by a 30-foot-high granite monument on the outskirts of Stellarton. It bears the names of local miners who died in disasters from 1880 through 1952. But there is little room left on the column. Some Pictou County residents are already talking about erecting a new monument—one that will bear the names of the latest men who toiled, and died, deep below the earth’s surface.
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