Westray haunts us still

JOHN DEMONT jdemont@herald.ca @CH_coalblackhrt John DeMont is a columnist with SaltWire Network based in Halifax.



SaltWire Network



May 9, 1992, was a Saturday, which meant that I was just sitting down for a morning coffee, maybe even with our seven-monthold daughter on my lap, when the landline rang. Maclean’s magazine was a weekly then and pretty much put to bed Friday night. Something big had to happen for Morley Safer’s old London roommate, Windsor, N.S.,born Carl Mollins, to be on the blower telling me to slap my aging Toyota Corolla into gear and gun it for Pictou County. Now, 30 years is a long time, yet I remember the rain and the gunmetal sky that morning and believe I can still hear the bleakness of the radio reports as I channel-surfed for information about the methane gas explosion that ripped through the Westray coal mine, and the 26 men trapped 350 metres below the surface there. I know that my sense of foreboding deepened during the drive to Plymouth, a village that I had to find on a map since I had never been there before, because to this day the gloom descends when I drive east along the Trans-Canada Highway, New Glasgow on one side, Stellarton, the other, and recall that beneath that placid countryside 11 men remain entombed underground. Then I am back driving through streets I described as funereal, until coming to the mine’s silos, where all was silence. The reporters – The Chronicle Herald alone had five writers and a photographer – were already corralled into a community centre, about a kilometre from the pithead, where those without a cellphone, like me, had to fistfight their way to the only pay phone in the building to call their bosses. DEADLY MINES About 2,500 men have died in this province’s coal mines, some 600 of them in the methane-filled collieries of Pictou County. Yet, it is safe to say that the only person in that room who had covered something like this before was The Chronicle Herald’s Wilkie Taylor, who had been on the ground for both the Springhill mine explosion of 1956, (39 miners dead), and the famous “bump” two years later, where 75 died, and the final seven survivors were led blinking into the light nine days after the underground earthquake. Not even Taylor, though, had covered anything like Westray, where greed, politics, bad luck, and human incompetence had, as the ensuing royal commission concluded, created “a predictable path to disaster.” That first day all the journalists knew was what the rest of the world understood: a fireball had shot through a mine, burying 26 men. Though the chances of survival seemed slim, miracles had happened before underground. GOOD NEWS NEVER CAME Yet I recall none of the buzz that comes with big stories. As the draegermen searched for life in the pitch-black, rubble strewn shaft, we prayed, along with the rest of the world, for what Chronicle Herald colleague Pam Sword, who was also there, described as “proof there’s a God.” The good news never came, not from Colin Benner, the square-jawed spokesman from mine owner Curragh Resources, who provided the daily updates of the search for survivors, or from thenpremier Donald Cameron, Westray’s staunchest proponent, who one reporter recalled being “as pale as any human I’ve ever seen when he walked in the first time.” And certainly not from Clifford Frame, the Curragh chairman, who emerged as a Montecristo cigar-smoking parody of corporate villainy as the story played out. The day after the explosion, searchers found the bodies of 11 miners. Afterward, the families of the remaining trapped colliers gathered in a firehall, not 50 metres from the makeshift press building, clinging to the slim hope that the draegermen, so called because of the Draeger air packs worn on their backs, would find their loved ones alive. Instead, five more bodies were brought to the surface. Six days after the explosion, Curragh announced it had given up any hope of finding more survivors and suspended the search because mine conditions had become too dangerous for the draegermen. EULOGIES BEGIN It was terrible, when the time came, to watch the family members led in and out of a firehall. It felt immoral to intrude on their pain as they arrived, along with their supporters, in small groups, holding each other near, as if not to collapse from the news that they feared awaited them. Reporters, though, are paid not to look away. Every time a family member stepped out of the firehall, the television cameras rolled, and the photographers clicked away, while the print reporters scribbled notes. So, I remember those moments, which still give me pause. I remember also blending into the crowd on the lawn of a white clapboard United Church in Eureka in mild spring weather as Amazing Grace sounded through a pair of mounted loudspeakers. There, as birds chirped in the background, we heard the voice of Rev. Marion Patterson as she remembered Lawrence Bell, 25, whose body had been pulled from the Westray mine. It was a terribly moving eulogy: 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 I walked along with Bell’s family and friends as they headed to their cars and began the sombre procession to the cemetery. HAUNTED BY WESTRAY If you were a reporter at Westray, you will never forget that story. Sword recalls that for weeks afterward she felt hollow, like nothing mattered. Instead of going home after work, she would wander around for hours until it got dark. Paul MacNeill, now a newspaper publisher in Prince Edward Island, but then also part of the Herald’s team, is haunted by those days too, 30 years in still unable to shake the memory of staking out the local rink turned into a morgue and attending the funeral of the youngest victim. Unlike the Herald’s team, I was in and out of Plymouth, giving me a break from the unrelenting grimness. The story got under my skin just the same. I sat in the hearings where the unfolding narrative made it apparent that the tragedy did not need to happen. I wrote my own stories and read, watched and listened to those of others who refused to let Westray die. A year after the disaster, I talked to family member after family member, hearing in particular about the last days of a miner named Eugene Johnson, a married father of two who played the guitar and even wrote a little poetry and was due four days off when his shift that began on the evening of May 8, 1992, ended. Three years after that, on another anniversary of the disaster, I stood just yards from where the explosion took place. I remember that it was hard not to look away as the family members embraced and wept under a robin’s egg blue sky. There, a clergyman read Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, the one that asks, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” There was no acceptance that day. Just raw pain, and anger untouched by time. I remember that, too.