After tragic loss of father in Westray Mine explosion, support helped family

Published on May 5, 2017

Sara MacKay, who lives in New Glasgow, holds a photo of her father, Mike, and one of her Uncle Tom with Mike – one of the 26 miners killed when the Westray mine exploded.


SYLVESTER , N.S.– Nine-year-old Sara MacKay was in bed asleep at her Sylvester home when a ringing phone woke her up.

It was about 6:30 or 7 a.m. on a Saturday and her mother didn’t get to the phone in time. So, the young girl figured it was a wrong number.

“But then it rang a second time, so my mother jumped out of bed and ran to the phone. Because if somebody’s calling you at 6:30 in the morning on Saturday, then something’s wrong – and twice,” said MacKay, remembering that day in 1992 when her world changed.

Her aunt was the caller, and she had heard on the radio that the Westray mine, where MacKay’s father Mike worked as a miner, had an accident.

“And then she came tearing down the hallway in a panic, saying 'Get up. We gotta go, we gotta go.' So my sister and I, still in our pajamas, put our coats and boots on and she dropped us off at the neighbour’s house – a safe place where she knew we would be OK,” said MacKay. “I can just remember her taking us to the door and saying you gotta keep the kids – something’s happened at the mine.”

A methane gas explosion ripped through the Plymouth mine in the early hours of May 9, 1992. Twenty-six miners were trapped underground.

MacKay and her eight-year-old sister stayed with neighbours, friends and family for the next five days as the tragedy unfolded. Her mother spent most of those days at the Plymouth Fire Hall where family members of the 26 miners were gathered.

People came away from that broken and some people are still broken.

Sara MacKay

MacKay said at the time she felt abandoned, but her perspective changed when she became a mother herself.

“I think I probably felt as a child, 'why can’t we know, why can’t we be with you?'

"We knew when she said something happened at the mine, we knew our dad was in trouble,” she said.

“I realize now as an adult that my mother probably made the best decision for us in keeping us away from everything.”

Five days after the explosion, her uncle picked her up from the neighbour’s house to take her home. He was quiet during the drive – leaving her with an unsettling feeling – but she was too afraid to ask any questions.

She said when she got out of the vehicle, her other uncle, Tom, also a miner at Westray and one of the searchers for the missing, was standing in the driveway.

“And I could tell by the look of his face when I saw him, that he was gone. Nobody on that day actually said to me: ‘Your dad’s not coming out alive.’”

In reaction to the realization, her knees gave out and she collapsed.

“And my uncle wrapped his whole body around me on the ground and we just laid there and he just kind of protected me from hearing or seeing anything else.”

Two weeks after the explosion, MacKay returned to school, where she felt isolated.

“I think people just avoided me for the first little bit because how do you go up to somebody who just lost a parent – like 'hey, do you want to go on the slide?' I think they just avoided me for a little while after that because it was hard to know what to say or to do.”

On May 9 every year, MacKay, her mother and her sister go to Their Light Will Always Shine Memorial Park in Parkdale, located above ground near where it’s believed the unrecovered bodies of her father and 10 other miners lie.

“He liked roses, and at first it was symbolic of myself and my mother and my sister, and after I had my own kids, it is symbolic of me and the two kids for our love for him. My mother has every year left a beautiful wreath from all of us, and I lay my own three roses also,” said MacKay.

In the past few years she’s been taking her daughter and son as well:“The only glimpse of him they have is through pictures in frames, so it’s important to remember him in that way.” 
[Number of events to mark 25th anniversary of Westray]

Closure was difficult because there’s no gravestone for Mike MacKay and, although a memorial service was held, she said it wasn’t the same as having a funeral.

“The thing about not having a body is you can’t see the person, and you can’t experience the closure that comes with having a graveside service, acknowledging at least there was a body found. So at nine years old, my brain went to this place of ‘Oh he’s not actually dead, he’s underground.’ And then when they stopped searching there was this panic of ‘But you haven’t found him yet he’s still under there, he’s probably having a hard time breathing,’ which ended up actually triggering a lot of nightmares for me.”

She said in the dreams she sees his hands digging through the dirt, and then she wakes up usually in a sweat or with tears.

MacKay said while they’ve lessened over the 25 years since the horrific event that took her father’s life, she still has occasional nightmares that resurface around the anniversary.

She said losing her father in that way has had a profound effect on her life, changing who she is as a human being in both good and bad ways, including feeling angry for many years.

“I’m one of the lucky people who came out of Westray without drug addiction, a drinking problem, or lasting trauma that affects my ability to participate in the world fully. I'm one of the lucky people who got away from that tragedy without having those kinds of residues.”

She said many others weren’t so fortunate: “People came away from that broken and some people are still broken.

“I'm always aware of the fact that I’m not the only one who’s suffered a huge loss in this world, and so I feel like this tragedy has shaped me to be a person who’s able to see in others their own spaces of vulnerability, and I think that’s why I’m doing the path I’m doing in school.”

Graduating from the Nova Scotia Community College where she studied social services, she’s now enrolled in psychology and sociology at St. FX University. She eventually wants to work with people who’ve suffered trauma.

Despite the great loss her family experienced, MacKay said the support they received helped them through it.

“This community of Pictou County has, for 25 years, supported and loved and cared for my family, and held so carefully and gracefully 26 families in their hands and in their hearts, and of all of the tragedy that is Westray.

“It is so clear to me how much this community cares about its citizens. If anything has shown me what this community is capable of, it is the support that my family has felt from this whole community and that time was such a grievance to everyone, and people still rallied around.”

They’re thankful for the generosity, kindness and love they received.

“People we didn’t know were bringing us food, people we didn’t know in other provinces were sending us cards with money in them. People we didn’t know were showing up for us in ways that we didn’t expect.

“Everybody rallied around to care, to hold us, to hold us for a moment. It was a very intense paradox of feelings. Twenty-six people left, and an entire community showed up.”