Remembering Westray 25 years on


Published on May 9, 2017

PLYMOUTH, N.S. - At 5:18 a.m. May 9, 1992, the ground shook and 26 men were lost when an explosion ripped through the Westray Mine. Here are some of the stories of people affected by the disaster - then and now.

May 10, 1992  Community prays for miracle
In the wake of the Saturday morning blast, Pictou County, Nova Scotia – all of Canada  - was waiting for news from underground.
Before Facebook, Twitter, websites or email were available for journalists to spread the word, they found a way.
New Glasgow’s Evening News published a special Sunday edition, the only time in the newspaper’s history.
The issue was free and contained no advertisements.
 Read the front page story from that day.
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS
May 8, 2017 - Old timers tried to warn about coal seam's volatility

“We were all happy because there was 25 years’ work for people,” said Pictou County Coun. Andy Thompson of the opening of the Westray Mine in September 1991. “They were hiring people in the construction phase and I had lots of relatives working there, cousins and friends. There was good work for everyone. They were hiring locals.”
He was just 23 years old and a recent graduate of St. Francis Xavier University when he returned home the following May. Westray Mine had been operating for eight months, but the enthusiasm there when he’d left for school in the fall had soon turned into concern and frustration.
“You heard stories about the conditions,” he said, adding the older generation knew about the dangers of high methane levels from the beginning, but no one listened. “There was a whole generation in Pictou County that didn't grow up with coal mines so we didn’t understand how volatile the coal seams were. The old timers did and they tried to warn everyone.”
May 9, 2017 - Former Westray worker worries about other survivors

Don Dickson says he often wonders how his former coworkers at the Westray Mine are coping with their memories years after the explosion that killed 26 miners.
Dickson, a native of St. Peter’s who also formerly worked at the heavy water plant in Point Tupper, worked at the Westray Mine as a process operator and was on shift the day before the explosion.
“I was there from day one, almost, right there to the end,” Dickson said.
“We finished shift that evening at 7 o’clock, it was 12-hour shifts, four on, four off. We finished at 7 o’clock that night, the mine blew at 5:20 that morning.”
May 9, 2017 - Westray workers knew they were in danger: USW
Just weeks before the May 9, 1992,  disaster, Hughie MacArthur sat in the Heather Hotel and listened to Westray miners speak about the dangers in their workplace.
As a veteran miner himself, who had turned his attention to health and safety with the United Steelworkers, he knew their fears were real.
“They explained to my comrades and myself that the mine wasn't being treated with stone dust, which would make the coal dust ineffective. A dust explosion is much more intense than a methane explosion.”
May 9, 2017 Marching and remembering victims of Westray

Jim Webber-Cook was serving as a minister for the United Church in the small community of Esterhazy, Sask., when word reached him of an explosion back home in the Westray Mine.
“While you here felt the devastation of that explosion of that day 25 years ago; as you here felt the fear and the anxiety which enveloped this county and then the heartache and grief of loss which gripped you in the days which followed, I remember how those feelings were experienced in other places,” he told those gathered for a morning service at Their Light Shall Always Shine Park May 9 in recognition of the 25th anniversary of the Westray Mine disaster that claimed 26 lives.
May 9, 2017 - United Steelworkers push to see better enforcement of safety laws on 25th anniversary of Westray
Hundreds of cities and towns across the country have supported a campaign led by the United Steelworkers to urge governments to better enforce the Westray Law.
The first of those municipalities were the six located in Pictou County, and the union recognized them Monday night for their leadership and endorsement, presenting plaques to the towns of New Glasgow, Pictou, Stellarton, Trenton, Westville and the Municipality of Pictou County.
“You started it,” said Stephen Hunt, the USW director for western Canada. “We’re immensely proud of the work that you did in your community to fight back.”
May 8, 2017 – No more Westrays: Steel workers discuss work safety with students
A day before the 25th anniversary of the Westray Mine disaster, Chris Carpenter - United Steelworkers of America District 6 health and safety instructor - visited all three high schools in Pictou county to remind students who are getting set to enter the workforce that they should never fear for their life when they go to work.

Shirley Benoit looks at an album containing photos of her husband Bennie Benoitm who was killed in the 1992 Westray Mine explosion.
ELIZABETH PATTERSON/CAPE BRETON POST

May 8, 2017 - Remembering Bennie Benoit: One of two Cape Bretoners killed in Westray
When Shirley Benoit first learned her husband was trapped underground in the Westray Mine 25 years ago, she couldn’t remember what he looked like.
“I was married to him for 23 years but in my mind, I couldn’t see his face — I could see the rest of him but not his face, ” she recalled recently at her Glace Bay home.
But, hours before it was announced that everyone underground had been killed in the disaster, Benoit awoke in the middle of the night and finally could remember her husband’s face. But it would bring her no peace.
“When I saw his face, I knew he was gone.”
Benoit doesn’t remember much from those fateful days a quarter century ago when all of Canada waited for news of whether anyone had survived what became one of Canada’s biggest mining disasters.

Ronald Cunningham holds a picture of the Westray mine.
Adam MacInnis

May 7, 2017 - Mine employee saw devastation after the Westray explosion
The persistent ringing of his phone awoke Ronald Cunningham.
Groggily, he answered.
“Jeez, I’m glad to hear your voice,” his friend Sandy said.
“What’s going on?” Cunningham asked.
“There was an explosion at the mine. Everybody thought you were working.”
Had it happened a couple of weeks earlier, he would have been. By chance, he had changed to day shift after a spur of the moment conversation with his manager.
“It was a fluke,” he said.
A fluke that saved his life.

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.
Carol Dunn

May 5, 2017 - After tragic loss of father in Westray mine, support helped family
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 had an accident.

Robert Thompson looks over a newspaper from the week the Westray Mine exploded.
Adam MacInnis

May 5, 2017 -  Westray - Loaded gun primed to go off
Dates matter.
With the anniversary of the Westray Mine Explosion approaching on May 9, many dates are running through Robert Thompson’s mind. May 9, May 22 and the day in September when a black suburban pulled in his driveway.
But, most importantly, May 6.
That’s the day in 1992 when he tested samples that showed high levels of coal dust in the mine. The miners were effectively working in the chamber of a gun ready to explode,
On May 6, Thompson believes management at some level knew about the problem.

May 5, 2017 -   Museum remembering the Westray tragedy
5:18 a.m. May 9, 1992.
The date and time are etched in the minds of many people from Pictou County who felt their homes shake with the Westray mine explosion in Plymouth.
“It woke us up,” said Debra McNabb, curator at the Nova Scotia Museum of Industry, which is putting an exhibit together for the 25th anniversary. “I said, ‘What is that?’ I knew it was a really big sound, but it was muffled at the same time. We thought maybe it was a train.  We were still trying to figure out what happened when the phone rang.”
It wasn’t long after that McNabb and her museum staff opened the doors of the museum to those involved in the tragedy.
“We have been involved since May 9, 1992. We weren’t even open, but we were a place for the families to meet with government officials and this is where the inquiry happened. When we were designing our exhibits, we realized there were a lot of things happening in the early days. We were ushering the families in the back way and we had the Minister of the Crown Land in our parking in a helicopter for one meeting. We were witnesses to a lot.”

Sketches of the 26 miners killed in the Westray Mine Explosion hang on a memory wall at the Museum of Industry in Stellarton.
Sueann Musick

Jan. 6,  2017 - Book documents efforts since Westray to prevent workplace deaths
On May 9, Pictou County will remember the 25th Anniversary of the Westray Mine explosion, which claimed the lives of 26 miners.
Tom Sandborn hopes that when they do, the country also takes a hard look at workplace safety in Canada and what has been accomplished since that tragedy and what still needs to change.
He writes about it in a short book that’s been posted online and is being published by the United Steelworkers: Hell’s History.

TWENTY YEARS

David (left) and Michael Johnson hold the lunch box their father had with him the day the Westray mine exploded in 1992. Twenty years later, they still treasure the item.
ADAM MACINNIS – THE NEWS

May 6, 2012 - The day their dad wasn't coming home
Michael Johnson was at a friend's house playing, when his uncle showed up to take him home.
Only 10 years old at the time, Michael didn't know exactly what was going on. The day before, his mother Donna received a call that there had been a mining accident at Westray where his father Eugene worked, but little else was said.
"It was kind of kept quiet right off the get go," Michael says. "I knew something had happened at work, but I didn't know what."
As he walked to his North Street, Westville home with his uncle though, he knew something wasn't right. Cars filled the driveway and lined the street in front of the house. The vehicles belonged to family, friends and reporters. As he walked in the door he saw his home filled with crying people. And that's when it hit him - his dad wasn't coming home. Not that day or in the days to come.

Art Eagles looks over an old clipping from the Westray Mine explosion. He was president of the Nova Scotia Funeral Directors Association at the time. ADAM MACINNIS – THE NEWS

May 7, 2012  Funeral director dealing with Westray funerals saw mourning like never before
A toddler playing on a tiny bicycle in front of the funeral home while hundreds lined the street to pay their respects to his dead father. Inside, a pregnant wife mourning for her husband.
There are images Art Eagles will remember for his entire life and these are two of them.
As a funeral director, Eagles deals with death daily, but for him there has never been any that can compare with the impact the Westray mine explosion had on the community.

Allen Martin looks at an old photograph of his brother Glenn who died in the Westray Mine Explosion May 9, 1992, the week of the 20th anniversary of the disaster.


May 8, 2012 - Area will commemorate those lost in mine explosion
Twenty-six men died in the Westray mine explosion 20 years ago, on May 9, 1992. Among them was 35-year-old Glenn Martin.
The whole community was abuzz with news that mining was returning to the county in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Good paying jobs were scarce at the time and many were thrilled at the prospect of an economic boom with both the federal and provincial government contributing millions of dollars to help the mine open.
Allen Martin remembers how excited his brother was at the prospect of working at the mine. For years he had worked at low-paying jobs and this was a chance for a better life.
“When this came up with the promise of work for 15 years and benefits, it meant a lot to him,” Martin said.
But there were some who weren’t so excited. People who knew the Foord seam knew of the high levels of methane gas that had proved dangerous in the past. But those concerns were brushed aside.
“When Westray came, they and the politicians told us that wouldn’t happen here,” he said.

NINETEEN YEARS

Originally from Sydney Mines, Vernon Theriault had worked at Westray for about six months leading up to that day — May 9, 1992 — that shook the mining industry to its core.
Cape Breton Post

May 8, 2011 - Former miner revisits lessons learned from Westray disaster
Originally from Sydney Mines, Theriault had worked at Westray for about six months leading up to that day — May 9, 1992 — that shook the mining industry to its core.
He had just finished working an overtime shift the night before when he awoke out of bed at 5:30 a.m. by a relative on the telephone who said something had happened at the coal mine. It wasn’t until he had left for work later in the morning that reality hit.
“It was like a brick had hit me in the chest,” Theriault said. “I didn’t know what to say or what to do. I was just in shock.”

Fourteen years

Jan. 12,  2006 : Book chronicles Westray through media
John McMullan analysed 1,782 newspaper articles for the book, News, Truth and Crime: The Westray Disaster and its aftermath, all taken from the Chronicle Herald.
The book follows on the 11-year period beginning six months prior to the explosion to six months after its 10th anniversary, and focuses on how reporters used different story-telling techniques as events surrounding Westray unfolded.

TEN YEARS

May 9, 2002 For the wives it's still difficult to grasp
Common sense dictates otherwise but some days Bernadette Feltmate still expects to see her husband Roy walk through the front door.
It's been a decade since he last left for work and what would become his final shift at the Westray mine. Of the 26 miners killed in the early morning explosion, Roy's body was among those never recovered and that has left her with a void she has been unable to fill.
"Because, you see, there is nothing, there is nothing to show for it, so you don't get closure. If I could go to a gravesite..."

Because, you see, there is nothing, there is nothing to show for it, so you don't get closure. If I could go to a gravesite...

Bernadette Feltmate

At first he tried to drink away the anger, the feelings of betrayal and the demons. But the numbing solace he found in the bottle was only temporary and when he sobered up the pain and the ghosts returned.
So, he continued to drink, thinking the peace he so desperately sought would eventually come through death.
Fraser Agnew, former mine supervisor, hell bent on self destruction was destined, he believed, to become Westray victim number 27.
"The way I looked at it, I thought I would die without pain, I thought I would die drunk. I was trying to commit suicide... I think I was too much of a coward to do it any other way."

NINE YEARS

Westray - NFB's 2001 documentary
National Film Board

Nov. 2, 2001  Long awaited film to air: Public will get their chance to view Westray NFB film premiere next weekend
Sitting in a meeting room at the Heather Hotel and Convention Centre, Debbie Martin found herself searching for traces of her brother-in-law, Glenn, in the images and sounds emanating from a television screen.
The others around her were doubtless doing the same - looking for references in the documentary to their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons who went underground in the Westray mine on May 9, 1992, and weren't seen alive again.
"You sat there the whole time and you're looking, thinking maybe something will come up about him, someone will mention his name," said Martin.
She was one of several relatives of the 26 men killed in the Westray mine explosion who had a preview of Paul Cowan's National Film Board documentary on the tragedy.