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Mine employee recalls eerie silence after Westray explosion

Bill Herman was an employee of the Westray Mine and was working the night it exploded on May 9, 1992. He often drinks coffee from his mug that was from the official opening of the mine on Sept. 11, 1991.
Bill Herman was an employee of the Westray Mine and was working the morning it exploded on May 9, 1992. He often drinks coffee from his mug that was from the official opening of the mine on Sept. 11, 1991. - Adam MacInnis

STELLARTON

Eerie silence.

From the time he called the front guard to say “both tunnels have been blown to smithereens,” until the first responders arrived, there was silence.

“It was just eerie, eerie quiet,” Bill Herman recalls, thinking back to May 9, 1992, when the Westray Mine exploded. “Then I could hear first ambulances. I could hear sirens coming. They were getting louder and louder and louder. Police and ambulances and fire trucks just descended on the place like crazy.”

•••

There was a depressed feeling among workers at the Westray Mine in the days leading up to that tragic day that claimed the lives of 26 of Herman’s co-workers.

Herman remembers talking with a friend that Friday night about the Los Angeles riots and other bad things taking place around the world.

“He was just down and a lot of guys were feeling down,” he said. “They all knew something was going to happen.”

Safety was a common concern among the workers at the Pictou County mine. There had been a lot cave-ins and the methane was so prevalent that at times it made your tongue feel thick, Herman said.

“I talked to the different miners and they were wondering which crew was going to get caught up in an explosion. They were all sort of drawing straws.”

Many times while working there, he envisioned it blowing up.

Herman was working the night the anticipated explosion finally did happen, claiming the lives of 26 men, but was fortunate to be above ground. He had started working for Westray in the summer of 1991 during the construction phase and continued on after the mine was operational. His job involved testing the quality of the coal.

But from the time the mine started operating, people warned it was dangerous.

“It won’t work. It won’t go. It’s going to blow,” old miners would warn.

“They knew – the old men,” says Herman.

The morning of the explosion Herman had just finished testing some coal and sat down in the control room to record the results.

“All of a sudden at 5:18 it was just wa-boom, wa-boom.”

His chair moved and the whole building swayed.

“I turned around and said to the guys, ‘That was an explosion.’ They just looked at me. ‘I’m telling you that was an explosion!’”

At first he thought it might have been an electrical transformer and started towards the electrical room to check.

He and the other men working in the building soon realized it was much more serious.

Two stopped dead in their tracks as they looked to the tunnels.

“They were in shock when they saw what it was.”

Herman kept running down to the mouth of the tunnel.

At the mouth was what appeared to be a human torso and Herman feared it might be the remains of a mechanic he knew, but when he touched it he realized it was just dust that had mixed with water and been spun around by the air to form the shape.

He called the commissionaire on duty at the entrance of the mine and told him to call in emergency responders.

He was then asked to stay at the mouth of the mine to make sure nobody came near in case another explosion happened. A man came running to him and pointed toward the tunnel said, “Do you think a man could survive that?”

“Only by a miracle,” Herman said.

“My brother’s down there,” the man responded.

Twenty-six years later, the memories of that day are still fresh in Herman’s mind. “It only seems like it was last week to me."

Sometimes still he’ll have a dream where there’s an explosion and then he wakes up. On the anniversary, he avoids the memorial services because it is too emotional for him to go. He often thinks about the friends who were lost.

“They all knew it was going to happen,” he says.

A Christian, he has turned to his faith for strength in dealing with the memories.

In a worn Bible that sits in his Stellarton home, he often turns to Galatians 2:20 and Matthew 11:28-30 for comfort for himself and others.

A favourite line of his is: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

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

Jan. 6,  2017 - Book documents efforts since Westray to prevent workplace deaths

May 7, 2012  -  Funeral director dealing with Westray funerals saw mourning like never before

May 6, 2012 - The day their dad wasn't coming home

May 8, 2011 - Former miner revisits lessons learned from Westray disaster

Jan. 12,  2006 -  Book chronicles Westray through media

May 10, 2002 - Sober thoughts

May 9, 2002 -  For the wives it's still difficult to grasp

Nov. 2, 2001  -  Long awaited film to air  

May 10, 1992 -   Community prays for miracle

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