Because of the immensity of the terrible tragedy at the Westray mine in Plymouth, we are publishing this special issue today.
We offer an insight into the drama that unfolded during the day Saturday, and into the early morning hours today, as well as a flashback to past mining disasters.
Involved in the preparation of this special edition were Managing Editor Doug MacNeil, City Editor Heather Fiske, Sports Editor Steve Goodwin, and reporters Jennifer Hatt, David Glenen, Jeff Fulton, Ted Hale, Jack Conrod, and photographer Nancy MacDonald, as well as our composing, circulation departments and pressroom.
We also express appreciation to local historian Dr. James Cameron, Judith Hoegg, and others who helped us prepare the many stories and photos.
PLYMOUTH – When dawn broke today, 26 Westray coal miners were still trapped more than a kilometre down in the Westray coal mine at Plymouth, 24 hours after their terrifying ordeal began.
Families and friends of the missing workers gathered at the Plymouth fire hall, some shortly after 5:30 a.m. Saturday, to wait for positive news from the mine rescue teams.
Draegermen from across Nova Scotia have been travelling the slopes of the mine throughout the night and this morning in search of the miners, who are believed to be separated in three locations near the base of the mine.
Clifford Frame, president of Westray’s parent company Curragh Resources, is expected at the mine today. He was on a business trip to Japan at the time of the explosion and immediately left to be at the mine scene.
Throughout yesterday and early this morning, company officials and RCMP officers have been speaking with the families and media about the progress rescue teams have made. But by 5:30 this morning – 24 hours after the explosion occurred – the official press conferences were cancelled in favour of media briefings every half hour.
Less than an hour after cancellation, officials announced rescue teams had reached the intersection where the mine splits into the three working areas. Debris has been encountered at this location but deadly methane gas and carbon monoxide levels still remain low.
Officials now believe draeger units are only about 350 metres away from some of the miners. Rumours are now circulating that an end to the ordeal was expected soon.
The miners were working 350 metres straight underground – about 1.5 kilometres away from the mine shaft in Plymouth toward New Glasgow – when an explosion rocked the site around 5:20 a.m. Saturday.
The explosion knocked out the mine’s underground phones and part of the ventilation system which circulates clean air to workers. Rescue crews have been unable to communicate with any of the trapped miners and are now restoring the ventilation to the lower areas.
One Westray miner and rescue worker, who requested not to be identified, described the scene as “incredible destruction. It was a massive blast, incredible.”
He said he saw six-inch cement block stoppings, used for reinforcement, blown completely out while a three-tonne transformer was tossed about 30 feet across the slope. Despite the destruction, he said he didn’t see any place where the roof had collapsed within the first 500 feet he had travelled.
While rescue teams work diligently underground, police, fire and medical vehicles move around the mine site and the hall where relatives of the men are waiting.
At the hall, local volunteers, members of the clergy and staff from the social services department are lending support to families and friends.
Company officials say the explosion may have occurred when a sudden, extremely fast burst of highly combustible methane gas was released into the mine tunnel.
The comments came after officials revealed air monitor readings during the midnight press conference. Colin Benner, Westray’s president of production, said reading of methane gas and carbon monoxide at 4:45 a.m. prior to the explosion were less than government standards.
Air monitoring systems within the plant indicated .16 and .2 per cent levels of methane gas compared to the government standard of 1.25 per cent for stopping mine operations. Similar low levels of carbon monoxide was recorded by the monitoring systems. But at 5:18 a.m., the time of the explosion, power to these monitors was cut off and no readings were recorded, Mr. Benner explained.
Air quality readings taken by rescue teams an hour after the explosion indicated 800 ppm of carbon monoxide with methane levels of 2.5 per cent. By midnight, officials reported the two gases had decreased to acceptable levels.
The non-unionized mine has been criticized by members of the United Mine Workers union and provincial opposition politicians for being unsafe. Union representatives said they have received several complaints of high gas levels and collapsing tunnels from Westray employees.
But one of those employees, who has a brother trapped underground, says the mine is “as safe as you make it.
“Most of the time, I feel pretty safe,” says Tom MacKay, whose brother Mike is still underground.
Mr. MacKay said his brother would probably not have any fresh air but will make use of a self-rescuer ventilation unit included as standard equipment on all miners.
Company officials say the small, filter breathing apparatus will last between two and four hours, although an union official from Cape Breton says he is attempting to get them replaced by more efficient fresh air units.
Meanwhile at the time of the printing of this edition, the horrifying ordeal continued.