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Westray was a loaded gun primed to go off

['Robert Thompson looks over a newspaper from the week the Westray Mine exploded. ']
['Robert Thompson looks over a newspaper from the week the Westray Mine exploded. ']

NEW GLASGOW, N.S. - 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. He had phoned the results in to the appropriate person as was his standard procedure. That day provincial mine inspector Albert McLean was on site and, if he had seen the results, would likely have shut down the operation. On April 29, McLean had already given orders for the company to start spreading stone dust to help reduce the risk of an explosion and ordered tests to make sure the level of coal dust in the mine never exceeded the 35 per cent allowed by law.

The tests on May 6 were far above it.

But on May 6, 1992,  no one did anything to address the safety concern brewing below ground. The biggest concern on people’s minds was keeping up with the supply of coal to meet Westray’s contract obligations with Nova Scotia Power.
May 9 was the explosion.

May 22, Thompson said he and his coworkers were called back to work at the lab at Westray. While the county was still reeling from the tragic deaths of 26 miners on May 9, the need for coal-generated power was still there. The plan was for open pit mining to start in Stellarton later that month.

“In the middle of the day I got a call while I was in the lab and Roger Parry and Trevor Eagles and Gerald Phillips showed up in the lab to demand to see the person who did the test.”

Parry and Phillips were managers of the mine and Eagles was the on-site engineer. Thompson knew the tests they were talking about were the ones he had done on May 6.

“The argument was whether the tests were done right or not. They were trying to make it my fault. I’m like 26 years old and green as the grass. I have a guy yelling in my face, wondering why I did it the way I did it, which was kind of shocking and unnerving.”

While Thompson said he knows he followed the correct procedure, those in charge insisted that he had done it wrong because he hadn’t accounted for moisture. To him the point was moot. They were arguing over the calibre of the bullet, he said. The facts backed his results.: the mine had blown up.

When Thompson walked into work May 28, his supervisor Robert O’Donnell told him to dispose of the coal dust splits that were left on the bench downstairs. The splits included a portion of coal dust he had set aside from the batch he tested on May 6, and, if he was correct, would show that the levels were unsafe as his previous tests had shown.

“The fact that he told me to destroy evidence, that was the final straw for me. I went to the police the next day and told them everything I knew, which is probably not a whole lot, but enough that they were able to get a warrant and shut the mine down, because by the time I got back to work that evening, the place was seized by police.”

He said he knew from then on he was a dead man walking with the company. In June he was “let go” because of what he was told was a lack of work.

When he was unemployed and home caring for two kids while his wife was away working to keep food on their table, a black suburban pulled into Thompson’s driveway in September.

Ches MacDonald, an investigator with the Nova Scotia Department of Labour came in to question him.

For an hour, Thompson told him everything he knew.

As he got up to leave, Thompson said MacDonald looked at him and offered some advice.

“I respect you for your honesty, but keep this to yourself,” he said. “I don’t trust the people I’m working for.”

Thompson declined to be part of CBC’s Fifth Estate investigation about Westray in June of 1992 – something  he regrets to this day.

“I should have done that interview,” he said. “In the first iteration done in 1992 the report included a segment stating test results were done on the sixth. A few years ago I watched it again and that bit was removed. That bothers me. It really does.”

He understands why CBC did it -  because the only evidence to that effect they had was a phone interview with Thompson - but he believes it’s a crucial detail.

He hoped he would be able to share his story during the inquiry that followed. However, while he was on the Crown’s list of witnesses, he was never called.

Eagles, an on-site engineer at Westray, testified  he hadn’t received the test results until the end of the day on May 7 in the form of a memo. Thompson is sure he followed standard operating procedure and phoned the results in on May 6, but never had the chance to dispute Eagles’ testimony.

“It all seems kind of trivial, but it’s not, because the decisions had to be made on the sixth,” Thompson said.

“It’ll never be closed for me because I was never given a chance to speak at the inquiry.”

Looking back, he said he doesn’t blame anyone in particular.

“I’m sure nobody wanted people to get killed. I don’t think there was a memo sent out one day, ‘Let’s blow up the mine.’ I don’t believe that happened. People are not that evil. But in the aftermath, I think people should have told the truth. I don’t think that happened.”

Thompson doesn’t want to be portrayed as a victim. He’s moved on in many ways, but on those days, especially May 6 and 9, questions sometimes haunt him.

He wonders if he had told his friend Larry Bell about the results before he left work on May 6, if it would have made a difference and saved Bell’s life.

“I think they knew how bad it was. I don’t think even if I had told them how bad it was, they would have probably still went underground. They knew. They must have known.”

Thompson says he's also sure that on May 6 here were people who knew and could have done something about it. Instead, they continued to produce coal.
 

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