“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.
Cunningham came from a long line of miners and when he was hired at Westray, he thought he would be able to work the rest of his life in the industry. It was a good job, promising steady employment.
“I did enjoy it,” he said. “It was a great life and a great bunch of guys.”
He held various positions at the mine, from a belt man to a supply man delivering roof bolts or 6-by-6 or 4-by-4 beams as well as machinery.
They worked four days on, four off and often went drinking together on their time off.
The biggest worry he and his coworkers had was cave-ins. But Westray was a mine that gave fair warning, the miners used to say. Cunningham recalls how small rocks would drop for days before any major cave-in.
But an explosion was a different matter. He hadn’t given it any thought until the blast ripped through the mine May 9, killing all 26 men working at the time.
That’s not to say no one thought of it. The words of a friend, Ralph, still stick in his mind from shortly before the explosion:
“They’re going to blow up this place the way they’re going.”
In the initial hours after the disaster, as emergency crews went into action, Cunningham stayed away, letting first responders do their work. Then his manager called and asked if he could help with the rescue attempt. He didn’t hesitate. He got on a bulldozer and started clearing debris. What he saw inside the mine was utter devastation.
“Anybody that worked there and then seen what was left at the moment when I went down there, was like Holy Jesus this stuff’s gone. The whole belt line was gone. It was just disintegrated. There was a drive down around number 5. It would be almost as big as a dump truck…. It was a cast iron thing. It was totally gone.”
But he said they never gave up hope. On his mind were the missing men.
John Bates was his boss and one of his closest friends.
“Every day I went to work in the mine I drove up the hill to the mine and his car was there and every day I was thinking, ‘jeez I hope John’s OK. I hope we get people out of here.’ I always remember looking at the car to this day.”
But the farther they went, the more hope faded.
He had just returned home after a shift, when dragermen from Cape Breton found some of the bodies.
The dragermen bagged them and then allowed the Pictou County miners to carry them out.
In a way, Cunningham is thankful he didn’t have to see what those men saw.
“It was emotional enough. I talked to the other guys that were there and it was hard on them. I was lucky I was spared that.”
They knew after finding those bodies there would be no survivors.
Cunningham went to as many funerals as he could and talked with family of his friend John.
“They lost family and we lost friends,” he said.
John’s family gave him a carnation that he placed in water next to a picture of John.
“No word of a lie, for two months it never wilted,” Cunningham said.
Afterward he dried it and put it away with other mementos from the mine.
In many ways, Cunningham lets the past stay in the past. But memories of his friends have stayed with him.
“I remember Westray and I’ll always remember the guys.”
On May 9 no matter where he is, he takes a moment to pause and reflect.
As awful as it was, he also remembers the good that shone through – from personal words of encouragement to the businesses that sent food and cigarettes – whatever the searchers wanted.
“That’s the Pictou County spirit. They just came together at a tragedy. It was just fantastic how the spirit kind of grew after that.”
April 26, 2017 - Number of events to mark 25th anniversary of Westray
May 8, 2012 - Area will commemorate those lost in mine explosion
May 6, 2012 - The day their dad wasn't coming home
Jan. 12, 2006 - Book chronicles Westray through media
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