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The day their dad wasn't coming home


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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.

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.

His mother took him and his brother David into a bedroom and explained what had happened.

"Well, we won't be able to go fishing anymore," Michael told his mother. "Dad knew all the secret spots."

There were 26 men working in the Westray Mine the morning of May 9, 1992 when at 5:18 a.m. methane gas ignited killing them all. Only 15 of the miners' bodies were recovered and the Johnson family is thankful that 33-year-old Eugene was one of them. His lunch box was also salvaged and given to the family. In the days that followed the tragedy, a Canadian Press photographer, Andrew Vaughan took David and Michael's picture with the lunchbox in front of some family photos in their livingroom which looks much today as it did then. After that the lunchbox was carefully put back under the sink where Eugene kept it when he wasn't working. And there it stays.

 

Hundreds of people showed up for Eugene's funeral and on the front page of papers across the country pictures ran showing Donna Johnson with David as they left the church that day. A short piece ahead was Eugene's coffin, carried by miners who had temporarily left the search for the men still in the mine to mourn for a friend.

David remembers a flower display shaped like the guitar his father loved to play. Michael, though, decided not to go to the funeral.

"I still really don't like to go to funerals," he says. "I just don't like to remember people that way. I like to remember them when they were living."

Of his father there are memories of him strumming country songs on a guitar, of lessons about how to ride a dirt bike and the times his father would take him for a drive in the coal trucks from the Drummond mine, even though it was against the rules.

But more than anything he remembers how much his father loved to mine. Eugene had worked underground at the Drummond mine when it was operating and when the Westray mine opened, his dad didn't waste any time returning underground.

"It wasn't easy work," Michael says. "Some of them did it because they had to. They were good paying jobs then. I knew my dad did it because he loved it."

 

People often suggest to Michael he was robbed of a childhood because of the loss of his father, but he doesn't see it that way. He loved his dad and cherishes the time they spent together, but after he was gone his mother stepped up and kept the house running smoothly making life as easy as it could be for the boys.

"I think it might have been easier then because I didn't really understand what was going on," he said.

Looking back he can't help but admire how she handled it all.

"She took on the role of father and mother. She was very strong."

Donna told her boys if they turned out to be half the man their father was, they'd be all right.

"They are," she says. "They're more than half. I'm very luck with them."

 

Both David and Michael are working in the county now and Michael is married and is expecting his first child within a month. And in a way, he can relate to his father more than he did at 10. He understands why a man with a family to care for was willing to overlook the safety violations the managers at Westray allowed.

"You don't want to put yourself in harm's way, but you got to pay the bills," he said.

But he's also learned that you've got to stand up against such practices and he's thankful for better labour laws, which protect him today as he works.

"If I don't feel safe doing something, I won't do it," he says. "They can say what they want to me, but that's why those laws are put into effect."

Michael doesn't know whether he's having a boy or girl yet, but when the child is born there are some things he wants to share about his father. He wants to tell them to work hard at what you do and never say can't.

"You can always do what you want to do," Eugene often told his boys.

But most importantly, he wants them to know that their grandfather was a great man.

"Never take life lightly," he says he'll tell them. "It can be taken away from you at any minute."

 

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