Mine Explosion, Plymouth, Richards Inquiry, Westray

In The Light

The Light

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In my dream it always starts in the light. It start out as a field somewhere in the hills. Sunrise. Dew on the hills. I’m sitting watching the day unfold. In the distance I see the ocean, the tides, the ebbs. the flows.

Westray has always been as a story a visual one rather than a written one for me. I have decided to try and bring to life what has lurked in my mind’s eye all these years. Bring it into the light. But it has always been difficult to write down my thoughts on paper. This is in large part owing to the lack of a voice given to me that was given to many others. I grew up before the internet in a world of books and encyclopedias. Information was always something that was consumed by me. I have always waited for others to tell my story. Waited for my turn.

I did have my chance in aftermath of explosion at Westray to have my say. I was asked by the CBC program the 5th Estate to be part of their documentary “The Last Shift” in the summer of 1992. At the time I declined thinking wrongly that at some point I would get my chance to talk. It was a mistake.

After many years I decided to give it a try again. I sought out a reporter even then still clinging to the need for validation and credibility that comes from it for my voice to be heard. So in the summer of 2013 I got in touch with Stephen Kimber and over the course of next several months we conversed via emails to put together what I think is an excellent summary of what happened to me before, during and in aftermath of Westray explosion. The following spring my story was published. Titled “Closure” it was intended and it was hoped, that it would as title suggests close the book. And for a while it did. I received many positive comments. Those who took time to speak or write to me appreciated what I was trying to do. I was then interviewed by Information Morning. A CBC radio show in Halifax. Then in April of 2014 I was asked to speak at National Day of Mourning event in Port Hawkesbury. During the summer I reached out again to Local newspaper. I began to realize that the more I talked about Westray the more I had to say. Into this came a phone call in Fall of 2014 and with it an offer to go to Safety conference in Gander Newfoundland to speak again. In May of 2015 I went to Gander to give my speech. In the intervening months I worked with some fine people from Halifax to work on my presentation. I wanted to make a difference and an impression. I left Newfoundland afterwards feeling like I had. I was told by that it made people think about safety and what the impact is of poor planning and contempt for safety in a workplace. It was then that I thought the journey would end. My life would enter a new phase. The post-script if you will to Westray. But it wasn’t meant to be. I knew this oddly enough when I was at a wedding and looked up towards a Tree.

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I have have always found it a little surprising what inspires and shapes my thoughts on life’s questions. The day was like many in late summer Nova Scotia. I was standing with my wife along many friends and family of bride and groom for a wedding of a lovely young couple. The wedding took place under an old Pine tree. It  certainly wasn’t the tallest tree. Though it did seem to reach out with it’s branches towards everyone present in a comforting protective embrace. Weddings have always been a time of reflection for me. While I did my best to pay attention to proceedings I could not help but let my mind wander as I looked towards the sky. I once again thought about Westray how still feels unfinished and decided that way forward was to write it down in my own as best I can. After the wedding I decided that to complete this I would need to write book. A few weeks later I received a call from someone who attended Gander talk inviting me back to Newfoundland. This time it was Placentia Bay. I gave my speech, it was once again well received.

What I need to do right now is give a little background on what happened to me at Westray.

The Story

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At 5:18am on May 9th, 1992 26 men were killed when an explosion fueled by methane and coal dust consumed the- Westray Coal Mine in Plymouth, Pictou County Nova Scotia. It is now 22 years later and I am still haunted by what happened at that mine. The reason for this is because I worked at there at time of explosion. I still have questions about why this happened and how it could have been prevented.

Westray has ebbed and flowed since explosion in my thoughts and dreams. For me it has always become more intense in lead up to anniversary. I cannot help but think about the grief and loss felt by families of the 26. What makes it more difficult is the sense of injustice that has pervaded everything related to Westray. It is main reason why I have such a difficult time talking about it. Even now I feel that the story of Westray belong to the miners and families left behind. I cannot begin to understand how the families have felt and still feel about how they were treated by government and the Westray Coal Company.

One cannot speak about Westray without emphasizing the loss of life. It is hard for me to talk about it because it will always be first and foremost their story. When I say their story I mean the 26 men who died and the families left behind. I had only worked at the mine for about 3 weeks when explosion occurred. I didn’t have time to get to know any of the men on that shift. However I did know two of the men. Both I knew from before they started working at mine.

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Robbie Doyle grew up just two farms down the road towards New Glasgow. Him being 4 years younger than me meant that we traveled with a different circle of friends. But we did talk and occasionally growing up he would come up to put the hay in barn on my Grandparent’s farm. He was always one to help and he could be found at Volunteer Fire Department many days. Larry Bell was 2 years older. I knew him much better. We spent many weekends during our teens running the roads and having fun.

Larry and Robbie would die on morning of May 9th. As fate would have it they had just returned underground driving a small tractor like one shown in picture. Sometime later I was told that what they were doing could have waited until day shift but knowing them they would not want to not leave it for someone else to pick up. They were all good men who didn’t deserve the fate they were given.

I have always had a problem with the story-line that was told by those who should have known better in Government and the Company. From the outset it was apparent to me that talking points for this cover-up and misdirection of responsibility would be the blaming of the miners who were working that night for their own deaths. I have always strongly felt that this was and is a despicable betrayal by our government in finding the truth of what happened. In permeating this story-line those in power needed to downplay or discredit the importance of the coal dust as a contributing factor in explosion.

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Worse still it turns out that even in their passing mention of tests during the Richards Inquiry they got the date wrong. I don’t think there was a sudden rush of methane that ignited. It was there, present, lurking, just like the dust, waiting for the proper conditions to become a critical mass. It is hard for me even now to comprehend the absolute total destructive power of the blast that took the lives of the 26 that morning. A couple of years later I sat down with a miner I knew who worked for RCMP when they did their criminal investigation. He showed me pictures of aftermath underground. In reviewing them I was struck by the sheer force of blast. If it is any consolation the event was instantaneous and final.

The reason I know about the coal dust problem at the Westray mine is because I worked at Westray. Even more to the point I worked in the Lab and I was the one that processed the last set of dust samples prior to explosion. As I said sometime ago. I had a front row seat to the bad decisions the would result in the tragedy that was and is Westray. All these years later I cannot understand why this could have happened when simple steps could have been taken to prevent it.

I need to write more but for now that is all. After the wedding Cindy and I went for walk down to the shore. Looking up at the tree I was surprised at how different it looked. The trunk and branches twisted by years of prevailing winds. Yet still reaching for the sky.

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