In the immediate aftermath of explosion the government did what I felt and still feel was their most contemptible act by setting up Richards Inquiry. Thereby attempting to predetermine that it was not a criminal event. I have been able to forgive myself and those around me for mistakes prior to May 9th. However what happened in aftermath deserves only my continued contempt. If the Company and regulators had put forward even half the effort to improve safety before explosion compared with the efforts afterwards in directing the blame it would not have happened.
My first wife would say that I changed into a different person after explosion. In some ways a part of me died along with the 26. And in its place was a person in some ways barely recognizable from before. As 1992 fell to 93 and 94 I became increasingly skeptical that there would be a favourable outcome in regards the Trial. I never really cared about Inquiry as I felt and still to that terms of reference and its intentions were to help provide government some breathing space to get the issue past the next election and time for guilty parties in bureaucracy a chance to find other jobs or a soft landing in retirement.
When the government withdrew the charges under Labour Act in 1993 I knew in my heart that nothing good was going to happen. It was said at time that they wanted to not prejudice the coming Inquiry but to me that line of reasoning never made any sense. Inquiries before and since have been conducted in face criminal charges. It only proved to me that the government was as hell bent on the Inquiry then as they were when the Premier of Nova Scotia Donald Cameron announced it at the Community Center in Plymouth in May 92. But to me it only showed contempt for everyone affected by this disaster.
One of the first questions I am asked when I talk about all this is why did you take so long to come forward. The easy answer is to say that I just gave up trying and once I wasn’t called to Inquiry I didn’t see the point anyways. But really it is much simpler. After my marriage dissolved I had to go into survival mode and for me that meant doing my best to forget everything that had happened. I needed to try and halt the spiral into the Abyss. The reason I can do this now is that I feel comfortable talking about it. I know how to grab the rattlesnake so that it won’t bite me.
The story of Westray and myself is complicated in many ways. I have over the years like I’ve said ebbed and flowed as the images of my past jump back to life now and then. I suppose I could be considered PTSD but I have always been able to get up in morning each day and carry on. I cannot think of doing anything else as it would be a promise broken to Larry and Robbie and all the rest of those men. So I carry on measuring my success by the fact that I’m still able to function on all the levels that count to be a productive member of society. I am a very lucky man, I have three wonderful sons, a Lovely wife and many other family and friends. Life is even more precious when it is taken from someone you know. My family could only watch from sidelines hoping that I would somehow get through to other side. Although scarred I have made it.
I knew even back in early 2000 that sooner or later I would have to get back to Westray and resolve and make things right. I have spent some years getting my life sorted out . I am so fortunate that things have turned as they have. When I think back now I can say that I have always been a student of history. This is likely because my parents bought World Book Encyclopedias when I was 8 years old. I spent the next couple of years reading them. For they were alphabetic, systematic sources of history. Well researched and accurate. I have since developed a more critical mind and try to open minded to interpretation but not intention. For me the story of Westray is a book with pages ripped out. The people who did it are laughing at me while watching the years slip by. Hoping that I will not be able to get people to see beyond the superficial story that is me.
So I lay it bare and show the world the contempt these people have shown for not only me but everyone else.
I was hired by SGS to work in Coal Lab on or about 15th of April 1992 as a Junior Lab Technologist. My job was to test coal quality prior to shipment to customer, the Nova Scotia Power Generating Station, in Trenton, a few miles down the East River from mine. We worked 12 hour shifts, four on, four off, day-shift and night-shift. I followed the same schedule as the miners working underground. In the week before explosion I had by and large settled into my daily routine. The routine changed on 5th of May when four coal dust samples were sent to lab for testing.
I was told to process and report results. Seeing as I had not done this type of test before I had to get instruction on procedure from my supervisor. I wasn’t able to get started on tests until around suppertime but was able to split the samples and process the explosive fraction before the end of my shift. The final numbers would have to be reported later. I returned to work the next day and was asked to report the results to Engineering Office. When I tell this story this is where I am usually asked why is this important information in the story of Westray. My answer is this. This is not the official time-line as laid out by Government of Nova Scotia, the Management of Westray or the Richards Inquiry.
It has led to many sleepless nights these past 22 or so years wondering why something so simple as this could be wrong in the time-line of Westray. There were times when it would lurch back into my life. I would try to reach out to media but for most it was something to be forgotten. Looking at all this from third person I have come to the conclusion that the vast majority would rather just forget about it. I can’t, as I’d be letting the 26 and their families down. I have come to the sad conclusion that the reason this has happened is because when you push the power button on your TV remote one gets blood on your hands.It is much easier to clean it off if one doesn’t think about how the energy that drives our economy is created. The vast majority of people would rather put it out of sight. That in large part, I think, is the reason I get the 1000 yard stare when I talk about all this.
I’m going to back up a little right now. The reason I was doing these tests on the 5th of May was because Albert Maclean, the Mine Inspector working for Department of Labour, ordered a coal dust mitigation plan be put in place within 10 days on the 29th of April. I wouldn’t know this until later when I was watching the CBC Fifth Estate Report “The Last Shift”. As a side note I was asked to appear on that program but I was scared and declined.
It was a mistake as I now feel that if I had gone public back in June 1992 the story of Westray would have been much different. It would have been a lot more difficult for the Government and Inquiry to ignore me and what I had to say if I had found the courage to speak then. My Dad and Uncle who had over 30 years’ experience in mining told at time to keep quiet. I think they worried about me being attacked by powers that be. They were probably correct to worry. Myself my concern was that I could have jeopardized any criminal investigation by appearing on program. I also felt that I could end up being set up as a patsy.
When I reported the test results to Trevor Eagles on 6th Albert MacLean was at mine. This is where my time-line diverges from the official one. Trevor Eagles stated at Richards Inquiry that he didn’t receive test results until end of day on 7th via typed memo. I my time working at Westray we always phoned in the numbers to whoever dropped samples off at lab for testing. However it was not codified as a company procedure. That fact made it easy to tailor company time-line in aftermath to more conveniently suit themselves.
The reason I feel that Mr. Eagles changed date of knowledge is because if he was told on 6th then he would have had to tell Albert MacLean about it. Mr. MacLean would have had no choice but shut the mine down as all the tests failed to pass. One in particular indicated an explosive content comparable to coal we were selling to customer. By the morning of May 9th the coal dust plan was not in place therefore the mine was in non-compliance with Department of Labour Order as issued by Albert MacLean.
My biggest regret about Westray though is that on the 6th of May after I phoned the results in I put it out of my mind and didn’t take a moment to absorb the implications of the tests. If I had I would have realized that there was a serious problem. I suppose I could use the excuse that I was a Junior Lab Tech and that was beyond the scope of my responsibilities but I have and still feel that I let the miners working underground down by not posting results.
Those men had as much right to know on morning of 6th as the management a few doors down the hall from where Albert MacLean was conducting tests. My day ended uneventfully. I was tired as I had just finished my fifth 12 hour shift in a row. As fate would have it I wasn’t even supposed to be there that day as I was filling in for co-worker. One of the last conversations I had that day at mine was with Larry and Robbie. They were just starting their back-shift. My deepest, most painful regret now and for all time is not telling them what happened that day. I should have told them to go home, it was too dangerous to work at this mine anymore. I didn’t and instead just made small talk catching up on the news and rumours around community. Larry and Robbie like I said would die three days later on the morning of the 9th.
I have over the years replayed May 6th and had that conversation with Larry and Robbie again and again. Of course my dreams, like the movies I watch, has the hero riding to rescue to save the men and the day. Unfortunately, as often happens in real life, there are no heroes and we are left to come to terms with aftermath as best we can.
On the morning of May 9th I was at home. Being that I was living several miles from where mine was located I didn’t hear the explosion so my day didn’t start until shortly after 7 o’clock in morning with a phone call. For some workers at mine the call was to check and see if they were home because Westray didn’t have procedure in place to verify who was underground. My phone call however was from my brother-in Law checking to see if I was home and okay. My wife took that call but he wanted to talk to me. I just waking up when she handed me the phone. I knew the question he was going to ask and also the answer. I told him they were all dead. A week later I was proven correct.
I have for many years had a hard time explaining it until I saw the video of Columbia Space Shuttle as it broke up on its descent back to earth. I felt the shared pain of helplessness of the person standing in that field in Texas as he watched the tragedy unfold before him. He likely cried as I did that morning.
I was like everyone else transfixed on the daily news conferences at community center in Plymouth. My problem for the following week was that I knew in my heart what was the force and reason behind the blast. My concern from start was for the test results and splits as I was hearing rumours of officials destroying evidence at mine. Each day someone from mine would go to school to update everyone on situation. I however from the outset knew in my gut that whole exercise was pointless.
Seven days later on May 16th 1992 at the Community Center the Government of Nova Scotia did what I felt and still feel was their most despicable act by setting up Richards Inquiry. Thereby attempting to predetermine that it was not a criminal event. I have been able to forgive myself and those around me for mistakes prior to May 9th. However what happened in aftermath deserves only my continued contempt. If the Company and Regulators had put forward even half the effort to improve safety before explosion compared with the efforts afterwards in directing the blame it would not have happened.
I know I’m digressing a bit but here is a picture of me with my cousin Shelly, she’s on far left, my two brothers Doug and Andy and my sister Lisa. I’m in middle, the school can be seen in background. It gives a sense of where I grew up in relation to mine. I drive by what is left of coal mine when I visit my parents in Plymouth. Westray is still and will always never far from my thoughts because of proximity of Mine site to the place I grew up.
Everyone at Westray wanted to get back to work. Myself I had a young family to feed and once the shock of explosion subsided I got back to the reality of supporting my wife and two sons. I didn’t return to work until May 22nd which was a Friday. I had spent the previous almost two weeks wondering if my dust samples were secure. So I was relieved when I saw them that morning. My first day back was for most part uneventful except for a visit by three Westray Managers who at some point that day appeared in Lab to confront us about test results from May 6th.
They first spoke to my supervisor and being in different part of lab I heard the commotion. I asked a co-worker what was going on and he told me that they were here to discuss my test results. At some point my supervisor called me to his desk to help explain what I had done. After some discussion and a trip to location in lab where tests were conducted I walked them through the procedure used. It was and still is the position of Westray and confirmed in testimony of Trevor Eagles at Inquiry that I had done test incorrectly. It seemed to me to be irrelevant to be having this conversation after the fact as nobody is willing to dispute that main force of mine explosion was fuelled by the dust.
It wasn’t going to change the fact that 26 men were dead. However in hindsight it is obvious to me that this would end up being Westray Coal way of excusing their inaction in lead-up to May 9th. In a way the reason I am having a hard time putting this behind me as that after accusations and yelling was over in lab that day the three men who were my accusers left lab leaving alone by myself. In some ways I still feel that those test results belong to me. They became “my tests” that day. The Manager left the lab feeling he made his point, assuaged his guilt and responsibility for deaths of the 26 by making it my problem. I felt so alone and helpless that day. I still think about it now.
My next scheduled shift would be on May 26th, back shift. I entered the lab that evening to report for work and my supervisor Rob O’Donnell’s first instructions was for me to destroy the splits of samples from May 6th. I refused as I felt that it should not be up to us to decide what would be evidence in any investigation into what happened. I spent the night alone in lab wondering what I should do next. I decided at some point that evening to go to RCMP to make statement. It was my fear that at some point the next day while I was home sleeping the evidence would be destroyed.
My wife picked me up the next morning and I went directly to RCMP to tell them what I knew about mine. My main concern at time was to secure the lab, which they did. I left after a couple hours to get some sleep. Sometime that day the RCMP executed a Warrant and seized control of the mine. I wouldn’t know this until I returned to work that evening. Once I walked through main doors I saw my first RCMP officer and knew immediately what was going on. I walked through office wondering if anyone knew what I had done earlier that day.
At some point it became apparent to me that some knew. I didn’t care because I did what I felt was right. I became one of the untouchables but felt empowered by the truth. I proceeded to my office worried about my safety. My fears went away when I saw my Uncle Jim Sears at a desk in front of door where I worked. Jim stood 6’-6” weighed over 300 pounds and threw telephone poles at Highland Games as a hobby. Being an Auxiliary RCMP officer was happy to tell me that it was first time in over twenty years of service that he was getting paid to do work for Mounties. Nobody was going to be bothering me that day and any day after that. However I did know that I was on borrowed time work-wise and sure enough in the middle of June 92 I was laid off for the reason of lack of work.
And so ended my time at Westray Coal and my career in mining. It was more or less two months which has for better or worse effected my life in the years since.
Westray has always been 3 tracks for me in the years since blast. the RCMP Investigation and prosecution, Department of Labour (DOL) Investigation and finally the Richards Inquiry. Unfortunately for the public trying to understand what happened during and in aftermath these three tracks were mutually incompatible and intersected each other with fatal consequences for all. Only strong political will on part of government would have allowed these three paths to cross without their destruction.
When I say government I have to say in my opinion a large part of problem was that the resistance to the inertia against the truth lies with the bureaucracy that ran it. They had careers to protect and rather than being bold many I think tried their best to be like me and wish the problem away. I’m sure I am not the only one who feels this way.
The first track, the RCMP investigation and prosecution. Reason being that I had the most invested in this and was supposed to testify at Trial. As I have said many times of all the agencies of Crown it was and still is the RCMP that I have most respect for. They have always took time to listen to what I have to say and I think done their best to achieve the same goal of the truth that I have carried all these years. They took my complaints seriously at time of initial interview and had followed up with me several times in lead up to trial.
Each encounter was always a positive experience for me. I always left meetings feeling that we could get sense of closure. I’m sure like me once the Prosecution failed in court those who worked on it for them, like me, were disappointed, And like me they put file aside saying they did their best and it was time to move on. Yet after my recent contact with them I suspect that there are still people in police force who feel as I do that more can be done.
The second was and still is the most mysterious for me. My only contact with it occurred in September of 1992 with the arrival at my house for interview of me by Ches MacDonald lead investigator who was tasked with finding out if Westray had committed Labour Act violations. I have said it before this interview was and still is the most troubling moment for me. I had to be interviewed at home because I my wife at time had to work as I was unemployed and it made more sense for me to be at home with kids.
Ches MacDonald showed up at my house in a black Suburban, much like the ones you see on TV used by secret service personnel who are tasked to protect the President of United States. If I can take a moment and paint a picture the interview lasted about an hour through which the vehicle sat in driveway with two or three men from I assumed the Department of Labour waiting for the return of Mr.MacDonald. Inside the house I sat with him and two small children, 3 and 1-1/2 years old running around, talking about what had happened at Westray.
He left me with something he said that has always stuck with me by telling me in confidence that he didn’t trust the people he was working for. For a long time I kept my promise to not tell anyone about this. I cannot be a part of this conspiracy of silence anymore. I have broken my promise to him because when he walked away that day I expected better. When the charges were put aside in 1993 someone in that department should of stood up and said something. Nobody did.
The last track is the Richards Inquiry. For me, as it is for most, it is the most public and at same time most mysterious of the three. It was conceived in May 1992 at the school, in Plymouth, in my view stillborn with congenital defects that would in the end doom its vitality. I have over the years tried to interest myself in investigating the findings that were realized in final report but for me it was always a dish of justice served cold. Most of main players had scurried off the stage anyways forgotten to most and history. I have asked government why I was not interviewed for Inquiry.
It is their position that since it was independent of government it’s decisions about how it was conducted was out of their control. It troubles me now how the government is using this independence to maintain its mystery. We need to know how decisions were made and about how it was conducted beyond what is known to public. For me it is like a music box put away a long time ago in drawer. One can pull it out once in a while to look at it but the key is lost and without it we cannot listen to the song.
Since I started this quest a couple of years ago my goal has always been to put my hands on my statement not only to get right the times and dates when things happened but also to get four numbers. These numbers were given to me first by Rob O’Donnell on May 6th then later by Gerald Philips on the 22nd. On the 6th Rob O’Donnell knowing that these numbers were not good news. Rather than phoning them in himself instead asked me to do it.
Ownership of these numbers was further confirmed on 22nd when Phillips, Eagles and one other person came to lab. It was then when I asked a co-worker standing beside me what the commotion was on other side of room that they became in his words “my samples”. Final confirmation was when Philips blamed me for doing tests wrong in his view even though I followed, as confirmed by O’Donnell, the procedure as instructed. The four numbers are:
•DSIF out by 9XC Floor – 23.75% ash
•DS2R5 Ward in Bye 1XC -33.33% ash
•DSZF 5 Ward in Bye 1XC -41.33% ash
•DSIR #2 Slope Out By 9XC -39.74% ash
These four numbers are what is for me Westray and with it the main message. They were given to me by fate and I have guarded them in my thoughts ever since. The problem I had and still have is that there was no procedure in place to post these results. I was trusting that my phone call would be enough for someone to take responsibility for mitigating the problem and informing the workers whose live depended on them.
Because there was no JOSH committee set up at this workplace none of this was done and 3 days later the mine blew up. It is this singularity, if you can call it that, that lies at heart of what I want everyone to understand. I cannot continue to shoulder the responsibility for these four numbers. I didn’t ask for it and I don’t feel it is fair that it was done in first place. A quick glance at numbers and one could ask why does any of this matter.
But they have by their description and percentage said for me the tragedy that is Westray. All failed miserably indicating dangerous to extreme levels of explosive coal dust in mine and all the samples are from the Southwest section of mine. 9XC describes a place in Southwest, the number 9 crosscut, the percentage of ash was essentially the same as the coal we were shipping to power generating station.
It is this number in particular that stands out for me. I should have paused while speaking to Eagles on phone to ask myself what this number meant. If I had, I could have told Larry or Robbie that evening to go home. On May 9th the explosion that was to consume Westray occurred when it started in Southwest likely not far from where these samples were taken.
I have sat in on JOSH meetings at various jobs since. I am always struck by how mundane and simple these meetings have become. I think it is important for people to know how important the act of sitting down and communicating and posting of information to other workers is. I worry sometimes that these meetings are not given the respect they deserve and people don’t fully appreciate how fortunate that they are in place. It is only when one has misfortune of working somewhere like Westray that you really understand how crucial to safe workplace that they are.
What saddens my most was that the Richards Inquiry was set up to make recommendations to improve workplace safety. Even when the numbers were brought up in Testimony it was in passing, their importance minimized, and incorrectly dated in official time-line.
One of the outcomes from this tragedy was the passing of Bill C-45, The Westray Law, by the federal government on March 31,2004. In Nova Scotia and across the country it led to major revamping of Occupational Health & safety regulations. Although proactive strides have been made in OHS currently in Canada every day on average 3 people are killed at work.
Sadly when it comes to enforcement and usage of powers set out in C-45 governments seem reluctant to prosecute employers for work place deaths. Successful prosecutions are few and far between. It is my opinion that the only way to deal with employers showing contempt for the law and workers is more vigorous enforcement. Only when employers are led out of boardrooms in handcuffs on Bay Street and Wall Street will we see the change are workers seek. C-45 wouldn’t have prevented the explosion on May 9th 1992. T
he mine was doomed by the determined contempt of Westray Coal and the inability of Government Of Nova Scotia to enforce the laws that were on the books at time. It is my position that there is no point in writing new laws to protect workers when the government won’t enforce the current ones on books. That for me is the lesson of Westray and one that I think still hasn’t been absorbed by the Justice System.
This story is been a part of my life since May 1992. I have over the years tried without success to forget and move-on, hoping for some sort of Closure. I now realize it has become a part of who I am as a person. I have come to accept that as it is. Oddly enough when I decided to try and go forward publicly a couple of years ago it was a song that inspired me and gave me the strength to walk into the sun. I have to thank Stephen Kimber for taking time to listen and write what I still think is the best synopsis of my story. I am forever in his debt.
Throughout history light has been a symbol of many things to many people. To me the Light is truth, life and hope for a better future. When I watch the sunrise in morning I often think of where I am at in my own life. When it comes to Westray, first and foremost, it is as is shown on Memorial in New Glasgow a call for us to never forget them. It says in inscription that “Their Light Shall Always Shine”. For many years I have thought about what it meant to me. Occasionally I have stopped by when no one was around to be alone for a few minutes of contemplation. When I read the names I am always struck by ages of men who died. It is such a waste of good men.