Twenty-five years ago today, on May 9, 1992, my community endured a massive tragedy. Those who survived, and those who remember, were forever changed.
It takes reflecting on this anniversary, however, for me to see how the Westray mine explosion affected me then, and continues to live with me now.
I was a reporter with the local daily, about two years on the job. I awoke to the sirens just after daybreak, then went back to sleep with a clear conscience. It wasn’t my weekend to work. In four days, I was jetting off to visit my friend in the US Capitol, Whoever was on for the weekend could handle what was probably a fire or accident on the highway.
I awoke again to the ringing phone. 7:30 a.m. The managing editor – the top guy in the newsroom food chain – was calling me in. “There’s a situation at Westray,” he said. “We need everyone in.” The agitation in his voice offered no clue; facing down daily deadlines, it was something we reporters heard at least twice a day.
The newsroom was busier than it had ever been on a Saturday, than it usually was most days of the week. Reporters, editors, the publisher, in huddled conversations or getting on or off the phones in a bid to put some order to the few facts we knew. Our Westray reporter and photographer were dispatched to the mine. The rest of us were on the desks, answering any calls that might come in, making calls for background and supporting stories. I was assigned a doctor and miner from Springhill. The miner was a former draegerman – mine rescuers specially trained for the dark, cramped and dangerous environments of unstable pits. He and the doctor had been part of the rescue effort in Nova Scotia’s last major mine disaster – the Soringhill bump of ’58. The draegerman had also worked the pits of Pictou County after the Albion Mine explosion in 1955.
At the time of our conversation, nearly 40 years had passed but their memories were vivid. The dark. The waiting. The joy at finding one, two, more men alive. The lines of ambulances at the pit head ready to transport the injured. The tiny hospital filled with stretchers, patients, doctors and nurses who had worked days straight, families desperate for a glimpse or some news. Their stories were gripping, horrifying, fully of agony and hope, yet told calmly, humbly. In their words and tone, mining was a way of life here. They weren’t courageous or dedicated. The tragedies came with the territory.
Office staff arrive to help cover the phones. Reports begin coming back from the mine site. The massive metal entrance had been shattered and twisted as if struck by a tornado. An explosion at 5:53 am. The entire night shift of 26 miners was underground.
Our layout and press crews arrive. Saturday’s paper to bed with the few facts we had, we would put out a Sunday special, for the first time since World War II.
The local fire hall was set up for families of the underground miners, to wait in privacy from the growing crowd of media and onlookers. The community centre was turned into the media room. Westray’s spokesman was as attentive as he was attractive, giving updates with an authentic blend of calm and chagrin. It would be much later that we learned as eyes were on him sharing ‘as much as they could’, his counterparts were shredding thousands of documents, preparing for a chapter our community was too grieved to yet ponder. The only thought: get our husbands, sons, fathers, cousins and friends back from the depths.
I was in Washington when news finally came that there would be no rescue, and then, no recovery. Standing on the subway platform, luggage in hand, I met a guy about my age, tie loosened after a day at the office, who recognized my accent as Canadian. “Where from?” he asked. “Pictou County,” I replied softly and our eyes met in a knowing glance. As we spoke a radio from somewhere was broadcasting news from the mine site, but he knew of Westray even before. “Terrible tragedy,” he murmured, shaking his head. I agreed, with a stab of guilt. I was away from it all now, and I couldn’t have been happier.
I was among the few journalists who never set foot in the media centre near the mine, and for that I was grateful. Never before had I been in the presence of such grief, and I had no idea personally or professionally how to process it. Worse, I felt powerless to be of use to those facing such loss, to people wanting to know how and why when there were no facts to share, to fix whatever it was that had led to such a devastating loss of life in an age when knowledge and technology enabled workplaces to be and do better. Larger news agencies focused on the next story, the big scoop. We as the local media tread a fine line between serving our readers with information and respecting the humanity of those on the front lines. After a TV reporter met two children at their bus stop to ask their opinion about their uncle being lost in the mine, the decision was made in part for us. School boards and law enforcement closed ranks to protect the innocent. And rightly so.
In the years that followed, as the tragedy shifted to anniversaries and inquiries, I was easing myself out of journalism and into family life. I was seven months pregnant with my son when I heard a deep rumble from the direction of the mine. The towering blue silos, once the symbol of a new industrial chapter, then monuments to ineptitude and broken dreams, came tumbling down by controlled explosion. No longer was the mine site visible for miles around. All was quiet.
Twenty five years later, I am the mother of three teenagers, a freelancer, author and publisher. Today, though, I am back in my reporter days, smelling the ink, typing furiously, feeling he adrenaline with every tick of the clock. Ten minutes to deadline. Five. Would there be more news? Do we run the press? All huge questions in the Information Age before Internet. We did what we had to do, but would I choose to do it again? Would I have done anything differently, like gone to the front line and let the tragedy touch me physically as well as emotionally?
My body knew the answer then as now. The front line was not ever my choice, nor was covering tragedies that sadly seemed to repeat history rather than learn from it. Yet the skills I learned from that darkened time are serving in a new direction. Weeks ago I met with a former Westray miner, who served on the rescue crew and worked tirelessly in the years that followed to help get the Westray Bill passed in Ottawa. He came to me not as a miner, but as a prospective author. He has written his story, including the years formed by Westray. Will I work with him to publish it? I want to. His story deserves to be shared. Am I the one to do it, is the question I have.
I am taken back 25 years, and ahead to the present.
The 26 men who died that morning of May 9, 1992, have as their final resting place a cavern that at the time had represented our community’s next great hope for long-term stability, for careers of which workers could be proud and families could thrive. But that hope for stability was built on ground most unstable, by nature’s production of high-methane coal, and the blindness of men wooed by the glow of profits to its dangers in the deep. It was the tragic loss of 26 lives. It was also the loss of innocence: of dreams that companies claiming to be community citizens will live up to their word and responsibilities, that governments will protect its people, that the time will come when workers don’t have to choose between risking their lives or feeding their families. But it also showed the power of community to rally around those in mourning, to honour the dead and console the grieving, and the power of words as a part of that community. Our little newspaper held its head high in an ocean of international media, reporting the stories we needed to cover and respecting humanity in the process. Readers appreciated or at least acknowledged the flow of information, clinging to the stories of hope, rising in fury at the injustices and errors that forced workers to make the ultimate sacrifice.
The greatest change in myself that surfaced, however, was my ability to be touched by it all. In the minutes, hours and days following the explosion, I didn’t shed a tear. It wasn’t in my job description. I kept it at arm’s length, did what I needed to, absorbed what was required for the job. This morning, 25 years later, I sobbed. A few hours later, I cried again, not from what I saw or heard or was told, but from what I felt. It touched me. I became not my job, but me.
Today, my children attend high school just a few meters from the Westray monument. Life has gone on. In some ways it has not changed. But there is still hope. And I am clearer now in my place in it. Memories and stories, recorded and shared, will keep the hope and necessity of ‘not another Westray’ alive. What I felt as powerlessness in 1992 I feel today as being a small piece in a large picture. I will not forget May 9, 1992, or the darkness of the days that followed. Now, though, I can grow from it.
Thanks for being here.
Jennifer Hatt is author of the Finding Maria series and partner in Marechal Media Inc. See more at www.FindingMaria.com