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1936: Moose River mine disaster

It happened fast. Three men were suddenly trapped 43 metres underground when Nova Scotia's Moose River gold mine collapsed on Apr. 12, 1936. Fellow miners flocked to help, and reporters from across Canada gathered to cover the dramatic rescue effort. For one of them it was a career-changing event. For 56 hours straight, J. Frank Willis of the CRBC (precursor to the CBC) stayed awake to give radio reports every half-hour until two survivors were rescued on Apr. 23. Willis's groundbreaking round-the-clock coverage changed perceptions of the purpose of radio, and influenced the path CBC Radio would take in its formative years.

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It is a story that grips the world.

At 11 p.m. on April 12, 1936, three men are trapped 43 metres underground when Nova Scotia's Moose River gold mine collapses around them. The men are 42-year-old mine timekeeper Alfred Scadding and two of the mine's owners; 52-year-old Dr. David E. Robertson, chief of staff at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, and Herman Russell Magill, a 30-year-old Toronto lawyer. In this compilation of radio clips, J. Frank Willis reports live from the scene about the desperate rescue efforts.

The men are in the mine on an inspection tour when the ceiling collapses. Townspeople hear the noise and within minutes Moose River miners begin rescue work. Within days, several hundred miners from throughout Nova Scotia -- from Westville, Caribou Mines, Montague Mines, Springhill, Goldenville, Waverly and Stellarton -- and as far away as Ontario arrive to help. But no one knows whether there are any survivors.

After six agonizing days, Billy Bell, a diamond drill operator with the Nova Scotia government, breaks into an open space at the 43-metre level with his drill. He shouts down the pipe but there is no response. Officials decide to abandon rescue operations.
Bell refuses to leave. Eleven hours later, a steam whistle arrives and a piercing note is sent down the pipe. Bell hears a faint tapping in response. The men are alive.

The three trapped men were in the mine cart on their way to the surface when the mine collapsed. The cable holding the cart snapped but was pinned so quickly by falling rocks that the cart only dropped a few inches. A huge timber fell across the mine shaft above the trapped men and all the collapsed rock was resting on this one timber.

It is now Sunday, April 19. The next morning, mine co-owner Herman Magill dies of pneumonia. Fatigue, weather and continuous rockfalls hamper the rescue. There's only one hope left -- reopening the adjacent Reynolds Shaft, which had earlier been condemned as too dangerous. Experienced miners from Westville and Stellarton are brought in to deal with this extremely unstable environment.

As the rescue operations drag on, newspaper reporters descend on Moose River. At this time, newspapers are the primary source for news from around the world. Radio is considered an entertainment medium. Which is one reason that officials of the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, a precursor to the CBC, will not allow their only reporter east of Montreal to go to the scene.

Twenty-eight-year-old J. Frank Willis is the CRBC's Regional Director for the Maritimes. When he finally receives permission to go to Moose River, it's already Monday, April 20. He makes his first broadcast at 6 p.m. that day. For two minutes every half-hour Willis is live on air throughout North America. He continues for 56 hours straight. An estimated 100 million people are listening. It is North America's very first live 24-hour news event, changing forever the perception of what radio can do.
• In one of Willis's broadcasts, he angrily contradicts reports from some newspapers that the rescue shaft was in danger of collapsing. He said that it was the first and last time he ever lost his temper on air. CRBC officials felt Willis was starting to crack, and in an effort to force him to sleep, refused to carry his broadcasts for two hours. The move did not have its intended effect. Said Willis, "I spent the two hours dancing up and down, afraid that the rescue would be made during this enforced silence."

• Willis used improvised equipment, including an old table microphone from a Halifax hotel, and a borrowed car as a studio.
• Before Willis could make any broadcasts, he had to convince everyone on the 18-mile-long party-line phone circuit to put down the phone and listen to his reports on the radio. Otherwise, the signal was so weakened that his voice came through no louder than a thin whisper.

• Mine co-owner Dr. David Robertson was brought up from the mine at 12:45 a.m., Thursday, April 23. Willis broadcast his last report at 2 a.m. the same day.
• Willis's broadcasts were carried on 58 Canadian stations and about 650 stations in the United States. The BBC picked up the broadcasts for Great Britain and Europe.

• In 1950, the Canadian Press voted the Moose River mine cave-in as the top radio news story of the first half of the 20th century.
• The CRBC became the CBC on November 2nd, 1936.

Also on April 12:
1917: Ontario women win the right to vote.
1971: Toronto doctors perform the first successful operation in Canada to separate two conjoined twins. The 9-day-old twins shared the same liver.
1980: Terry Fox dips his artificial leg into the Atlantic at Cape Spear, N.L., to start his cross-country "Marathon of Hope" in aid of cancer research. Fox's run ends Sept. 1 in Thunder Bay, when cancer is discovered in his lungs.
Medium: Radio
Program: CBC Radio News Special
Broadcast Date: April 20, 1936
Guest(s): Mr. Henderson
Reporter: J. Frank Willis
Duration: 11:44
Photo: CBC

Last updated: April 30, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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