On May 9, 1992, at 5:18 a.m., far beneath the small town of Plymouth, N.S., a sudden gush of methane gas escaped from the Foord coal seam and erupted into flames. Within seconds, a huge fireball raced through the mine, stirring up coal dust that exploded in a thundering blast.

A blue-grey flash lit up the pre-dawn sky. Homes more than a kilometre away shuddered as the shock wave rumbled through the earth.

In all, there were 26 men underground at the time, most of them in the final hours of a four-day shift. 

"The Westray story is a complex mosaic of actions, omissions, mistakes, incompetence, apathy, cynicism, stupidity and neglect," said Mr. Justice Peter Richard in his report on the explosion and fire at the coal mine in Pictou County that day.

In fact, Westray's very existence was controversial from the very start.

In July 1991, Liberal MLA Bernie Boudreau sent a letter to Nova Scotia Labour Minister Leroy Legere warning that the new Westray coal mine scheduled to open in two months near Stellarton "is potentially one of the most dangerous in the world."

But that wasn't enough to stop the Westray mine from opening on Sept. 11, 1991. Nearly 500 guests attended the official opening and the local member of Parliament, then revenue minister Elmer MacKay, arrived from Ottawa to cut the ribbon on a project that promised 300 badly needed jobs that would last at least 15 years.

Coal mining has always been dangerous work. Between 1838 and 1950, the peak years of coal mining in Pictou County, 246 miners were killed in similar methane-and-coal-dust explosions, many of them working the rich Foord seam that became part of the Westray operation.

The Westray victims

  • John Thomas Bates, 56
  • Larry Arthur Bell, 25
  • Bennie Joseph Benoit, 42
  • Wayne Michael Conway, 38
  • Ferris Todd Dewan, 35
  • Adonis J. Dollimont ,36
  • Robert Steven Doyle, 22
  • Remi Joseph Drolet , 38
  • Roy Edward Feltmate, 33
  • Charles Robert Fraser ,29
  • Myles Danial Gillis, 32
  • John Philip Halloran, 33
  • Randolph Brian House,27
  • Trevor Martian Jahn, 36
  • Laurence Elwyn James, 34
  • Eugene W. Johnson, 33
  • Stephen Paul Lilley, 40
  • Micheal Frederick MacKay ,38
  • Angus Joseph MacNeil, 39
  • Glenn David Martin, 35
  • Harry Alliston McCallum, 41
  • Eric Earl McIsaac, 38
  • George James Munroe, 38
  • Danny James Poplar, 39
  • Romeo Andrew Short, 35
  • Peter Francis Vickers, 38

Between 1866 and 1972, another 330 miners were killed in other accidents – mangled in machinery, buried under stone, squashed in coal-car collisions.

'A Predictable Path to Disaster'

The tragedy of Westray goes far beyond a simple, ghastly accident. It involved corporate greed, bureaucratic bungling and government incompetence of the highest order. The title of Mr. Justice Richard's report on the tragedy – the inquiry took five years and cost nearly $5 million – says it all: The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster.

Richard's report zeroed in on Curragh Resources Inc., the private company that managed the coal mine, and government inspectors who ignored glaring safety abuses, among them:

  •  Inadequate ventilation design and maintenance that failed to keep methane and coal dust at safe levels;
  • Unauthorized mine layout, forcing miners to work risky tunnels to get the coal out faster;
  • Methane detectors that were disconnected because of frequent alarms;
  • Procedures to "stonedust" coal to render it non-explosive, which were done only sporadically, usually before inspections;    
  • An "appalling lack of safety training and indoctrination" of miners.

From the start, the mandate of the Westray operation was clear: get the mine running, get the coal out, sell it quickly.

Miners concerned Westray was dangerous

Toronto-based Curragh Resources Inc. announced the creation of the Westray mine in the village of Plymouth on Sept. 1, 1988, five days before the provincial election in Nova Scotia. The coal mine was described as a $127-million operation, which would create 300 new jobs in the area. The next day the Nova Scotia government promised to contribute a $12-million loan to the mine.

si-220-westray-memorial-906038

Relatives of a miner killed in the Westray mine disaster watch as workers install a memorial to the lost men in New Glasgow, N.S., on May 7, 1993. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

A week later, Nova Scotia Power Corp. announced a deal to buy 700,000 tonnes of coal a year for 15 years at a price of $60 to $74 a tonne. The reserves of coal at the Westray mine were estimated at 45 million tonnes. Another week later, the Bank of Nova Scotia kicked in a $100-million loan to the mine operation, with the federal government guaranteeing 85 per cent of it.

The facilities at Westray were supposed to be state of the art. The coal was there in abundance, the buyers were waiting for it, big loans were guaranteed by governments – everything was in place except some nagging concerns from workers that it was a dangerous mine and safety precautions were lax.

Looking back on the tragedy, Judge Richard commented: "A safe workplace demands a responsible and conscientious commitment from management – from the Chief Executive Officer down. Such a commitment was sadly lacking at the Westray mine.

"Since there was no discernible safety ethic, including a training program and a management safety mentality, there could be no continuum of responsible safety practice within that workplace. Complacency seemed to be the prevailing attitude at Westray – which at times regressed to a heedless disregard for the most fundamental safety imperatives."

Management failed, inspectors failed

"As I stated in the report," the judge said, "compliance with safety regulations was the clear duty of Westray management. To ensure that this duty was undertaken and fulfilled by management was the legislated duty of the inspectorate. Management failed, the inspectorate failed, and the mine blew up."

The Westray miners not killed in the blast, 117 of them, were awarded severance pay for 12 weeks, which came to $1.2 million. Individual cheques to the miners ranged from $6,626 to $12,367. A $30-million lawsuit was launched against the province of Nova Scotia by families of the dead miners, but Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court threw it out, ruling that the province was protected from lawsuits under the Workers Compensation Act.

Curragh Resources Inc. initially was charged with 52 non-criminal counts of operating an unsafe mine. The company went bankrupt in 1993. The charges then were dropped after a Nova Scotia judge criticized the way in which they were laid. The case went back to trial, was dismissed again, then the Supreme Court of Canada ordered a new trial.

Charges of criminal negligence and manslaughter had been laid against mine managers Gerald Phillips and Roger Parry, but these came to nothing when the Crown stayed proceeding, saying there was not enough evidence to ensure a conviction.

Clifford Frame, founder and chief executive officer of Curragh Resources Inc., refused to testify at the Richard Inquiry, as did Marvin Pelley, former president of Westray. The inquiry had no federal powers, which meant subpoenas could not be enforced outside of Nova Scotia, leaving company officials safe in their Toronto headquarters.

Westray Act a legacy of disaster

Tribute from a miner's son

Simon Lilley, the son of one of the miners killed in Westray, pays tribute to his father with this poem:

5:27 fast asleep,
Awoken by family,
My memory will keep,
My Father my guide,
Taken away,
By the deep underground,
Which brought us this way.

10 years ago,
A life changed forever,
Once a child full of hope,
Is now a man full of rage and sadness.

Oh how I miss you Dad,
Tear on the page.

As a family we don't forget,
Only those that do are full of regret.

You're close at heart,
But still underground,
I love you Father,
I miss you Father,
I remember Father,
Do They?

Ramsey Hart, a co-ordinator with Mining Watch Canada, says Westray's legacy can be measured in the application of the so-called Westray Act, a federal law enacted in 2004 that provided new rules for attributing criminal liability to corporations and representatives when workers are injured or killed on the job.

The law has been used in criminal prosecutions several times, but the courts have registered just two convictions.

"We don't seem to have switched the mentality to these being issues of criminality," Hart says. "Unfortunately, we are still seeing an unacceptable number of fatalities in mines. There are some disturbing indications that we may be losing some ground."

Though Nova Scotia's last operating underground coal mine was closed in 2001, plans are in the works to open another one in eastern Cape Breton as early as 2014. The proposed Donkin mine is in the midst of an environmental assessment.

Ten years ago the Westray operation was sold by the province. The remains of Westray have been knocked down, covered and seeded to grass, entombing the 11 miners whose bodies never made it up from the doomed mine.

First published May 9, 2002; updated with files from Canadian Press