Nova Scotia·Point of View

Reflections on the Westray Disaster

It was just before sunup. The earth shook — and miners died. They were 26 men who came to Westray filled with hope, but worked in a pit filled with fear.

CBC reporter Rob North covered a tragedy that continues to haunt many

Rescue workers gather at the minehead in Westray. Rob North was one of the first reporters on the scene of the unfolding disaster. (CBC)

It was just before sunup. The earth shook — and miners died. They were 26 men who came to Westray filled with hope, but worked in a pit filled with fear.

They were afraid the sagging roof would crush them. They were afraid of deadly gas and explosive coal dust. They were afraid to go to work, and afraid to lose their jobs. Fellow miners who didn't work that night spoke of those fears, but not until after the explosion.

I was one of the first reporters to arrive at the disaster. The rubble at the mine entrance was a forerunner to images of death and destruction. I remember them all clearly.

There is the blackness and a singed smell on the clothes of the draggermen. These rescue teams came to search for life, but found only death in the smouldering wreckage.

There are the grieving sounds of newly made widows and brokenhearted mothers... It is a sound of sadness not contained by the walls of the fire hall where families wait for news of their loved ones.

Mother's Day weekend marks the disaster each year. In my mind, I remember sounds of grief deeper than the mineshaft.

'There is no further hope'

After the first bodies were found, people tried to keep hope alive. Colin Benner was the corporate face of the mining company. His face looked a little less shaven, and little more marked by dark circles under the eyes, as each day passed.

Then, he finally said the words out loud: "There is no further hope for the lives of our men."

Cars stopped in the street as dashboard radios delivered the news. People fell to their knees and wept.

One woman reached out her arms to me as she began to slide to the ground. She said, "It's just too sad! It's just too sad!"

The only words I could find in that moment were, " Yes — it is too sad". Tears formed in my eyes.

There were days of funerals. Shops closed, windows were draped in black curtains. There was public grieving. The prime minister and the governor general and their wives attended a large memorial service.  

Lessons learned — and not learned

For most of the next two years, I continued to cover the story.                                      

With eleven bodies not recovered, there were battles over whether to flood the mine. Mine managers were charged with criminal negligence. Cases were against them built, and then fizzled out.

Federal and provincial laws eventually changed to make corporate executives more accountable.

For me, after two decades the Westray story is still very much alive. That's because many employers have not learned the lessons of Westray. I am still writing news reports about a lack of safety in the workplace.

Last year in Nova Scotia, 27 people died on the job.  And just like the public inquiry into Westray found about that disaster, most of those accidents were both predictable and preventable.