Nova Scotia·Westray Disaster

Brother of Westray mine explosion victim relives loss 25 years later

The brother of a man who died 25 years ago in a mine explosion in Nova Scotia hopes changes brought in after the disaster have contributed to safer workplaces, but he still worries a similar disaster could happen.

'The system was supposed to protect workers. It was supposed to punish the guilty. It did neither.'

In all, 26 men were killed in the blast on May 9, 1992. 59:55

Glenn Martin was on the verge of quitting his mining job at the Westray coal mine.

He was worried about frequent rock falls and the buildup of combustible coal dust at the Plymouth, N.S., operation, but hoped to save up enough money to put new siding on his home first, his brother remembers.

Today, 25 years after Martin died in an explosion that claimed the lives of all 26 miners who were working underground in the final hours of their shift, Allen Martin still worries about safety in the workplace.

Deb and Allen Martin say they often think of Allen's brother Glenn, who died in the Westray explosion. (Jill English/CBC)

"People now know you have rights. There are certain things you do and don't do. You have to look after yourself," said Martin, surveying what's left of the Westray Mine site — a field scattered with old machinery and scraps of metal near the sealed mine shaft. 

"The system was supposed to protect workers. It was supposed to punish the guilty. It did neither … Although it was 25 years ago, there's nothing to say it can't happen again."

No one was convicted for the explosion at Westray. Mine managers were charged with criminal negligence but the Crown stayed the charges.

Glenn Martin was two days shy of his 36th birthday when he died underground. (Submitted by Allen and Deb Martin)

Toronto-based Curragh Resources Inc., the private company that managed the mine, was charged with operating an unsafe mine but those charges were dropped. The company went bankrupt in 1993.

Families of the dead miners launched a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the Nova Scotia government but it was thrown out, as well.

Criminal Code amended

The final report released in 1996 after a five-month public inquiry, entitled The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster, detailed how Curragh Resources failed to protect workers and how government inspectors ignored safety problems. 

Halifax lawyer David Roberts represented the surviving miners at the Westray inquiry. 

David Roberts, who is now a partner with the Halifax law firm Pink Larkin, represented the surviving miners at the Westray inquiry. (CBC)

He said amendments to the Criminal Code, Bill C-45, were a direct response to the inability to bring senior officials with Westray before the inquiry to explain decisions they made. Since the inquiry had no federal powers, it couldn't force people to appear.

"There was a realization that what went on in that mine should never have happened," Roberts said. "Yes, we're better off ... but I think Westray has demonstrated that we have to be vigilant all of the time."

Westray's legacy

Known as the Westray Bill, the 2004 bill allows for the prosecution of organizations and corporations. It also permits stiff penalties for workplace health and safety violations that kill or injure workers.

A candlelight ceremony marked the 10th anniversary of the Westray mine disaster in 2002. Another is planned for early Tuesday morning in New Glasgow. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The bill was meant to be enforced when there are serious workplace offences, and people have been sentenced to prison time. The federal government says criminal charges could be laid in addition to Occupational Health and Safety charges.

Despite this, there are still few convictions related to criminal negligence connected to workplaces. 

Employees still don't have as much power as their employers and more work could be done to ensure prosecutors and police know they can use the act to address workplace safety issues, Roberts said. 

"I think recognizing occupational safety failures as a crime against society was a major advance, but it has to go through the whole structure of criminal justice to really be used effectively," he said. 

'A story that has to be told'  

Martin feels closest to his brother when he visits the black marble monument in New Glasgow's Westray Memorial Park.

Glenn Martin died two days before his 36th birthday. Westray was his first mining job and his first promise of steady work.

Allen and Debbie Martin touch the monument engraved with the names of the 26 coal miners who were killed in the Westray mine disaster 25 years ago today. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

"Glenn was a young man with a future ahead of him and he was unable to complete those plans through no fault of his own," said Allen Martin.

"There's a large part of us that just [isn't] there anymore."

Advocate for workplace safety

Though Westray shut down, coal mining continues in Nova Scotia. The Donkin Mine in Cape Breton started production in March, continuing a three-century long tradition after a 16-year hiatus.

Over the years, Martin has become a spokesperson of sorts for Westray families and for workers safety — a role he never asked for, but one he approaches with care.

This year he was part of a Day of Mourning campaign, speaking about his brother, in part to remind people about their rights and to be vigilant about safety. 

Allen Martin says he feels closest to his brother, Glenn Martin, when he visits the Westray memorial bearing his name. (CBC)

"When you think Westray, you should think, 'I better look after myself because no one else is going to,'" he said.

"It's a story that has to be told. Those 26 miners were abandoned by all the checks and balances that should have protected them."

About the Author

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Over the past nine years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. She can be reached at elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca

with files from Jill English, Tom Murphy, Eric Woolliscroft