Nova Scotia·Westray Disaster

Deadly blast shattered family's idyllic view of Nova Scotia

Some of the men killed in the Westray Mine disaster had recently moved to Nova Scotia, drawn by the promise of 15 years of work. Now their families remember the tragedy from afar.

'It kind of makes you angry so many years later, knowing it could be so preventable'

The Dewan family bought a camcorder when they moved East, recording moments that now shape the children's memories of their father, who was killed in the Westray tragedy. (Submitted by Jennifer Dewan)

The memories Caroline Dewan's children have of their father are tied to home videos.

The old VHS tapes show the family exploring Cavendish, P.E.I., and playing in their yard in Plymouth, N.S., which backed onto the Westray Mine.

Dewan's husband, Ferris Dewan, was one of 26 men killed underground in the coal mine on May 9, 1992. He died while working the backshift with his best friend, Trevor Jahn, who was godfather to the couple's young son and daughter.

The friends' funerals were held back to back, two weeks later in Alberta.

Moved from Alberta for Westray

The Dewans were among the mining families who moved to Nova Scotia to work at Westray, drawn by the promise of 15 years of work. 

"We loved the area," Caroline Dewan said from her daughter's home in Calgary. 

"We really did see a future there. You know when something is too good to be true? Westray was that case for us."

Ferris Dewan was buried in Calgary, where his family now lives. (Submitted by Jennifer Dewan)

The morning of the explosion has replayed in her mind many times.

Her husband had complained of headaches that week and was looking forward to finishing his last shift before a four-day break, she recalled.

"He knew things weren't going as they should have been … that [coal] dusting they couldn't get. As far as I know, they weren't willing to stay and pay people to do it," she said.

Around 5:18 a.m., as many families slept, methane gas from the Foord coal seam met a spark and ignited the high levels of flammable coal dust, exploding in a thunderous blast. 

Hard to get information

Instead of welcoming her husband home, Dewan spent the day watching the mine from her back window after the blast shook her house. 

"In the first few hours, we just hoped an ambulance would light up, period. But of course that didn't happen," she said.

Caroline Dewan says she's in a way grateful that her children were so young when their father died, because they were protected from some of the trauma. (Submitted by Jennifer Dewan)

Trying to get information — any information — was very difficult, Dewan said.

At one point, she marched over to the mine office. 

"I saw people with my own eyes shredding things in that office, that's what they were all running around doing. They couldn't wait to get me out of there."

Dewan gathered with other wives and young children in the Plymouth fire hall, waiting for information day after day.

When crews found a body amid the debris, someone arrived to break the news. 

"The RCMP came in with a piece of paper and they had the names written down and they were trying to figure out who we were. And we were just trying to get our hands on that piece of paper, who was there and who was on it," she said. 

Draegermen, the mine rescue teams, were only able to recover 15 bodies. Ferris Dewan was among them. 

'Dedicated to his family'

Within two weeks, Dewan moved the family back to Alberta to be closer to her support network. In some ways, she is grateful her children were just four and five years old because "they just don't remember all that pain."

"It's not healthy to live with so much anger and bitterness for 25 years," she said. "I don't think you ever have closure."

The Dewans' daughter, Jennifer, does remember her father coming home from the night shift covered in black dust. He'd sleep a few hours and then wake up and play with her and her brother.

"I know how dedicated he was to his job but he was 10 times more dedicated to his family," she said. 

As a teenager she started searching for information, reading online about methane gas and stone dusting and the Foord coal seam in Pictou County.

It isn't hard to find information on the Westray inquiry, which found mine managers and government inspectors ignored safety abuses and failed to protect workers. 

"It kind of makes you angry so many years later, knowing it could be so preventable," she said.

Would've been a grandfather

Caroline Dewan said she would explain to Jennifer and her brother that their father died in a workplace accident. 

When they became sad, she'd take them to his gravesite in Calgary or play the videos captured on the camcorder she and Ferris bought when they moved East.

"I see how he interacted with us. I know how much love was there. It just makes me sad that I grew up without that. Now that I have a son, he doesn't get to experience that for him either," Jennifer Dewan said. 

She and her mother mark May 9 in their own way. This year, they plan to visit Ferris's grave and have a family dinner at home.

Caroline Dewan still becomes emotional as she speaks about her husband. 

"There's still just anger ... you teach your children their whole lives responsibility. How do you explain Westray to them?" she said. 

"You want them to be safe. Safe at work. Come home to their families at night."

About the Author

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Over the past 10 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