Nova Scotia·Westray Disaster

Coal miner's daughter reflects on the call that changed her life

Sara MacKay can still hear the thump of the phone falling as it slipped from her mother's hand. She was nine years old when the ring woke the house early on the morning of May 9, 1992.

Sara MacKay's father was among the 26 men killed in the Westray mine explosion of May 9, 1992

Sara MacKay says the only private date of mourning for her family is every day except May 9. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Sara MacKay can still hear the thump of the phone falling as it slipped from her mother's hand. 

She was nine years old when the ring woke the house early on that Saturday morning in 1992. Her mother picked up after the second call, her voice quickly becoming frantic. 

"That was the last moment my life was normal," said MacKay.

It was five days before MacKay learned her father was one of 26 miners who died in the Westray coal mine explosion. It was years before she realized he was never coming home.

Sara MacKay sits on her father's lap. Mike MacKay was 38 when he died in the Westray explosion. (Submitted by Sara MacKay)

Mike McKay wasn't a large man — just five foot two with bushy, dark hair — but he had a big personality. He liked to talk and his booming laugh filled any room. 

His daughter, now 34, remembers him tinkering with an outboard motor at the kitchen table, teaching his little girls about how machines worked as his wife scolded him that dinner was almost ready. 

'He was proud to be a coal miner'

"Everybody in Pictou County knew who Mike MacKay was," said MacKay. "He loved motorcycles. He loved my mother. He was proud to be a coal miner and he was proud to be from here."

Mike MacKay was proud to be a coal miner from Pictou County, his daughter says. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

The Friday night before what would be his last shift at the mine, his friends filled the MacKay home. Sara and her sister were rushing off to swimming lessons at the Pictou Fisheries Pool. Her mother, Bev, unexpectedly popped back in to give her husband a kiss goodbye.

Less than 12 hours later, a sudden gush of methane gas met a spark underground and exploded, killing 26 men. The blast was felt a kilometre away.

MacKay lives in New Glasgow, just a few kilometres from "the stone" — the Westray memorial that bears her father's name. He was one of the 11 miners whose body was never recovered from the mine. The headstone is the only gravesite the family has. 

Struggled with closure

For years, MacKay struggled with accepting the loss. Until she was in her teens, she expected to turn around and find her father. 

"I didn't have the same closure with my father's death that I think I would've had if I had a gravestone to go to, or a coffin to see, or even a body to see," she said.

"I was angry at the mine for taking him, I was angry at politicians who would get to say some romanticized token on May 9th about workplace safety. But I worked through that. I really think that since I've had my children that I've been able to stop being angry at the occasion, and at my father and at the mine and the management."

Brothers Tom and Mike MacKay. (Submitted by Sara MacKay)

Every year as May approaches, MacKay starts to retreat a little. She likes staying closer to home, distracting herself from memories. 

But her father didn't die out of the public eye. Her grieving process has never been entirely private. 

Friends and acquaintances have sent well-intended and loving messages about the approaching anniversary. 

"I don't have to tell them the date. The television will remind them with TV commercials from the health and safety board or the labour union," she said. 

3 roses for the memorial

Each May 9 since the explosion, MacKay has visited the Westray memorial with three roses. At first it was for her, her mother and sister. Now she brings the roses with her two children, eight and 11. 

Mike MacKay's grandchildren know about him, the man who was passionate about mining and devoted to his family. They're still a little too young to fully understand the loss of a parent but they know how their grandfather died. 

The black marble monument in Westray Memorial Park sits atop what was once the mine. Sara MacKay says for the 11 families whose loved ones' bodies were never recovered, it's the only gravesite they have. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Sara MacKay is often reminded of her father when she crosses paths with his friends.

Flickers of recognition cross their faces when they see "Mike's girl," who has the same gregarious personality and quick smile. 

"When people say, 'Oh yeah, your dad used to do that' or 'You look just like him,' it's some reassurance that maybe some of the good pieces of who he was have come through me," she said, her voice choking up.

'I'll always be here'

She's now learned to ride a motorcycle on a bike inherited from her uncle, who loved riding with his brother. 

"I inherited that love for two wheels and fresh air," she said with a laugh.

Sara MacKay is learning to ride a bike she inherited from her uncle. She says she "inherited that love for two wheels and fresh air” from her father. One of her first trips was to Westray Memorial Park. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

She's spent her whole life around people who remember Westray and have been affected by it. It's part of what keeps her in Pictou County.

"Our community that we live in held us in their hands like a cocoon," she said. 

"People got together and just held us for a moment in safety and security and warmth and love. And my family will never forget that. I will never forget that.... We felt love and we still feel love. That's why I'll always be here."

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