The Current

'I knew what hell looked like': Westray miner recalls scene of historic disaster

The Westray disaster inspired legislation aimed at holding employers criminally responsible when workers die on the job. But 25 years later, how effective is it?
A truck load of rescue workers head to the entrance of the Westray coal mine in Plymouth, N.S., May 12, 1992 as they start another shift. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

On May 9, 1992, a explosion rocked a mine in the community of Plymouth, in Pictou County, N.S., taking the lives of 26 miners — most of them just coming to the end of a grueling overnight shift. 

Vernon Theriault had been working in the Westray mine for just six months when the explosion killed his colleagues. He volunteered with the rescue and describes the scene 25 years later to The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"Being down there 12 hours beforehand ... and then going down the next morning, 'Wow,' I knew what hell looked like. It was a disaster."

Theriault's voice falters as he remembers how he felt after first hearing that there had been a explosion at the mine.

"It was just like a brick hitting me in the chest. It was hard to take."

In 1992, Linden MacIntyre covered the story as a correspondent for CBC's Fifth Estate.

He tells Tremonti how the the Westray mine was seen as a chance at a new beginning for Pictou County's economic future, after an older mine in the region had closed in the late 1970s.

But Westray was plagued by problems from the start, says MacIntyre.
Relatives of trapped miners console each other in Plymouth, N.S., May 14, 1992. Coal mine officials called off the search in the Westray coal mine saying there was no hope for survivors. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Workers complained about the lack of safety training on the site, and frequent cave-ins inside the mine.

Another serious issue was the reportedly dangerous levels of coal dust in the mine.

"You know I wasn't there when they were mining coal," says MacIntyre.

"But I was told by miners, who were there, that the dust was up over their boots... which made it absolutely a criminal enterprise." 

MacIntyre remembers speaking to one experienced coal miner who told him, that the "dust in that mine became like gunpowder...this was an explosion caused by coal dust."

More than 10 years after the disaster, the Westray explosion inspired legislation, Bill C-45, aimed at holding employers criminally responsible when workers die on the job. 

An investigator examines an ambulance tractor inside the Westray mine.

Stephen Hunt lobbied the government to change the criminal code to make it possible to prosecute business owners and management for a death or injury in the workplace. At the time he was the mining health and safety expert for the United Steel Workers. 

But 25 years later, he questions the effectiveness of this law.

"We still lose about a thousand workers a year to workplace deaths that are recorded ... not all of them would be deaths caused by criminal negligence causing death or serious bodily harm," he says.

"But we just simply know that many, many were just simple negligence," says Hunt, who is now the western director for the United Steel Workers in Canada.

It's an issue close to the hearts of miners like Theriault. For him, the anniversary is a reminder of why workplace safety is so paramount, something he remembers when he thinks about his colleagues who died.

"It's hard at times, hard all the time," he says.

"But this time of year it gets harder."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Catherine Kalbfleisch, Sujata Berry and Seher Asef.