Vigil marks 20th anniversary of Westray mine disaster

NEW GLASGOW, N.S. — Twenty years after losing his brother in the Westray mine disaster, Allen Martin recalled treasured moments from his own life that his brother Glenn missed.
"My daughter growing up, the fishing trip, our grandchild," he said as he stood before a granite memorial that includes Glenn's name and those of 25 others who died in methane and coal dust explosion on May 9, 1992.

"We didn't just lose him, we lost memories, we lost events and those things can never be replaced."

Allen Martin was among a group of 50 relatives, politicians and union leaders who attended a sombre vigil early Wednesday in New Glasgow, not far from the former mine site.

Under leaden skies that delivered a steady downpour, Rev. Glen Matheson opened the ceremony with a moment of silence at about 7 a.m.

"Some of us still have ghosts that walk beside us," said the minister, noting he had spent time the evening before with relatives who continue to grieve for lost loved ones.

He recalled saying prayers 20 years earlier after rescuers pulled four bodies from the charred mine.

"The heavens opened and the rain splattered knee deep," he said. "That downpour followed us from the mine opening, down the driveway and all the way to the Trans-Canada Highway."

On Wednesday, Matheson noted he was standing above the section of the mine where the bodies of 11 men remain buried. Searchers had to leave them entombed in the mine because the rock had become too unstable.

"As long as we live, we will not forget. As long as we live, we will do our best to keep ourselves safe and all those around us safe," he said.

The mine blew up at 5:18 a.m. as a gush of methane gas escaped from the Foord coal seam and erupted into flames. As a fireball raced through the mine, it stirred up coal dust that exploded in a massive blast, shaking homes a kilometre away.

In April 1993, the RCMP charged the mine's owner, Toronto-based Curragh Resources Inc., and two of its former managers with manslaughter and criminal negligence causing death. But the case eventually fell apart when the Crown concluded convictions were unlikely.

A public inquiry led by Nova Scotia Supreme Court Judge Peter Richard concluded the tragedy was the result of "incompetence, mismanagement, bureaucratic bungling, deceit, ruthlessness, coverups, apathy, expediency and cynical indifference."

Richard singled out Westray management as ultimately responsible for conditions at the colliery. The judge also blamed complacent administrators who tolerated poor safety practices and outdated mining laws.

Union leaders who spoke at the vigil Wednesday said that governments and companies haven't learned from the tragedy, and aren't tough enough on companies that violate health and safety rules.

Stephen Hunt, a United Steelworkers director who testified at the Westray inquiry, said there hasn't been enough prosecutions under the so-called Westray Act.

The federal law enacted in 2004 provided new rules for attributing criminal liability to corporations and their representatives when workers are injured or killed on the job. The law has been used in criminal prosecutions several times, but the courts have registered just two convictions.

"This is a terribly sad moment to remember," said Hunt. "We pledged 20 years ago, 'No more Westrays.' Unfortunately in this country we have a Westray every day, sometimes two or three times a day. A thousand people a year die because of their work. It's one of the worst records in the industrialized world," he said.

"We established a law that's supposed to put people in jail when they kill workers and ... since that law has been passed, about 9,000 workers have died because of their work and not one CEO is in jail because of it."

A group of mine rescuers from Bathurst, N.B., also attended the vigil and presented a yellowing thank you poster created by schoolchildren at the time of the disaster.