1958 Bump  

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This information is published through the kind permission of Dr. Arnold Burden. Dr. Burden was intimately involved in the rescue operations of both the 1956 Explosion and the 1958 Bump and the following is his first-hand report of the activities that occurred. Both disasters are covered also in his book “50 years of Emergencies”.

The Bump
Burial or Nightmare


On October 23, 1958, the most severe bump in North American mining history devastated the people of Springhill. The No. 2 mine was 14,200 feet deep —about two-and-a-half miles into the bowels of the earth. The main slope went down 7,800 feet where a tunnel joined it to the back slope which went the rest of the way down. The men worked a nine foot high coal seam along the walls, in between the levels.1 Since much of the slope was double tracked, an electric hoist on the surface could raise up the coal while sending the men empty boxes below in one operation.

The provincial government had established the Royal Commission on the Acadian Coal Company in 1937 to determine the cause of bumps. Also known as the Carroll Commission, it reported the following in 1939: The strata consists of strong shale and sandstone and this strong strata permits the total extraction of the No. 2 coal even at the depth without undue maintenance of roadways, however the strong strata are causes of other serious operational problems. Stresses thrown upon them by the removal of coal are not immediately released but are built up until they reach such magnitude that in the room and the pillar system 2 the pillars disintegrate instantly and what is known as a “bump” occurs. For this reason the system of work in the No. 2 colliery was changed about twenty years ago from room and pillar to the long wall retreating.3 Since that time  “bumps” have not been as frequent but in recent years the incidence of upheavals again occurred and during the United Mine Workers’ convention in Truro, No. 2 Mine was “tied-up” because of a dispute resulting from a production cutback so that the walls could be lined up.

At the time of the Bump, coal was being mined on the three walls between the 12,600 level and the 13,800 level, and then shoveled onto the pan line. The pan was shaken by an engine which forced the coal to slide downhill to the level below where it either went onto conveyors or into boxes. From there it was taken out to the slope and sent up to the surface.

Day shift ran from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., afternoon shift from 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., and night shift from 11:00p.m. to 7:00 a.m. The mine worked non-stop. The night of the Bump there were 174 men working underground. At that time the walls were practically in line one above the other and about 1,700 feet from the slope. The miners were using the retreating wall method, so they worked towards the slope and allowed the roofs of the furthermost mined areas to fall in as they set up packs in the freshly mined section. Picture the miner. Furthest from him is the waste, where the roof has been purposely allowed to fall in. Then there are a set of packs holding up the roof where the coal has been removed. Then comes the traveling road4 between the rows of packs alongside the wall, then another pack, and finally the pan line just before the coal face. WASTE — PACKS — TRAVELLING ROAD —PACK — PAN LINE — COAL FACE.

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Before the men go into the mine they change into their pit clothes and go to the lamp cabin to exchange metal discs for their lamps and batteries. The metal disc and the lamp bear the same, number, so that in an emergency a mine official can quickly tally who is in the mine by counting the discs on the board in the lamp cabin. Also, God forbid, if someone is crushed beyond recognition in a disaster, he can be identified by the number on his battery.

The Springhill miners were steady workers and there were few disruptions due to strikes or illegal walkouts. The miners on the wall worked cooperatively since they were paid according to the amount of coal that reached the surface during their shift. Overall, the men were a jolly group and even though they were conscious of the dangers surrounding them, they seldom let on. On the way down the slope they’d joke and rib each other, or comment on the latest hockey or ball game. If the pan lines stopped for some reason while they were working on the walls, they’d pick up again with their lighthearted bantering. This is how the men lived with their jobs, knowing full well that they could meet with sudden injury or death at any moment.

On October 23, 1958 a small bump occurred during the evening shift but no one was injured and work continued as usual. In fact, the men were glad because small bumps relieved some of the pressure that had built up in the mine, making the chances of a serious bump more remote. After the small bump at 7:00 p.m., the men working on the coal face began to notice how much easier it was to remove the coal, as if a hidden pressure were pushing it out. At 8:06 p.m. the most convulsive bump in local mining history filled in the open spaces in the underground maze, particularly at the walls. It severely impacted the middle of the three walls that were being mined and the ends of the four levels nearest the walls.

I was in my office at the Medical Centre on Main Street, about a quarter of a mile away. Dr. Fisher, Dr. Murray and I were on duty, along with a nurse and a receptionist. A patient had just left my office when the building shook. I felt three distinct shock waves like a stick of bombs being dropped from a fighter bomber, exploding just fractions of a second apart. We all knew from the magnitude of the impact that it was a major disaster in the mines. I walked out into the hail just as one of the girls ran up the stairs and burst in. She raced up to our nurse, who was her sister, crying, “My God, Wes is down there!” (Wes was her husband.) We closed up the office in no time and the other doctors headed up to the hospital as I drove down to the mines.

The whole town had been shaken. Many said it felt like a transport truck had plowed into the side of their homes. People felt it fifteen miles away in Amherst. According to scientific instruments in Halifax and Dartmouth, the Bump resembled a small earthquake. The shock waves took seventeen seconds to travel the 150 miles to the cities.

Unlike other emergencies in the mines, no whistles blew this time; it wasn’t necessary. The whole town headed for the mine area, some to help, but many just plain anxious about the men who were underground. I went straight to the mine manager’s office and asked George Calder if there was anything I could do to help. “There’s probably going to be,” he answered. “We don’t know just what happened down there yet. I don’t want you going down until we find out. Just stay handy here on the surface.”

No one was answering the telephone at the back slope, so the surface was totally cut off from the mine. I sat down in a corner of the office while the mine manager organized a group of twenty barefaced men who were willing to brave the possible dangers. And then he took them down.

Before long we got the word. The barefaced men saw miners’ lamps on the back slope near the 13,400 level. By this time the coal-rakes had been replaced by man-rakes. I went in to the wash house and changed into a miner’s outfit. Shortly after 9:00 I went down on a rake with two draeger teams. Since I wasn’t an employee of the coal company, a mine official had to come with me and they sent Dan O’Rourke. Three of us were barefaced — Dan, myself, and the trip driver — and the ten draegermen wore their breathing apparatus.

The gas was different from the gas after the Explosion. This time there was no carbon monoxide. In the tunnel to the back slope our lamps reflected a good deal of light off the coal and wood on either side. That was where we saw the first miners. There were about a dozen of them. Some limped, some held their arms, some had obvious leg and back injuries, some were bleeding from their faces. They helped each other walk. Pete Amon, my step-mother’s brother, was among them. It goes without saying that their faces were black. But fear was evident in the eyes of some. I asked if anyone needed emergency treatment. Getting no reply, I turned to Pete and said, “Are you all right?” He nodded and kept on going. After a few steps he turned around and warned: “It’s very bad down there.” That was all I needed to hear. When a miner says it’s bad, look out.

We made it to the back slope rake and headed down. After a short while the men’s safety lamps5 went out. Attempts to relight them failed. This meant the gas was getting heavy. As one of the barefaced men, my palms were sweaty. The air was better in the level and up the 13,800 wall. I kept wondering just what we would find. Far too few men had passed us on the way to the surface. In the No.4 mine, gas6 and fire had been the main hazards. Here, we had been told, miners had been crushed inside the walls. How would we even begin to find them in this convulsion of earth and stone, and if we did, what could I do for them with the supplies in my medical case? Do I have to watch more of my friends die in this hell hole before we can get them to specialized medical aid on the surface? Then my wandering mind became more pragmatic: how do I get over, under, through, or around the next crushed area of the wall so I can find the next miner?

Dan and I walked into the level and up the wall, and found the second group of miners, about a half-dozen of them. The first sight was bone-chilling. One man had been instantly crushed to death by the Bump. The ones who were alive required medical help. Some had possible broken bones, others just needed their cuts bandaged. Soon Dan and I were separated and I was on my own until the following day.

At the 13,800 level the roof had collapsed and all we could see was rubble, except for a crawl space big enough to get to the bottom of the 13,800 wall. The wall itself was crushed and the packs demolished. The tremendous eruption from within the earth had forced the pavement clear into the roof. Anyone working that section of the wall had been instantly entombed. There was no question. I felt utterly helpless, knowing that their invisible bodies were only feet away.

The devastation was greatest at the middle of the wall. The pan line had been forced into the roof and the working face had filled with coal. Whoever stood at the face with a pick in their hands at 8:06 p.m. had been buried in an avalanche as the coal face blasted towards them. Trickles of blood had run under the coal and compressed rubble, telling us where some of the men were. We marked those spots with chalk. Later the miners would know where to unearth the bodies.

It was an emotional shock, and I told myself, “My God, we’ve got to get to anyone that’s alive!” I couldn’t afford to dwell on the tragedies. A sense of urgency soon forced me over the rubble. Before long I was covered with dirt and sweat, and my muscles were tense. There I was, dragging the same medical bag I had brought into the No. 4 Mine Explosion. Some of the men had been lucky; they had been standing in the right places. Instead of being crushed they had been forced into the air by the impact from below and the enormous compression of air that blasted them when the earth filled up the empty spaces.

Many of them only suffered minor injuries, such as sore arms and legs, or some had fractures. The rescuers took these men up to the surface. By moving through the small spaces and in areas where the roof was unsupported I was able to get to the bottom of the 13,400 wall. These unsupported areas were still seeping dust, which signalled the possibility of further shifting. This medical mission was not without danger. The first thing I noticed was that the 13,400 level had been filled completely near the wall. Nor could I get far up the 13,400 wall; the roof and pavement were crushed together again. Rubble and gas closed off access to the 13,000 and 12,600 levels.

Instead of shiny black coal faces on the walls separating the levels, I found metal pans, pack wood sticks, timber, booms — and more blood. Lunch pails set back from the face told me that their owners were close by, yet invisible in the black mounds.

After treating some miners I came to a group of rescuers. There, in the middle, was a man buried in coal. All I could see was the top of his left shoulder and a profile of his face. The left side of his head and ear were buried in hard packed coal. It was Leon Melanson. His was the blackest face I’d seen. He moaned in agony. I approached and asked him, “Where does it hurt the most?” “Everywhere,” he said, with difficulty. “I’m being squeezed and I’m being crushed at the same time.”

I opened my medical case, grabbed an ampule of Demerol, and shot 100 mg. into his shoulder — the only exposed part of his body that would accept the needle. That was all I could do for him at that time. I knew that the others would continue digging him out, and so I moved on up the wall. The only way to keep going was to move out into the waste area. I was afraid the roof could come in there, but didn’t have any choice.

When I had worked in the mines during the summers I had never been down the back slope of the No. 2 mine. I was crawling with barefaced men and as we progressed up the 13,800 wall I remarked that it seemed a long way to the next level. One of them told me that we were on the 13,400 wall and had crossed the level. I had been crawling through this rubble for four hours looking for something I had passed long ago! Not recognizing a level gives an idea of the extensive damage. The level runs at right angles to the walls. There are rails, heavy packs, heavy wooden or metal booms, and air lines. But here it just looked like another damaged section of the long wall of the mine.

Later word was sent up the wall to me: “They want you back down with Leon Melanson because they want you to cut off a leg.” “What do you mean, ‘cut off a leg?” “There’s a dead man trapped with Leon and the dead man’s leg is up under Leon’s armpit, crossing his body. They can’t get Leon out ‘til they get that leg out of the way.” It was four hours since I had left him.

So I went back down to Leon. On the way I found a smashed miner’s lamp. I cut the cord, about four feet long, and brought it with me in case I’d need to tie a tourniquet.7 The miners had completely exposed his head and shoulders by that time, and you could see as far down as his waist. A leg came up and the boot was jammed under Leon’s armpit. The effect of the Demerol had worn off so I gave him another shot in the shoulder straightaway.

He was still fully buried from the waist down, so his legs weren’t visible. Having seen people trapped in bombed buildings overseas, something told me that this could be Leon’s leg, and not that of his buddy who was completely buried behind and underneath him. When I refused, the rescue workers laughed at my explanation. All I could say back was, “Just keep on digging.” This was heart-breaking work, chipping away at hard packed coal with a live body underneath. They pitched in again. When Leon was finally dug out, his own broken and crushed leg was twisted up in front of him. Later up at the local hospital we tried to save that leg. It was finally amputated in Halifax. Leon also suffered internal damage from his hellish three-quarter burial.

By this time the rescuers had traveled up the walls as far as possible — crawling around, over, and under packs, rubble, fallen coal, stone, you name it. They were sure that no one else was alive in the accessible areas of the walls.

Anyone who wasn’t exposed at the time of the Bump had been killed instantly. Much later we heard that three men were trapped on the 13,400 level. We were about to witness a living nightmare. The roof and the floor had compressed together leaving about a foot and a half clearance at the top. The three men were on the other side of this convulsed section of the level. Some machinery had been driven to the roof and the draegermen couldn’t clear it with the breathing packs on their backs. It was a job for barefaced men, if they could endure the gas. The trapped men would be ok as long as they stayed low. We didn’t want to encourage them to try to go up over the machine in their weakened condition. Three times we were driven back down by the gas, but it seemed to be getting lighter. While waiting for our next attempt a chocolate bar caught my eye. It was sticking out of the shirt pocket of one of the barefaced rescuers. That made me realize how hungry and thirsty I was and looking at my watch I counted almost fourteen hours since I had eaten or had a drink of water.

“When did you eat last?” I asked the fellow. “Oh, I had my breakfast an hour or so ago, before I came to the mines.” “Well, if you don’t mind, I haven’t had anything to eat since supper yesterday. How about that bar?” So he handed it to me. They don’t make chocolate bars that delicious nowadays. I began to wonder about those trapped men who had starved for four-and-a-half days after the Explosion.

Finally the gas diminished so that one fellow was able to get up over the machine. He started to help the others up. Since I was the smallest, I got up onto the machine which was about five feet across and began to pull one of the partially gassed trapped miners up towards me. He was “out of it” to the point of not knowing what he was doing; he braced one foot up into the roof while madly kicking the other. I couldn’t pull him any further. I asked for my medical bag, injected a tranquilizer into his arm, and soon we were all in trouble. He relaxed all right, and so did his bowels. The poor fellows pulling on his legs said it was worse than mine gas. Once we got all that sorted out, the others came up over the machine much more cooperatively. One of the barefaced men told me that no other accessible areas remained; collapsed roofs and falls had closed off the unexplored areas.

Out of 174 men who were in the mine at the time of the Bump, eighty-one had made it to the surface by the following morning. But nineteen of them were quite severely injured with broken bones and/or damage to internal organs. I wound up treating most if not all of these men at All Saints Hospital.

Some of the injured men recounted what happened to them from the time of the Bump until they were taken to the surface. When Clyde Murray Jr. came to he was pinned to the roof. A prop was pressing against his chest and coal and stone had piled under him. He thought the air was reversed and this worried him. Rescue workers sawed the prop, got him onto a stretcher, and moved him out. The Bump fired Sandy Wilson across a trip into a loader. The whole trip of twenty-six boxes was thrown to the low side. His light was blown off his hat. The two lights he could see belonged to Jack Scott and Ken Gilbert. Jack’s legs were buried in a pile of coal and timber and a big tool box had pinned Ken against the loader next to him. The level was closed off except for a space about a foot high.

Once the dust from the Bump cleared, George Hayden was buried up to his neck, but was able to dig himself out even though his leg was broken. Fred Hahnen relates that he and several other miners were preparing to shift the pan line, with their backs to the coal face, when the Bump hit. It threw them forward. The coal came down, caught their feet, and buried them. He was able to free his face and mouth and then had to wait until Buddy Rector and Russell MacLellan came along to free his chest and legs. The men said that their lights were knocked off their hats, but even after putting them back on they still couldn’t see because of the density of dust and gasses in the air.

By the time 4:00 in the morning rolled around, seventy-five of the survivors were on the surface. The newscasts were pessimistic about ever seeing the ninety-two who remained. As the miners continued to dig through the rubble I went back up. It was 11:00 in the morning and I had been down there since 9:00 the night before. I turned in my lamp and a Salvation Army officer handed me a blessed cup of coffee and then I disappeared into the multitude to find Helen. We went home and cooked up a sizeable breakfast, which was followed by a hot bath and bed. After being awake for over thirty hours, it didn’t take me long to conk out.

At the time of the Bump, the walls on the three levels were in line. According to the mining experts, this system was the safest though it had been hotly contested by the old miners of Springhill. After the Bump, they still stuck to their own theory. The first day we had heard nothing positive from the news media. “There is no possible hope of getting anyone out alive,” they drummed into their radio and newspaper audiences.

But the old miners knew better. They said, “We’ve got live people from the top and bottom of the walls on the 13,400 level. There’s bound to be live men from the same sections of the walls up above. And we’ve got to get to them.” The more pessimistic the media reports became, the more vigorously they contested them. Families whose relations had been working on the middle of the walls were a lot less hopeful. Even then, most stuck to the miner’s watchword: the men are alive until we find their bodies. And then there were some who had given up hope to the point of digging graves. Soon, two and three funerals a day cast a pall over the town. Springhillers baked hams, breads, and cookies for their neighbours and friends who had been stricken, not knowing if their relations were alive or dead. There were always friends in the house; nobody was left alone. Sometimes the townspeople would just sit there without saying anything, just to be there in case anything was needed. We took it for granted; this is how it had always been. But for people from away, such camaraderie was something new.

By the morning of October 24, 1958 it was clear that any further survivors would be down there for sometime. Clearing the rock falls and collapsed levels was tremendously time-consuming. In some areas, the trolley rails, which normally had a ten to twelve foot clearance from the roof, had been pushed up flat against the roof. The debris had to be moved, yet there was no place to put it. And the new tunnels dug through the damaged areas had to be shored up by timbers, which was carried in by hand in the absence of trollies.

Meanwhile the surface was a hotbed of activity. The Armouries had been prepared as a morgue. Two local restaurateurs were preparing meals for all who needed them  at no charge. After they ran out of food they began using food sent in by the government. The Boy Scouts’ tent advertised: WANT ANYTHING DONE ASK A BOY SCOUT. They washed dishes, carried food, peeled potatoes, served meals, looked after children, did housework, and just about anything else that was needed.

A bevy of ambulances congregated by the mine entrance: Lindsay Funeral Home, the Navy, the Red Cross, and St. John Ambulance. The Halifax Police were also present. Bagnell’s Dry Cleaners had sent a panel truck from Halifax, as did other companies. The Red Cross wound up sending in over twenty thousand dollars worth of supplies of clothing and food. The Royal Canadian Legion and the Auxiliary were also there since many of the trapped men were veterans. The Queen sent her concerns, as did ambassadors from many countries. A Toronto television station had already set up a nationwide fund-raising appeal to assist the families in need. By this time the rescue effort included twenty draegermen from Springhill, twelve from Glace Bay, thirteen from Stellarton, thirteen from New Waterford, and over two hundred barefaced men.

Press coverage was massive. The office of the Canadian National Telegraph was busy around the clock. One hundred and thirty-seven reporters covering the story sent out 110,000 words as they filed their news stories. While some of the rescuers continued working to penetrate the levels, others laboured to recover bodies. This became more gruesome as the days progressed. It was warm in there and the bodies that had been compressed by coal would balloon out as soon as they were uncovered. They stank from decomposition. Some of the miners reported that the corpses dripped on them once they were unearthed. it took extremely dedicated men to continue this work day after day, without the hope that live men might be found. But the miners were committed to account for every man, and that’s what kept them going.

When a dead miner was found, he was taken up to the surface in an airtight coffin. To establish positive identity, a mine official, a miner’s union official, and a doctor (myself in most cases) examined him. All three had to agree on the identity. If the man was unrecognizable, his identity was established by either the check number on his lamp or body marks such as an amputated index finger, scars, or false teeth. The dead miner’s minister or priest was then notified. He, in turn, notified the family. The news media were the last to get the word. Bodies that eluded these identity procedures were kept in the ambulance shed at the mines’ entrance until the man’s name could be determined.

At the 13,000 level the miners realized it would be impossible to clear the immense deluge of fallen debris. So they started to “rib up the high side coal,” meaning they started to dig a new tunnel through the untouched coal on the high side of the level. They had 160 feet to go before reaching the foot of the 13,000 wall. At some point during their tunnelling efforts, my phone rang at home. This was five-and-a-half days after the Bump. I had just been filling out death certificates and recording the men’s names, check numbers, and injuries in a mine official’s notebook. In most cases for injuries I was listing “MSCC” for “Multiple Severe Contusions and Crushing”...

“Dr. Burden?”


“Can you come out to the mine immediately? We’ve got more men alive!”

“OK. Be right there.”

With a rush of adrenaline I pushed my log book in my pocket, grabbed my coat and drove off. The mine manager, George Calder, was on the phone. As I walked in he signalled for me to come over close. He was jotting down names and pointing to one with his left hand: CALEB RUSHTON. He knew Caleb had been married to my sister. By the time he was through he had written down twelve names. Next to two of them he scrawled: SEVERELY INJURED, and hung up the phone.

“Well, thank God some more of them are alive,” he exclaimed. “But the rescue tunnel hasn’t reached them yet.” His excitement was contagious.

“We’ll have to get to them,” I replied.

“What are we going to need down there?” he asked.

“We’ll have to get them food and water.”

The rescue group gathered the supplies we would need and then we headed underground to the 13,000 level. One of the teams of miners had come across a broken air line along the roof which led into the wall. This line was six inches in diameter and as Blair Phillip was taking an air sample to test for gas, he heard a distant voice: “There are twelve of us here.” It was Gorley Kempt! He had seen the flash of Blair’s lamp through the pipe!

In his excitement Blair yelled back, “Stay where you are. We’ll come as quickly as possible.” Since they had been trapped for five-and-a-half days without food or water, there wasn’t much chance they’d be going anywhere! Along with Gorley were Harold Brine, Joseph Holloway, Wilfred Hunter, Larry Leadbetter, Levi Milley, Theodore Michniak, Caleb Rushton, Bowman Maddison, Eldred Lowther, Joseph MacDonald, and Hugh Guthro. We had no idea how far away they were from the break in the pipe.

Among the supplies we brought with us were a fifty-foot copper pipe and a plastic hose. These would enable us to send water and soup through the pipe to the men. A doctor Dosco had brought down from Cape Breton got it into his head that we should be mixing vitamins into the fluids. Captain Bruce Harcourt of the Salvation Army, who had prepared the nourishment, conveyed this message to me. I vehemently opposed the idea because the riboflavin and other vitamin components would make the men sick as soon as they smelled it. I asked the Captain, “Have you ever sucked or bitten into a vitamin capsule?” So I resolved to check on all the fluids to be sent in, because I didn’t want them nauseated and vomiting after their first sips of nourishment. I got my way and the vitamins went by the wayside.

 The voices carried well through the pipe but we were still guessing how far we’d have to tunnel to reach them. First we tried to push the fifty-foot length of half-inch copper pipe through; it didn’t make it. So we pulled it back out, taped the plastic pipe to it, and sent that in. But it was snug and rather than risk plugging the pipe our only means of getting food and water in — we pulled it out and sent up to the surface for a hundred-foot copper pipe. When we pushed this through it made it to where Gorley was, but he asked if it could come any further to reach the others. The air line was partially filled with coal dust and now with the smaller pipe inside, we couldn’t see because the air was blowing the dust out our end and into our faces. We cut off the excess pipe at our end, and after measuring it, we realized we still had eighty-three feet of solid coal ahead of us. Others had sent to Amherst for a brand new five-gallon pressure pump —the type used for spraying trees — and we taped it to the end of the copper pipe. We sent in the first tank of water at 6:00 p.m. Up to that time the rescue miners had cut through about a dozen feet during each eight hour shift. Once we knew there were live men on the other side, it only took fourteen hours to go the remaining eighty-three feet. 

When the first water came through the other end, the men were caught off-guard. It sprayed everywhere. They chastised us for wasting it! We assured them there was plenty more where that came from. Catching a trickle of water in a thin-mouthed water bottle in the pitch dark must have been some challenge, particularly in a weakened state. I instructed them to take one mouthful at a time, counting to five hundred in between. I came up with this number because I knew they would count fast.  

At 6:15 we sent in two tankfuls of hot coffee with sugar and no milk. The sugar would provide quick nourishment and the caffeine, stimulation. I recorded all this in the mine official’s book I had thrust into my pocket at home. 

At 8:10 we sent a tankful of hot tomato soup. Gorley sounded good but he said that Ted Michniak and Joe MacDonald needed help. George Scott, one of the rescuers, had been talking to the trapped men in his broad Scots accent and Gorley replied: “Take the marbles out of your mouth and speak English.” It was heartening to see he hadn’t lost his sense of humour.    

At 8:25 we sent another tank full of soup through the pipe. The trapped men asked how much further we had to go before reaching them. We didn’t want them to know, so we said, “About ten feet or more.” “Ok. We’ll lay down and rest.” 

The tunnel we were digging was small. If I sat down I took up all the room, which might have measured three feet by three feet. We didn’t have proper roof supports. As the mine continued to have small bumps, the dust and small chunks of coal would fall from the roof onto our legs. We were pretty sure there wouldn’t be another big bump, but we knew the roof could cave in around us at any time. One miner would dig at the “face” of the tunnel, on his knees, with a pick whose handle had been cut short. Another miner would pull the coal from between his legs while someone else would scoop it into buckets with a short-handled shovel. The buckets were then passed back to the men who were sitting side-to-side along the tunnel wall. The last fellow in the bucket brigade finally got rid of the coal at the other end. The miners took turns at the backbreaking work with the pick. Considering their progress that last eighty-three feet, you have to marvel at their unflagging effort. Especially when you consider the poor air they were breathing; manual labour is much more strenuous when there’s less oxygen in the blood supply.

Someone suggested I take a break from the bucket line so I moved out of the line of fire, leaving my medical case behind. Suddenly I smelled rum and yelled: “John, put that back.” It was good for a laugh, because I knew who had grabbed hold of the rum bottle without even seeing him. 

I felt a slight movement of air in the tunnel at 8:38, and noted it in my book. Before this, it had been dead. The pace of work picked up. At 9:55 the trapped men requested more water and we sent in another tankful. By 11:00 the voices seemed to be weaker, but they claimed they could hear digging close by. At 12:30 George Calder, the mine manager, called to them and Harold Bryan answered in a strong voice. We fed them more water.  

At 1:10 a.m. Levi Milley’s voice rang out loud and clear: “We can hear digging behind a pack.” 

At 2:25 a.m. on that Thursday, October 30, we broke through. “We’re through!” resounded through the level. A blast of air and dust filled the tunnel and after some minutes we could see. At that time I was still eighty-five feet back, looking after the refreshments at our end of the pipe. Some of the trapped men were standing, others sat on the mine floor pavement.’ They seemed to be in fair condition. A few of the miners and I kept going and crawled through a small opening underneath a large loose stone that was precariously balanced. The two injured men were on the other side. Joe MacDonald was sitting with his back propped against a conveyor pan which had tilted on edge. His legs were straight out in front. I could see that his upper leg was fractured, and the bone was sticking out through the skin. 

“How’s your leg?” I asked. 

“Awful sore,” he said in a pained voice. 

I gave him 100 demerol and went over about twenty feet to Teddie Michniak. He was leaning against a pile of coal with a face so black I couldn’t see his expression. I noticed the two of them were shielding their eyes from the lights so I covered mine with a handkerchief. Teddie said, “Thanks. Glad you got here” in a weary voice. I was the first to reach him. He was holding his damaged arm against his chest. I felt his shoulder. His arm was dislocated from the socket. I took his pulse as a matter of course. All I could do was make sure he was fit to be moved. I went back and forth between the two of them until the miners had that rock stabilized. Ironically, someone found a lunch pail full of mouldy food behind a pack! So close yet so far away, and in the dark. The stretchers came in, we loaded them on, and they were carried out of their prison. I made sure they had handkerchiefs over their eyes and told the miners how important this would be at the surface. Considering how weak the other ten were, they went up on stretchers as well. At 4:20 a.m. I scribbled “Last Man Out” and my aching muscles part crawled and part walked out of the black hole. 

The trapped men told harrowing stories. The Bump knocked Gorley’s lamp off and all he could hear was Caleb hollering. By the time Gorley had recovered his lamp and gotten to Caleb, Levi had unburied him. All twelve frantically tried to get up the wall but couldn’t. So they went in the opposite direction, tunnelling through three stone walls before coming to a large fall. They couldn’t get around it, even by going into the waste. They found some lunchboxes and water cans that were crushed and useless, except for one gallon of water which ended up lasting them five days. Using a cap from an aspirin bottle, they each took one capful of water at a time so as to share it evenly. While we were tunnelling towards them they worried that we were digging in the wrong direction, so misled were they by the vibrations they heard. Finding them proved that men could still be alive at the top of a wall so the miners’ efforts redoubled to get to the next wall up. This was the last bastion of safety for any more possibly trapped men. 

Meanwhile, aluminum coffins continued to ascend. Seventy-four were brought up, in all; the seventy-fifth man was to die in hospital two weeks afterwards. He was the only one to die on the surface from injuries caused by the Bump. The rescued miners got a great lift when His Royal Highness Prince Philip visited on October 31. He had attended a meeting in Ottawa and directed that his jet be brought down in the Moncton Airport. It was about 5:15 p.m. Nova Scotia Premier Robert Stanfield, Honourable George C. Nowlan, Minister of National Revenue, and Honourable Stephen Pyke, Minister of Labour and Public Works were there to greet him. They headed straight for Springhill and Mayor Gilroy met the Prince at All Saints Hospital. They went through the wards and the Prince spoke to each man and shook their hands. He also visited the less severe casualties in the emergency hospital that had been set up in the Armouries. 

His last stop was the mine site before returning to the plane. I was introduced to him but he was more interested in the rescued miners. This was the first time I had been in contact with royalty since the war; it was a nice feeling to shake his hand.

Arnold Patterson, public relations officer for the coal company, phoned. Ed Sullivan wanted some of the trapped miners on his show that Sunday evening and Arnie wanted Helen and myself to go along. Talk about a contrast from what we’d been doing down in the mine! It would be the three of us plus Phyllis Griffiths, a reporter with the Toronto Telegram, Gorley Kempt and his wife Margie, and Caleb Rushton and his wife Pat. I was chosen because I could represent the rescuers and also look after Gorley and Caleb’s medical needs. 

It was the second anniversary of the Explosion --November first. As I was pulling clothing out of the closet the phone rang again. 

“Can you come? There’s more men alive in the mine!” shocked me down into my shoes. Afterwards someone said, “He fell out of bed and into the mine.” The call came in at 4:45 and at 5:00 I was at the pit. At 5:12 I went down on a trolley with a group of barefaced men. I was crawling by the intersection of the wall and the 13,000 level, wondering: how many more are there, and how badly are they hurt? when I saw a hole just big enough to squeeze through — about two feet around. I stuck my head in and saw John Calder and Bennie Roy. 

“Who do you have?” I asked. 

John said, “We think it’s Barney Martin. He’s in a small open space. We still have to shift more stone to get to him.” So I waited twenty minutes or so, laying on my belly in the rubble. After they cleared the way they supported the roof and by 6:20 we got to Barney. I saw him feet first as they were pushing him through the opening. A few barefaced men and I gently pulled until we had him out. His body had been stressed by sitting in such a tight position with his legs forced up. He was barely breathing but his eyes were wide open. His sounds were unintelligible, his mouth likely full of coal dust. We put him on a stretcher and poured a few mouthfuls of coffee down his throat. He was in a semi-coma and severely dehydrated. No use checking for internal damages until we get him up to the surface, I thought, and away he went. 

Meanwhile, John and Bennie moved forward and two more rescuers climbed in to join them. I followed and we all moved farther up the wall. John and Bennie were the first to see the group of men standing in an open space alongside the level.

“How many are here?” he asked. “Give me some water and I’ll sing you a song” Maurice Ruddick replied. Maurice was known as the singing miner; later some of his family members were to become professional singers. 

I handed them the water can and they passed it around. Besides Maurice there were Douglas Jewkes, Herb Pepperdine, Garnet Clarke, Currie Smith, and Frank Hunter. They all seemed to be in fair shape. And then I saw Percy Rector’s body, limply hanging from a pack. His arm had been caught and crushed by the pack. The men told us he had lived until Tuesday night. They also said that since they hadn’t heard any rapping on the pipes they figured there was no one else alive on that wall. The rescue team included a mine inspector, an engineer, a general manager, and an overman — a lot of top brass. As soon as our lights entered the area, one of the trapped men became extremely agitated. It was the sight of his dead buddy. He said, “If that body isn’t covered I’m going to go out of my mind.” 

At 7:10 we fed them hot chocolate, and at 7:20 tomato soup. Daylight Saving Time had changed back to Standard Time while they had been trapped, and they had somehow set their watches to the correct time. We found this out when they asked us the time, which synchronized with theirs. Maurice Ruddick was particularly glad to see us. John Calder addressed him: “Maurice, the Workmen’s 

Compensation Board sent me down here specifically to get you out.”

Puzzled, Maurice asked, “Why?” 

“They said if we don’t find you they’ll have to pay so much for your wife and twelve children that there won’t be enough for the others.” 

On the previous Monday they celebrated Garnet Clarke’s twenty-ninth birthday by dividing one sandwich into seven sections — followed by one capful of water each to wash it down. Their water lasted until the following day; from then on they chewed on anything that would produce saliva. Bark from a pit prop and coal were handiest.

At 7:30 we fed them some more tomato soup and at 8:15 they started down the wall. Rescuers supported them as they stumbled half from weakness and half from tripping on the rubble. We reached an area where the roof had fallen in so we helped the men over the fall and down to the level before putting them onto stretchers. I told one of the rescuing miners, “I’m going to report you!”

He said, “Huh?”

“No qualified miner would work in a place without roof supports.”

By 8:45 I was on the trolley with them, headed for the surface.

At the beginning of their ordeal, these men had had to make a tough decision. There was Percy Rector’s arm, caught in a pack. If they tried to amputate it, they figured he could die from shock or loss of blood. So they chose to leave him be, hoping rescuers would come in time. We were four days too late.



1.  A nine-foot high seam along the walls in between the levels:

See diagram.

2.  Room and pillar system: When you cut out one block of coal, you leave the adjacent block of coal intact to support the roof.

3.  Long wall retreating system: You mine towards the slope and let the roof fall into the empty space where the coal has been removed.

4.  Travelling road: The safer walkway between two rows of packs, used to go up or down a wall.

5.  Safety lamps: Lamps carried to detect mine gasses.

6.  Gas: Mostly methane.

7.  Tourniquet: This cord is on display at the Miners’ Museum in Springhill.





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