1956 Explosion  

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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 Mine Explosion:

Rescuing the Trapped Men  

THE SPRINGHILL Mine Disaster of 1956 is a well-known tragedy. The explosion in the No. 4 mine that occurred on that fateful day, the first of November, claimed the lives of thirty-nine miners. The Royal Commission that was established to investigate the Explosion concluded that the disaster began when a trolley of fine coal and dust went up the slope against the flow of air. This filled the air inside the mine with fine explosive dust. Before the trolley was unloaded at the surface, some of the empty coal cars broke free, ran back down the slope and jumped the rails. One of the wayward cars slammed into a power line, causing it to arc. The spark ignited the explosive airborne dust at the 5500 level, which blew up the slope and towards the surface where the additional oxygen fuelled a heat blast that killed the workers and destroyed the bankhead1. The timbers were blown a couple of hundred feet into the air and the heat was so intense that they spontaneously caught fire in mid-air on the way down. The explosion was heaviest on the surface where there were greater concentrations of airborne dust and oxygen.

This was one of the gravest mining disasters in North American history. What follows is my own first-hand account of the rescue effort which I have reconstructed from the notes I made underground and shortly afterwards. The media certainly covered the story, but many of the fine points were lost to reporters who had never set foot in the mine. For example, the draegermen2 were the only reported heroes. In fact, they were few in number compared to the barefaced miners who didn’t hesitate to go below into the after-damp3 ,without protection, in order to locate and rescue their trapped fellow workers.

The twenty-five year old No. 4 mine was situated on the western end of Main Street. The baseball diamond and the baseball, softball, and soccer fields were north of the street that ran to the mine. The No. 2 and No. 4 mines were adjacent. The slopes went underground to the west at approximately a thirty degree angle, following the natural coal seam, and the two mines shared the same horseshoe-shaped bankhead.

When I arrived at the mines I didn’t even think of going underground to join in the rescue. By that time there were plenty of draegermen and experienced miners from the coal fields of Nova Scotia. But I had handled large numbers of casualties during the war. And now that I was a doctor, and these were my friends in my own hometown, I was here to help. Plus I was familiar with the No. 4 mine, having worked there during my second summer in college.

My first stop was the hospital but there wasn’t much I could do there either. The miner-patients who had been on the bankhead at the time of the Explosion were either dead or dying. A nurse called me over to determine if a certain patient was still alive. He wasn’t, and I had to ask who it was. “Les Nelson,” she replied. Les had sat with me in school; I had known him all my life. Yet here he was, laid out on the lily white hospital sheets, totally unrecognizable. His skin was like hardened leather, burned to a crisp. I tensed up; beginning to wonder how many more of my friends and relations would meet this horrible fate. And is there any hope whatsoever for getting the men out who were unaccounted for? This was the third classmate of mine out of the first half-dozen to die from the Explosion. I helped load two other severe burn cases onto stretchers so they could be flown to the Victoria General Hospital in Halifax. Even with the most expert care they both died the following week.

Radios blared non-stop, broadcasting the Russian invasion of Hungary. One of the nurses, who had been born in Hungary and had come to Canada as a child, complained, “We need more news of our miners!”

It was still impossible for the rescue workers to progress underground because the gasses were so strong. But something was happening on the surface to give us hope. The air compressor4 gauges would drop, and then go back up again. This indicated that the lines, in fact, weren’t broken; the old miners figured that someone down there must be turning on air valves, and then turning them off. This was the first sign of life from below, and our spirits soared. In the area where the men were believed to be trapped, there were compressed air outlet valves every three hundred feet. By noon on Saturday, draeger teams had made it to the 3400 level and reported a fire there that stopped their progress. The news media kept announcing that the miners must be dead, and they were soon proven to be false experts. None of us Springhillers would give up hope until every last man was accounted for. And the compressor gauges were already telling us a different story.

While I was at the hospital the amazing news came across the radio: Charlie Burton and Dick Ward had made it to the surface alive. MacKenzie Flemming, a draeger instructor from North Sydney, had been at the 3500 level when he heard their voices and saw their lights. Charlie and Dick carried with them the greatest news of all: fifty other miners were still alive at the 5400 level! They had holed up in a section of the level which underground manager Con Embree had protected from the gasses by draping layers of brattice cloth5 to close off a length of the level. Con had cut holes in a small compressed air hose so each of the men could breathe when the killing gasses of the explosion backed into the level. Since the telephone lines were in the main slope where the explosion had been, communication from the surface had been cut off. Once Charlie and Dick told their story, there was a new feeling of exhilaration. Draegermen and barefaced men headed into the deadly gasses with renewed determination.

After Charlie and Dick were brought in to the All Saints Hospital I received word that Dosco wanted a doctor at the bankhead. I volunteered since I was already prepared with emergency supplies in my coat pocket. But first I went in to see Charlie. He was filthy dirty; his miner’s clothes and face were black. By then he was breathing all right, since he had had fifteen minutes or so of air by the time he got to hospital. I then went over to the mine.

It was obvious I wasn’t needed on the surface. One of the officials came over to me and said, “You could be useful down in the mines. The ones coming up are badly affected by gas.” He was referring to both the trapped men and the barefaced rescuers. I was a bit anxious, knowing there was fire and gas below, but realized I was at no more risk than the others who were already down there. I knew there was a fresh air base 2,200 feet below the surface and that beyond that, it was dangerous. Suddenly I felt ridiculous in my blue blazer, grey flannel pants, and white shirt and tie so I disappeared and came back wearing coveralls, boots, a miner’s hat with a lamp, and a belt to hold the battery. 

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My first step onto the slope brought back memories as I breathed in the old familiar mine smell and felt the cool air on my skin. With my emergency medical case in hand I proceeded down the No. 2 slope to the explosion doors that separated the No.2 from the No.4 mines’ slopes. I was the first doctor down in the mines, and anxious as I was to help, I wasn’t able to go any further onto the No. 4 mine slope. The gas was overpowering and the back slope of the No. 4 mine was closed off. The rescue operation was taking place on the auxiliary slope — the slope I had traveled back to the surface one day during the miners’ summer vacation in 1948 when the man-rake was out of order. At that time only five men were working, and two of them would die in this disaster.

I made it to the fresh air base almost a half-mile down. Both the rescuers and the men being rescued were using oxygen tanks. A draegerman on his way to the surface gave me a partly used oxygen cylinder and I moved along the level with John Phalean to assist the miners. Since it was just a tank with a valve, I had to cup my hands simultaneously over the slightly opened valve and the man’s nose and mouth until he was revived enough to be moved from the fresh air base to the surface. Beyond the fresh air base the gas filled the level to within a foot or so from the floor. I came upon one fellow who was collapsing from the poisonous gas and gave him oxygen. I didn’t recognize him, and said to myself, “Who’s this bird? I don’t know him.” When he revived I said, “You’d better get to the surface.” Then I noticed blueprints in his pocket and asked who he was. Meanwhile, he was asking someone else who the hell I was. Finally I was introduced to the chief engineer from Dosco, Mr. Haslem. When he was told I was a doctor he said, “If you say I must go I will, but I’m needed down here.” Since he had inhaled a lot of gas I instructed him to go to the fresh air base. That way he could still be on hand in the mine.

I continued along the tunnel6 trying to revive men who had fallen down from the gas. By this time we were crawling on our bellies since the only breathable air was within a foot-and-a ­half of the floor. Soon we came to the end of the tunnel and began treating men at the head of the auxiliary slope. A draeger team7 was rigging a bull wheel8 so that a trolley could be used to get the men up the “steep.”9

From where I was I could see a trapped man heading up the slope, and then collapsing. A rescuer who went after him also collapsed. Soon there were four down, but then the gas seemed to lift and they were able to make it to the fresh air base where we revived them before sending them on to the surface.

Walk-around masks had been sent in by the Royal Canadian Air Force. They were designed for use in high-flying aircraft to enable the men to move about in air that had low oxygen content. The barefaced men didn’t understand their intended use, and so they were trying to stand up in the gas thinking they were protected. They would get extra oxygen, and along with it a heavy dose of toxic gasses. I began to tape the sides of the masks so that only oxygen was able to get through. Until we were able to send word to the surface to prepare these masks properly, rescuers were falling down right and left.

I was trying to revive one man, laying on my stomach in the tunnel and holding a mask over his face. Someone brought another semi-conscious man up beside him. Both were unconscious but still breathing. I transferred the walk-around oxygen mask from one hand to the other and then had to raise up my head onto the first fellow’s chest in order to get an oxygen mask over the second man’s face. Suddenly my head seemed to grow bigger — and bigger — and bigger until it finally seemed to explode. I went unconscious, my head rolling over and down into a low spot in the floor. The air was reasonably good there and I soon came to. My first coherent thought was: “My God, I’m down here and if I don’t make it back up I’ve got a wife and children who will have nothing. At least compensation will look after the families of the miners who are down here, but I’m not covered by compensation or anything else. In fact, I’m not even being paid!” But I still had two men to revive, and so got back to work, careful to keep my head close to the floor.


The trapped men were telling us how many more were coming behind them. When the gas got worse, we all figured no one else would be coming, so I went back up to the surface for something to eat and a few hours’ sleep. I had been down in the mine for about eight hours. By this time thirty-six of the trapped men had been rescued. By stopping along the way for air at the compressed air valves and getting oxygen from the rescuers, they were able to make it to the fresh air base, and from there to the surface.

One of the draegermen who had come up from the rescue asked my mother-in-law if she knew where I was.

“Oh, he’s at the hospital,” she said.

“No, no,” he said. “He’s down in the mine.”

She wasn’t too thrilled by that update.

After a short rest I went back down the mine but the mine officials told me to go back to the surface. They knew I had been knocked out by the gas and wanted to save me for later. “Wait until we reach the fifty trapped men at the 5400 level,” the mine manager said. A fire was burning out of control at the 3400 level, using up oxygen and giving off carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide which prevented access. Until that was brought under control I sat in the manager’s office, half dozing and half ready to whip into action on a moment’s notice. I missed Pleaman’s funeral on Sunday because I felt I could be more useful in the rescue work. Everything was happening so fast some men were dying while others were being saved. There wasn’t much time to reflect on the loss of my boyhood friends — there was time for that later.

At 5:10 on Sunday morning, a five-man draeger team finally made it through to the 5400 level. When the first draegerman hollered through the brattice cloth, the trapped men didn’t want to open it up for fear of letting in the gas. I was alerted and along with Dr. Roy Munroe, another Springhiller, who had been best man at my wedding, went down through the tunnel to the auxiliary slope. Roy was needed somewhere along the way, so I went on alone into the area where the trapped men were. Barefaced men were there to guide me. There were four doctors below the fresh air base, three of whom were from Springhill and had become doctors after the war. Another eighteen doctors were either at the fresh air base or on their way down to it by that time.

When I lifted the brattice cloth, the men were yelling and speaking all at once. They told me Dougie Beaton was in bad shape and Dr. Buddy Condy was trying to revive him. Dougie, who had been unconscious for many hours, was lying in a cement box and Buddy was attending him, but with no success. Dougie was very dehydrated and badly in need of IV fluids. I told Buddy, “Send to the surface and tell them what you need.” Buddy sent word up for IV fluids and I went to look after some of the other men. Then I came upon Con Embree, a veteran of two previous explosions. He was stary-eyed, clutching his hands across his chest, and breathing in short gasps. I could tell he had had a coronary, but he kept moving about checking on the men. This was the man who had saved the others by cutting holes in the compressed air hose. I tried to quiet him down. Two of my neighbours, Bob and Lennie Smith, were also there. Bob was having chest pains. I had brought along a small bottle of rum and pulled it out of my case when I saw him, figuring he needed a bit of stimulation. After a couple of swallows, Bob remarked, “I’ve drunk a lot of stuff in my day, but this is the best I’ve ever tasted!” Except for special cases like Bob who needed immediate stimulation, we fed them gradually: first water, hot soup, and then coffee. I determined that six men would have to be carried up the slope on stretchers.

Just then a draegerman came in and asked me to come out to the main slope, where the explosion had been. I followed him out to where some of the men were slumped against the wall while others lay face down on the pavement. Their lips were bright red which told me they had been poisoned by carbon monoxide. I checked one of the officials I had worked with during the miners’ vacation, and then one of my schoolmates. They were both stiff with rigor mortis. I didn’t even have time to react. The IV fluid we needed for Dougie appeared, but it was just a bottle with no needle and tubing to administer it! So we sent up a more explicit message and finallyBuddy was able to give Dougie the IV fluid and oxygen, and Dougie slowly began to come around. All of the men were extremely happy to see us, but at the same time they were anxious to get to the surface. I knew the top priority was to get the six men requiring stretchers up first, with the stretchers being passed up non-stop. By this time there were over one hundred rescue workers lining the slopes. One set of six would hand a stretcher to the next six, and so on until it arrived at the surface.

While we were formulating these plans, Mr. Haslem, the engineer I had met earlier, approached me. “I want to show you something. Keep it quiet,” he said. “A messenger just arrived directly from the surface and this is what he handed me.” He passed me a note saying, “See what you think.”




 I searched his eyes for a further clue, and finally burst out, “These men are weak. We can’t push ‘em out in a hurry. We’ll move ‘em just as fast as we can.” I knew something was radically wrong, but I didn’t know what. Nor did he. Someone up there did. The thought of another calamity was frightening, but we were too busy to be nervous. Ten men were still unaccounted for. A draeger team went down to the 5700 level and found them — all laying face down on the rock floor. One of the bodies moaned as he was being moved by a draegerman who was trying to identify him. Two of the men were still alive, and the draeger team brought them to the 5400 level. We were able to revive them with oxygen, but they were still semi­conscious. Buddy or I shouted out, “We need two more stretchers, right away!” We kept giving them oxygen until they were breathing on their own in a semi-conscious state. The rescue continued as men from the first group were passed up the level on stretchers. On the “steep,” which was the area with a sixty degree slope, the makeshift bull wheel was in place so the stretchers were carefully raised up — one at a time — to the next level.

While all this was going on, Buddy and I sat with the two semi-conscious men, waiting for the final stretchers to be sent down. We sat there a long time. I began thinking about that note. “What did they mean?” I kept wondering. “What more could happen?” Buddy asked, “Do you think they’ve forgotten we’re here?” I remember he had never worked in the mines, and, considering his jumpiness, figured I’d better not tell him about the note. I assured him they knew we were here, and kept my concerns to myself. When I walked out of our makeshift resting place I saw a message chalked in large letters on a big galvanized metal structure just a few yards away:


NOV 4th 1954 AT 3:30 PM


As soon as the last two men were taken up on stretchers, Buddy and I followed. We were the last ones out of the mine area where the trapped men had been. Now that everyone was accounted for we could all breathe easier, especially after we made it to the surface! After twelve hours underground I hit the surface with a parched throat and sucked in the sweet air of the atmosphere. Immediately I felt the glare of floodlights. The sea of townspeople was overwhelming. A hundred-bed tent had been set up by the mine entrance. Ambulances, station wagons, first aid supplies, doctors, soldiers, and newsmen all waited. The B Company of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders had taken charge of traffic control within an hour of the Explosion, and worked twenty-four hours a day until we came out of the mine. Tents had been set up all over the grounds. I turned in my lamp and headed straight for my mother-in-law’s for another meal and a bed.

Con Embree’s personal account of the underground nightmare, as recorded in his diary, was published in the Springhill Record on November 8, 1954. Con’s first entry was made at 9:40 p.m., five hours after the explosion: “Some air and fumes are coming out of the 5400 tunnel... Smoke fumes and after-damp are coming in from the slope. . . We have forty-seven men here between the door and the tunnel. We have erected a stopping in the outside end of the tunnel and a stopping across the 5400 foot level just outside the tunnel and left an opening about three by five feet to let the compressed air in. We are using the air from a six-inch line to survive.”

At 2:00 a.m. he wrote: “Got out to the 5400 bottom. After-damp bad, but seemed to be improving some. Found Doug Beaton about twenty-five feet below the 5400 back slope bottom and got him inside of door. Very little sign of life. Applied artificial respiration. He showed some sign of recovery by 3:15 a.m. with men taking turns keeping up the artificial respiration, which we carried on . . . for about four hours.”

At 7:30 p.m. Friday Con went back out to the 5400 bottom and found Charlie Burton collapsed on the slope. He took Charlie into the safety of the room and recorded that the men were “fairly well, but growing weaker.”

5:15 a.m. Saturday Con ventured out to the 5400 bottom again, found five men clustered there, and brought them back to the “room.” According to Con, there were as many as sixty-three men in the room at one time. “I thought the air was weakening and the men questioned if workmen were not sealing the mine. I said we are not beat yet. If some of you men will come out with me we will get the two-and-one-half inch  rubber hose used at the bottom to convey compressed air to the machinery. We brought the hose in and hooked it on the fitting on the six-inch line. Then we cut a hole in the hose for each man on opposite sides, a foot or so apart, to ensure that each man got an equal share of the compressed air.”

Since the air seemed to be weakening, Con held a conference with several of the men and they decided to try to reach the surface with the message that many of the men were safe, but that their lives depended on the compressed air supply. Charlie Burton, Harold Tabor, and George Stonehouse left the group and headed for the surface. By stopping for air every several hundred feet at the compressed air fittings along the airway return, and with bulldog determination, the men finally reached the rescue crew.

To put the fires out, the mine was then sealed so that the oxygen could be cut off. Some months later it was reopened and the dead bodies were removed for burial. All told, thirty-nine men died in the Explosion and eighty-eight were rescued. It’s ironic to think back on the media’s early predictions that “all are most likely dead.”



1.   Bankhead: The surface structure that receives the coal from the mines. It contains washing and sorting facilities and dispenses the coal to either rail cars or trucks. 

2.   Draegermen: Specially trained mine rescue workers who wear self-contained breathing apparatus. 

3.   After-damp: Mine gasses. 

4.   Air compressor: Compressors ran underground equipment, such as chipper picks and small engines. 

5.   Brattice cloth: Tar impregnated canvas used to control ventilation in the mine. 

6.   The tunnel: In the No. 4 mine it was a six-foot high, six-foot wide stone walkway that had been blasted through the rock. 

7.   Draeger team: Five draegermen. 

8.   Bull wheel: A five-foot iron wheel with a steel cable for dropping down a trolley, which could then be hauled back up by a tugger engine. 

9.   The “steep”: A sixty degree auxiliary slope that was ordinarily climbed on ladders. 


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