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Survivor recalls Springhill mine explosion that killed 39 men 50 years ago

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    Survivor recalls Springhill mine explosion that killed 39 men 50 years ago ChronicleHerald.ca - Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada November 1, 2006 SPRINGHILL - Ken
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      Survivor recalls Springhill mine explosion that killed 39 men 50 years ago
      ChronicleHerald.ca - Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
      November 1, 2006

      SPRINGHILL — Ken Melanson leans against a coal car. His eyes squinting, the 69-year-old surveys the site of Springhill’s old coal mines.

      "I was working, helping fill one of these when the mine almost killed me," he said, patting the side of the coal car. "I remember that day 50 years ago like it was yesterday."

      That day was Nov. 1, 1956, when an explosion in the No. 4 colliery killed 39 people and left Mr. Melanson and several others trapped for days deep inside the bowels of the earth.

      "It was a beautiful Indian summer day," the Springhill man recalled. "It was a Thursday. On the way to work I stopped into the miners’ hall and chatted with the guys."

      There he met his best friends Floyd Beaton and Richard Ellis. Together they went to the Dominion Steel and Coal-owned mine for their late-afternoon shift. After changing into their mining clothes and collecting their lamps, they waited underneath an apple tree for their turn to go underground.

      "We waited right there," he said, pointing to a gnarled old tree. "We talked about hunting and fishing. Little did we know that it was the last time we’d be together."

      At 3 p.m., the three men and 125 others headed into the pit. It took Mr. Melanson an hour to get to his work site, which was more than 1,700 metres down on the pit’s west wall.

      Work was progressing normally. About an hour into the shift, as he shovelled coal onto a conveyor belt, Mr. Melanson felt a strong gust of wind.

      "It was unusual, but I didn’t pay it any mind. I kept on working," he remembered.

      He didn’t know it, but above him all hell was breaking loose.

      Several coal boxes had broken away from a mine train hauling a load of coal dust to the surface. They rolled backward into the mine, derailed and sliced into a 25,000-volt power line.

      Sparks from the crash ignited coal dust at the 1,670-metre level, causing an explosion that ripped through the mine. Eyewitnesses later told reporters that a ball of flame shot 60 metres into the sky. The smoke that followed created a mushroom-like cloud above the mine.

      The blast wrecked the pithead. Nearby buildings were set ablaze and five men working near the pithead were killed by the force of the blast.

      "I never even heard the explosion. I just kept on working until I heard someone yell ‘Knock off! Knock off!’ That was the signal to immediately quit work because something had happened," Mr. Melanson recalled.

      Above ground, families who were eating dinner heard the wail of a siren — the traditional disaster signal in mining communities. Mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, firemen and police rushed to the pithead to begin rescue efforts; All Saints Hospital was alerted; the local armoury was set up to receive casualties; and some miners staggered to the surface.

      Below ground Mr. Melanson was trying to escape from the pit. "I’d walked about three-quarters of a mile and was about to go around a turn when someone hollered ‘Don’t go there, there’s gas!’ I stopped. I could see one body."

      Mr. Melanson turned around. Shortly after, he met up with Conrad Embree. Conn, as he was known, had survived two previous explosions in different mines. "He became our leader."

      Mr. Embree had about 50 men, including Mr. Melanson, go through a trap door into an auxiliary shaft. But that escape route was also blocked by gas, so he had them make a barricade to try to keep the gas out. They also cut holes in an air line so they could breathe. There they waited, and one by one their lamps dimmed, leaving them in darkness.

      "Someone found a battery and we hooked a lamp to it. Every now and then Conn would turn it on and write an entry into a book that included the time and what we were doing. It was the only light we had for most of the time we were trapped."

      Sometimes they sang. Other times they talked about hunting or fishing. Mostly they sat and waited as miners from around the province worked frantically to rescue them. Some were barefaced, others wore a breathing apparatus designed by a German named Draeger. They became known as draegermen and, according to the CBC, it was the first time such breathing apparatus had been used in a Canadian mine rescue.

      By Friday morning 13 men were confirmed dead.

      Dosco general manager H.M.C. Gordon and mine manager George Calder held out little hope for the 50 men still trapped underground. But others were faintly hopeful for survivors because they could see a gauge on the mine’s air compressor fluctuating, an indication that somewhere in the mine air was being used.

      By Saturday the rescuers, including barefaced miners, had reached the 975-metre level, only to find a smouldering fire. Fearing a second explosion, they temporarily abandoned the mine. A decision was made to snuff out the fire by sealing the shaft with concrete.

      "When we saw concrete-filled water running into the area where we were waiting, the room went completely silent. We all remembered that a mine in Belgium from which few survived had recently been sealed with concrete," Mr. Melanson said.

      "I was cold, hungry and scared. Conn Embree began asking the men if they wanted to record some thoughts in his journal. Many of the older guys did. I didn’t. I was too frightened."

      The rescuers, despite the gas and threat of explosions, dug deeper into the mine. They worked around the clock. Two of them succumbed to gas. Others were knocked unconscious and were carried out of the mine and taken to hospital. Once they recovered they immediately rejoined the rescue efforts.

      Late Sunday evening, after digging through several rockfalls, the rescuers reached the 1,640-metre level.

      "I’ll never forget hearing that thump on the trap door. Or the sight we saw when we opened it. It was a group of draegermen. They told us help was on the way, Melanson said, a small smile breaking out on his face.

      "It was a miracle they found us. One that was created by the hard work of the rescuers and the wisdom of Conn Embree. It was his efforts, his knowledge of mines that kept us trapped men alive."

      When word of survivors reached the surface, it spread through town like wildfire. A large crowd gathered at the wrecked pithead, anxious to find out who had survived.

      Rescuers began removing the survivors from the mine shortly after midnight on Monday, Nov. 5. "The CBC read the name of each man as they were brought to the surface. I was taken out at around 3 a.m. They took me to the hospital and then to the armoury," Mr. Melanson said.

      "Thirty-nine people were killed in the disaster, including my two friends. Today, I remember them every Miners Memorial Day on June 11 by going to the service and by saying a little prayer for them each day."

      Mr. Melanson never went back into the Springhill mines, but he continued mining in River Hebert. He also spent many years urging people to remember Springhill’s mining disasters, through appearances in schools and working as a tour guide at the Springhill Miners Museum.

      "We can’t ever forget them," he said, his eyes and head dropping as if in silent prayer.

      To mark the anniversary the community is holding a service tonight at the Anglican church beginning at 7 p.m.

      "I will be there to offer my prayer for my lost friends and to remember," Mr. Melanson said. "It’s the least I can do."

      Springhill Mine Disaster Books:

      Last Man Out - Melissa Fay Greene
      Miracle at Springhill - Leonard Lerner
      United States Mine Rescue Association
      Visit the Mine Rescue Group at Yahoo for all the latest news.
      Read member comments on current events at our Discussion Forum.
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