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Feb 18 , 2018


February 24, 1979: Disaster at the No. 26

by Cliff Boutilier
February 24, 1979: Disaster at the No. 26
It gets lost in the shadow of the Westray Mine Disaster, but no one should ever forget when tragedy struck nearly 40 years ago in the early morning hours of February 24, 1979.
Glace Bay’s No. 26 Colliery, the “Big Producer” until surpassed in production by the Lingan Mine, became a death pit. A methane explosion, that grave and great nemesis of coalfields everywhere, killed 12 miners and seriously injured four more.
The backshift was 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Your workplace was about five miles from the pithead,  2,500 feet under the ocean floor. That’s a bit of a distance from 1-B Road, the washhouse, and the safety and comfort of terra firma.
But a fellow has to eat. Has to feed his family. Has to keep a roof over their heads. 
Maybe provide for an education so your son doesn’t have to go to work in the dark, fill up his lungs with coal dust, in the dark, then come back home in the dark. A coal mine is no call centre.
If “Uncle DEVCO” was all you had, then “Uncle DEVCO” was all you had. Hang on
tight. Keep a happy thought. 
So you get in the cage with your coal mining brethren, turn on your headlamp, and take
that circus ride far beneath the ocean seabed.
You’re not going to be bothered by traffic lights, or some silly bastard making a left-hand turn. You can tell a lot of jokes in the rake on the ride to work. Talk a lot of sports. Think about tomorrow. Plan for tomorrow.
That’s just what the boys did that fateful February night, riding their ticket to 12 South Wall. But they wouldn’t see the end of the backshift. The graveyard shift.
Twelve-South was another gem in the very notable Harbour Coal Seam. The boys had been hacking away at it for about three years. The bloody thing just wouldn’t go away.
The Harbour Seam itself was an estimated reserve of 88 million tons of the black stuff.
Yeah, the coal was dirty, but it sold.
You got a paycheque and the tree-huggers got easy access to their coal-fired electric heat. It can get awful cold off the North Atlantic in wintertime, don’t you know, particularly if you’re on an island, a bit up north, jutting into an unruly and unpredictable, briny sea. Might take Mr. Tree-Hugger a lot of tweed jackets to keep warm, don’t ya know?
Just as you know it takes a certain breed of man, or boy, to be a coal miner.
You’re either desperate for a J-O-B in a job starved economy, or you’re kind of fearless. Even if you’re halfway to fearless, you never let your fears show.
You’re like a fisherman. Only you’re not on top riding the waves, you’re thousands of feet beneath them, as was the case with No. 26 Colliery in Glace Bay.
Nonetheless, you do what you have to do. When you have to do it.
Like those strong-willed fishermen who just weeks ago off Canso retrieved the body of fellow fisherman Capt. Roger Stoddard when that useless bunch from the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre out of Halifax weren’t quite up to the task.
It takes balls.
James Anderson, 32, (Dominion); William (Bill) Cooke, 33, (Bridgeport, Glace Bay); Reggie MacNeil, 30, (Bridgeport, Glace Bay); Fred Matheson, 44, (Glace Bay); Wayne Mills, 40, (Glace Bay); Paul Purcell, 25, (Sterling, Glace Bay); Michael Roberts, 24, (Glace Bay) Clifford Sharpe, 28, (Glace Bay); Fabian Ward, 32, (Bridgeport, Glace Bay); Fabian Young, 47, (New Aberdeen,
Glace Bay) all died instantly at 12-South when a suspected spark from the shearer set off the
Six other miners, a number with burns on up to 90 per cent of their body, were taken to VG Burn Unit in Halifax. They had to make the five-hour trek by ambulance, since weather conditions prohibited flying by air ambulance.
The condition of the six ranged from stable to critical. Visitation was heavily restricted.
John MacNeil, 26, of Beacon Street, Glace Bay, and Albert Hall would eventually succumb to their injuries, bringing the death toll to 12, and 25 fatherless children.
John MacNeil left behind his wife, Deborah, and four-month-old daughter Amanda Michelle.
Surviving the explosion, although barely, were George Stubbard, Kevin King, Ken Brinston, and Wayne McInnis. All spent weeks in the burn unit.
The explosion occurred shortly after 4 a.m. Saturday. The time on one dead miner’s wristwatch read 4:35 a.m.
The heat was intense. Media reports at the time indicated the melting of miners’s helmets. The top of a pit car had melted. Stretchers and first aid stations had been scorched. An unopened soft drink can was devoid of content.
One of the first on the scene was fellow miner Louie Plichie, who was running a conveyer belt almost two miles away. He felt the concussion at about 4:10 a.m.
For 20 minutes Louie had to beat his way through the heat, and smoke, then find a working radio to get news to the surface. Meantime he tried to comfort whomever he could.
Louie died in 2007.
Deep in the pit, medical help was required. As was a priest.
It wasn’t long before Rev. Robert Floyd of St. John’s parish in the Glace Bay borough of New Aberdeen was down in the pit administering last rites. Just as reports indicated, so, too, were the late Dr. J.B. Tompkins and Glace Bay’s most gifted surgeon, the late Dr. Manohar Rajani. A gem of a man.
By about 11 a.m., the bodies reached the surface.
Father Floyd, a Glace Bay native and the St. John’s pastor for the past seven years, had done his best. 
He told the Canadian Press, “The fire must have hit them very fast. One of the dead miners was still sitting down when we found him.”
On the general state of mind of the survivors:
“They don’t say anything, but you could feel it when you’re talking to them. All the miners, all they can talk about is how it could have happened.”
The priest recalled the initial phone call breaking the early morning silence.
“All they told me when they phoned was that there had been a mine disaster and that I should come right away.”
He added the hardest thing he had ever done in his life was to gather up seven of Fabian & Theresa Young’s eight children, take them to a bedroom and... “tried to answer their questions about why their father would never come home again.”
The pithead is no place for a wife or mother to hang out. If that whistle blows between shifts, you know only one thing. It’s trouble.
Believe it or not, before the days of Facebook & Twitter, and all this social media nonsense, news could still travel fast. Particularly in a small town.
I happened to be in Glace Bay that weekend to celebrate my sweetie, Cathy Lynn’s birthday on February 23. Turned out Cathy Lynn didn’t like me that much.
At any rate, telephone lines were jammed. People were glued to that old reliable, the radio. Of course, that was back when radio barons actually paid money to have warm bodies in the radio studio.
Sirens were going off everywhere.
Roadblocks were set up here and there, and you couldn’t get near the mine entrance for people lining the road. The curious, the anxious, the grief-stricken.
There’s no other way to say this but in a very childish, cliche, ironic sort of way — it was all too close to home.
The dead and the injured came from streets on which I played road hockey as a kid. Street names I was all to familiar with: Row Street, Dodd Street, Station Street, Beacon Street, Seaview Street, Howe Street, Highland Street, Smith Street.
I knew all these streets.
I lived on one. Delivered the Star Weekly to others. Delivered milk with the late John Barnes on his Cape Breton Dairymen milk truck to each and every one of those streets as a 12- and 13-year-old. Run, Forrest, run!
It was the worst mine disaster in Cape Breton since an explosion rocked New Waterford’s No. 12 Colliery in July of 1917, killing 65 miners.
And the worst mine disaster in Glace Bay since 1899, when 11 miners died in an explosion at the No. 4 Colliery.
Ironically, the No. 26 explosion occurred almost 88 years to the day when the province suffered its most devastating mining disaster.
That date was February 21, 1891. The place was Springhill, where fire swept through a tunnel joining No. 1 Colliery with No. 2 Colliery. The body count was 125.
And a lot of very tiny bodies. Tiny bodies that would crawl on their bellies to retrieve the black gold. Tiny bodies that would pull coal cars. Tiny bodies that would never get a shot at a decent education.
Of course, Springhill, like Glace Bay, is no stranger to danger.
They lost 39 miners in 1956, and, of course, the infamous “bump” of 1958 killed another 74.
Prior to February 1979, the last major mine explosion to rock Cape Breton happened in 1952, when seven miners perished in the old No. 20.
No surprise, then, that events of February 24, 1979, brought communities like Glace Bay, New Waterford, Springhill, Stellarton, Inverness closer together.
Funny isn’t it, how tragedy brings people, complete strangers, and communities closer together.
Jesus H. Christ, there’s no town (screw amalgamation) Glace Bay would rather beat the snot out of in hockey, baseball, basketball, polo, then... wait a minute! We don’t play, um, polo! Sorry about that.
But there’s no town Glace Bay would rather beat up on in sports than New Waterford. That’s the thing about mining communities, or former mining communities: rivalries are fierce and they continue to be just that. Coal or no coal.
Yet, when mishap and misfortune strikes either town on the level of such commonality as coal mining, it evokes such empathy that the two communities are in lockstep. They are there for each other. Brothers and sisters in arms. There to lend a helping hand. To offer a sympathetic shoulder. Disciplined by shared anguish.
In Glace Bay, in New Waterford, in Dominion, in Reserve Mines, in Gardiner Mines, in the remainder of the County of Cape Breton, citizens were asked to “honour their brothers.”
Even the feds chipped in.
That eighth child of Fabian & Theresa Young, of New Aberdeen, actually the oldest, Michael Young, 21, was serving in Alert in the Northwest Territories at the time.
The bureaucracy, as bureaucracies usually do (please see Capt. Roger Stoddard & the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre), immediately moved to their lazy, do-nothing default position.
They told young Michael they couldn’t get him out of the Northwest Territories in time for his father’s funeral.
Pierre Trudeau’s defence minister Barney Danson, who fought and lost an eye on the beaches of Normandy, wasn’t buying any of it. He called bullshit.
Danson promptly got Michael on a military aircraft and into Edmonton to begin his cross-country journey. No fuss, no bother.
His father’s funeral was held on Wednesday, February 28.
The nine other funerals all went down on Tuesday. The streets were lined with traffic cops in an effort to help prevent one black hearse from T-boning another black hearse.
At 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 2 p.m., 3:30 p.m., and such, church bells rang throughout the Glace Bay area at such houses of worship as St. Leo’s in the Sterling, St. Anthony’s in Passchendaele, St. John’s in New Aberdeen, Holy Family Church in MacKay’s Corner, Gordon United Church in nearby Reserve Mines.
At Immaculate Conception in Bridgeport, a joint funeral was held for James Anderson and his buddy, fellow No. 26 mine faceman Reggie MacNeil, an 11-year DEVCO vet, who left behind two daughters, Sherri Lynn, 9, and Linda Michelle, 4.
Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, was declared a day of mourning. Businesses were shut down. Schools were closed, and a grand memorial service was held at the aged but  still much loved Glace Bay Miner’s Forum.
It was a fire marshall’s nightmare.
Never before had 9,000 people attempted to squeeze into the old forum. The ice surface was of course covered, and close to 2,000 chairs had to be borrowed from local schools.
Mourners began to arrive hours before the 2 p.m. start time.
The pothole laden parking lot of the Miner’s Forum was awash in cars and trucks, and by-standers. Folk who couldn’t get close to the action, but took in the service over loudspeaker.
The requiem was conducted by Rev. Bruce Howe of St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Rev. Donald MacDonald of Warden United, Most Rev. William Power, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Antigonish, Anglican Bishop Art Peters and, of course, Rev. Robert Floyd of St. John’s.
The Men of the Deeps belted out a spirited, sorrowful rendition of the Battle Hymn of the  Republic.
February 24, 1979.
Lest we forget, 39 years ago.

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