March/April 2007

Mining Lore

A disaster felt around the world

By A. Nichiporuk

Men waiting at the rescue tunnel for the trapped men to be brought out 

It is late at night. Your work at the mine has just ended and you are making your way up to the surface. You are tired and longing for your warm comfortable bed, when suddenly a rumbling sound envelopes you. Within seconds, the mine walls and parts of the ceiling begin caving in around you…a miner’s worst nightmare. This cannot be happening, it must not be real. Unfortunately, on April 12, 1936, for three men in a Moose River gold mine, they were living the nightmare. They were trapped 43 metres below surface with little hope of making it out alive.

Gold was discovered in 1866 around the future site of Moose River Gold Mines. In 1910, the gold mining industry in Nova Scotia was in a down cycle, and many mines shut down. However, years later, in 1936, Herman Russell Magill and David E. Robertson, both of Toronto, purchased one of the Moose River gold mines and had it up and running by March. Little did they know that the ore they were mining was from the rock pillars set up as roof supports.

At close to midnight on Easter Sunday, Magill, Robertson, and Alfred Scadding, the mine’s timekeeper, were finishing up their inspection of the mine. As the men discussed the infrastructure’s appalling condition, they were overcome by a loud rumbling sound. They sprinted to the skip and rang the alarm. Within minutes, workers flocked to the area. As the skip was being hoisted, the cable holding it snapped. The mine was caving in. Stuck at the 43-metre level, the only thing holding up the debris was a single wood beam lodged across the shaft.

Reality sets in

Underground, the men panicked. Above ground, the gravity of the situation set in. An immediate call for “single men with guts” was sounded, and hundreds of miners from across Nova Scotia and neighbouring provinces raced to the mine.

Blueprints of the underground shafts were nonexistent, and rescue attempts via the surrounding shafts were unsuccessful. The Meagher shaft caved in, nearly trapping rescuers.

By day two of the rescue operation, crews of 40 worked tirelessly to get the men out. The area the three men were trapped in was cold and damp, the effects of which were already being felt - Scadding’s feet went numb.

The Meagher shaft caved in a second time, and on day three, government officials succumbed to public pressure and allowed Billy Bell, of the Nova Scotia Department of Mines, to bring a diamond drill to Moose River to aid in the rescue. Bell, his crew, and the equipment were set up by noon the following day. While blasting occurred all day and night above ground, below, Magill was slipping in and out of consciousness.

Finally, on day six, the borehole Bell had drilled reached the area where the three men were trapped. Spirits were lifted, the men would be saved. A flare was sent down the pipe while workers waited for a sign that the men were still alive. However, upon seeing the flames, they quickly extinguished them. When no sign of life was heard, officials called off the rescue efforts.

Having been trapped in mine caveins himself on two previous occasions, Bell was not about to give up that easily. He began blowing a steam whistle into the pipe at regular intervals. At 12:30 a.m. the following day, 11 hours into it, Scadding realized what the sound was and began tapping on the pipe. They were alive, but barely.

The race is on

Rescue efforts resumed with a vengeance, and food and water were sent down the pipe. The Maritime Telephone and Telegraph Company sent F.T. Pond, J.A. Bowman, and F.H. Pinforld to Moose River with a tiny transmitter they had constructed. Upon their arrival, they began working on connecting a telephone cable from Middle Musquodobit to Moose River.

The rescuers were running out of options. They had to get the men out quickly or they would surely die. The decision was made to reopen the Reynolds shaft, which had long since been condemned. A crew from Westville and Stellarton, familiar with working in similar unstable mine conditions, started clearing the tunnel at a rate of four feet per hour. Unfortunately, for Magill, this was not fast enough. He died the same day of pneumonia.

On day eight, a telephone was sent down to the men, and a second hole was drilled. J. Frank Willis, regional director for the Maritimes of the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, was sent in to report on the rescue efforts. The water level in the mine was quickly rising, enabling Scadding and Robertson to reach the equipment and supplies being lowered to them. By 6 p.m., Willis was broadcasting live on the air on over 700 stations in Canada and the United States. The BBC picked up the feed and broadcast his reports throughout Great Britain and Europe. Over 100 million listeners tuned in every half hour for an update on the events.

By mid-afternoon on day nine, the Westville and Stellarton crew had reached the original sloping shaft of the Magill mine. At midnight, the Drummond mine crew, experienced in working with unstable roofs, took over and managed to advance almost 35 feet in 15 hours. However, hours later, the roof of the tunnel caved in.

Defeated, the men were too exhausted to continue.

A new crew from Acadia took over and continued digging away at the tunnel. They were getting close, and everyone prayed that the roof would hold. All of their efforts paid off, as shortly after midnight, the crew reached the trapped men. Robertson and Scadding were pulled from the mine; Magill’s body was retrieved shortly after.

A brotherhood like no other

For 242 hours, these men were trapped, fearing they would be buried alive by another cave-in. For 56 straight hours, Willis updated listeners on the rescue efforts. This was the first live unscripted broadcast over the radio in North America. In August 1936, the mine was permanently closed. The Moose River mine disaster was a testament to the strength and compassion of the human spirit.

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