March/April 2009

Fernie’s deadliest night

By R. Bergen

Fernie residents receive the remains of a mine worker. Among those killed was George Burney of Nova Scotia, whose father and two brothers each had died in separate coal mining accidents.

By 1902, the West was expanding at the pace of a locomotive, and was just as hungry for coal. It was the moment for Fernie, British Columbia, a young town of 3,500, to make good on its promise to become one of the major producers of coal for the industrializing frontier. The five year-old Crow’s Nest Coal Company expected its largest yield of coal yet from the flat, thick seams at its Coal Creek mines just outside of town. Another Crow’s Nest mine, 40 kilometres north of Fernie, was set to go into full production that year.

In January 1902, the Globe and Mail printed a glowing cover story that featured the people, amenities and life in Fernie, and its mines. Later that spring, the company’s managing director boasted to the paper: “When we have the coal and the conditions as we find them in the Crow’s Nest Pass, it is only a question of time, money and men to develop mines to any capacity that may be required.” On May 22, 1902, just after 7:30 in the evening, an explosion deep in the Number Two mine at Coal Creek eclipsed that sunny optimism.

By the turn of the century, the coal mining industry knew very well the danger of firedamp, a combination of mostly methane and other flammable and inflammable gases. Good ventilation was understood to be essential in safeguarding against explosive levels of methane and suffocating levels of carbon dioxide. A steam-powered fan at Coal Creek generated a steady draft that exchanged the deadly gases in the mine with fresh air from outside. The draft, however, created a separate hazard by drying out the mine and raising volatile coal dust.

It is impossible to know the levels of methane and coal dust in the mine that Thursday evening, but the force of the blast shot the fan house roof 200 metres into the sky. Some of the dead were later found nearly naked, their clothes torn off in the explosion.

Only 17 of those working were able to save themselves. Another four were dragged from the mine. Many who were not killed in the fiery explosion quickly died of asphyxiation due to afterdamp, an extremely high concentration of carbon dioxide that firedamp explosions leave in their wake.

Although the fan at the mouth of the ventilation shaft remained intact and running, the shaft was choked with debris. Rescuers could only spend a short time in the suffocating mine before they were forced to return to the surface to be replaced by another search team. They were not able to recover the first body until late that night. At around 11:00 p.m. they pulled the remains of 13-year-old Will Robertson from the mine.

The timekeeper responsible for recording the names of the men and boys working that Thursday evening was killed in the blast, his notebook incomplete. The Fernie Board of Trade declared 150 dead in its appeal to the public for aid to the widows and children of the deceased. A director of the company, alarmed by this number when informed by a reporter, placed the fatalities “with some definiteness at 109.” Long before the last remains were recovered, the town exhausted its supply of caskets. Neighbouring towns scrambled to provide more for the company.

“In the miners’ section there were few of the cottages which did not display the badge of mourning,” the Globe and Mail reported the following Monday. “On some doors it was a large piece of black crepe to signify that the head of the family had gone, and on others, and far too many, the crepe was set upon a ribbon of white, to indicate that the victim was but a youth.”

Raw nerves inside the community were exposed. Provincial authorities worried of riots. A Fernie police constable, perhaps all too familiar with miners at less sober times, was lucky to escape alive after he was overheard saying that he had wished twice as many labourers had been in the mines when the explosion happened. Livid miners laid siege to the town’s jail. They were only satisfied when the offending officer, brought to face the angry townspeople, removed his star and uniform. He then walked through the parted crowd to the train station. A second officer, also fearing similar humiliation, quietly slipped out of town soon after.

Immediate explanations for the cause of the blast varied. Only a day before, a government inspector had certified that the mine was safe. Miners suggested the explosion was a result of poorly discharged blasting material. Others suspected reckless miners were to blame. Despite the obvious danger and strict rules against it, workers did risk smoking in the shafts. Earlier in the year, several had been fined for bringing matches into the mines.

After provincial authorities investigated the site of the disaster, they recommended a more thorough system of watering to keep the circulation of coal dust to a minimum. The annual report for the year also lamented that the demand for labour drew to the mines men who had very little experience.

The report’s most alarming information comes at the end from an investigator’s comparison of the frequency of fatalities in British Columbia to those in Great Britain and Pennsylvania over the previous decade. The American centre of the coal mining industry averaged .41 explosion fatalities and 4.63 deaths from other accidents for every million tons of coal produced. The statistics from Great Britain were not much different: .62 died from explosions, and other workplace accidents took 3.3 lives. The cost of coal in human lives was far greater in British Columbia. Each million tons exacted 6.6 lives in explosions and 10.6 from accidents that covered the spectrum between irresponsibility and terrible luck.

Despite early optimistic reports from the Crow’s Nest Company soon after the blast, the damage at Coal Creek was too extensive for it to produce any more coal that year.
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