February 2011

The Hillcrest Mine disaster

Canada’s deadliest mining accident

By Correy Baldwin

Nestled among austere mountain ranges and straddling the southern Alberta-British Columbia border, the Crowsnest Pass has a wild boomtown history, full of fugitives and robberies, bootleggers and bitter strikes. However, the area is perhaps best known for its great tragedies.

In 1903, the north slope of Turtle Mountain came tumbling down, burying the Frank Mine and much of the town of Frank in 82 million tonnes of limstone, killing over 70 people. It was the area’s most dramatic disaster, although not its most deadly.

The most deadly disaster — and the worst mining accident in Canadian history — is the story of the Hillcrest Mine, where a methane explosion ripped through the underground tunnels on the morning of June 19, 1914, killing 189 men. At the time, the Hillcrest Mine was considered the safest and best run mine in the Crowsnest Pass. In fact, safety precautions had kept the mine idle for the two days prior to the explosion; there had been an overproduction of coal, and regulations called for a shutdown so that a union committee could check the mine for methane gas pockets.

Methane was a constant presence in the mines, being released as the coal was removed, and an overproduction meant a greater risk of accumulated gas. If concentrations reached levels of five per cent, the methane could become explosive. Another constant concern was coal dust, whose explosive nature could be kept in check with high enough moisture levels. The committee found no pockets of methane, and when their thorough search was complete, the mine was declared safe.

The next morning the fire boss ran his inspection, checking the mine before the morning shift. He noted some low levels of methane, which was nothing out of the ordinary and only cause for some extra caution. Moisture levels were also adequate. The inspection notice was posted in the lamphouse, where the miners checked in to collect their lamp helmets and pick up their identification tags before beginning their shift.

Around 7 a.m., 228 men entered the mine; two hours later, eight more workers arrived. Two of these men, however, smelled of liquor and were turned away by the timekeeper — a reprimand that would save their lives.

Half an hour later, disaster struck. Without warning, a massive explosion tore through the tunnels, killing everyone near it. The explosion stirred up clouds of coal dust, triggering at least one, possibly two, subsequent explosions.

The explosion was just the first killer. Those who survived faced a lack of oxygen and subsequent rise in poisonous carbon dioxide gas — referred to as “afterdamp.” A concentration of 13 per cent was enough to render a miner unconscious and after the explosion, parts of the mine would have reached deadly levels of 50 per cent.

Hillcrest Mine was actually two mines linked underground, each with their own entrance. The explosion occurred in Mine No. 1, and that entrance was rocked by the explosion, becoming completely blocked with debris. The entrance to Mine No.2 sustained less damage, but was nearly a kilometre away — an utterly treacherous distance for any miner attempting to escape.

Nineteen miners stumbled out of the entrance to Mine No. 2. As they emerged, the first rescue team headed in the opposite direction — one man having just made it out of the mine himself minutes before charging back in. The rescuers courageously faced the afterdamp without the aid of oxygen masks. There was also the risk of further explosions.

Fearing the deadly effects of the afterdamp, workers on the surface scrambled to restart the exhaust fan at the entrance to Mine No. 1. The intake fan at the entrance to Mine No. 2, meanwhile, was still working. Others began clearing the entrance to Mine No. 1, pulling rocks and chunks of concrete out of the tunnel, off the track and away from the hoist engine, which, thankfully, was still operational.

At 10 a.m., a half-hour after the explosion, men began arriving from the nearby towns of Blairmore, Coleman and Frank, bolstering the relief effort with numbers and with oxygen masks. With the entrance to Mine No. 1 now cleared, rescue teams could enter the mine in full force.

The destruction they found was horrific. Many had died in the explosion, and many others had succumbed to the afterdamp, either having died from the carbon dioxide poisoning or collapsed into pools of water in which they drowned. But among the dead were others who were unconscious, but still breathing. They were carried to the surface and revived with oxygen and resuscitation equipment in an emergency hospital tent set up outside the mine entrance.

The explosion occurred in an area where fire boss Sam Charleton had been setting charges to loosen the coal —always a dangerous job. But when a rescuer found Charleton’s body, the firing cable was still wrapped around Charleton’s waist, which meant that the fire boss had not set off the explosion with his charge. It had been a freak accident, most likely ignited by a spark from a sudden rock fall.

By the end of the day, 46 men had made it out of the mine alive, 27 of them carried to safety by the rescue teams. The town of Hillcrest was utterly devastated — the 189 who were killed had left behind 130 widows and 400 fatherless children. Those who perished in the mine were buried in the Hillcrest cemetery, most of them in three mass graves.

In 1998, organizers made a final push to erect a long-desired memorial to honour those who died in the Hillcrest disaster. But they wanted it to be national in scope as well. Organizers planned to engrave a record of each deadly incident in Canada’s coal mines, although the list proved to be so large that only incidents in which three or more had been killed could be included.

Today, 12 stones from each province and territory surround a granite monument at the entrance to the Hillcrest cemetery, honouring all Canadian coal miners who have been killed on the job.

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