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   Volume 81 - Issue 43 Website:www.passherald.ca   email: news@passherald.ca   $1.00   
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Quote of the Week
"(The Chamber of Commerce) is really where the core of this community is."
- Sergeant Keith Bott  
   
   

 

Story
John Kinnear photo
Constable Jesse Morrison is the newest addition to the Crowsnest Pass RCMP, transferring from Fort Chipewyan, and replacing Constable Lorne Gopp, who has transferred to Pincher Creek.
Looking Back - John KinnearAt the recent dedication of the Fernie Miners Memorial Walkway I discovered that part of the interpretation there was in the unique form of engraved bricks which display the names of 128 coal miners lost in Canada’s third worst mine disaster at Coal Creek just outside of Fernie.  It was a sobering moment for me as a mining historian to stare down at the rows and rows of bricks and once again contemplate this terrible event. It is one that I researched deeply years ago.
Next  May 22nd will mark the 110th anniversary of the 1902 Coal Creek mine disaster, a Victoria Day weekend that turned into a heartbreaking nightmare.  A violent explosion ripped through #2 and #3 Mines up Coal Creek valley and wiped out an entire work force on shift with the exception of 22 men. 
Ignorance, primitive technology, immigrant men prepared to work in incredibly dangerous conditions and a company with ever expanding plans and demands on its resources and people finally combined in one disastrous moment.  From government and company investigations back then it was determined that the cause of the explosion was methane gas, referred to back then as "firedamp".  It took a lot more incidents of this type before it was realized that methane explosions was probably minor but precipitated a more severe and far reaching catastrophe, that of a coal dust explosion. For the miners working deep inside that mine with over 2000 feet of cover over them the experience has been likened to being at the wrong end of a shotgun barrel. Dusty, gassy mines can indeed be a lot like a loaded shotgun. One spark (the hammer strikes the bullet), the gas ignites (the bullet's primer explodes), the gas flares and causes the coal dust to explode (the gunpowder goes off) and a horrendous flash rips through the mine carrying all sorts of debris with it (the buckshot charges down the barrel). 
I had occasion to read the 1902 handwritten notes of James McEvoy, a coal company engineer with the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company in which he indicated that  CH4(methane) levels of 3% plus in MacDonald’s level in the deepest part of the mine were measured. This was the starting point of that catastrophic explosion. From other sources I learned of the multiplicity of potential contributing factors to this tragic event.  Electric trolleys were in use back then and rattled in and out of the mine, showering sparks as they went. Firebosses routinely set off dynamite using black powder squibs (homemade fuses) back then.  Shots routinely set fire to the coal and had to be quenched with water from the nearest pool. Firebosses were equipped with inefficient Clanny lamps that burned seal oil and were used as gas testers. If experts found it difficult to ascertain the exact cause of this or any other explosion that occurred back then it must have been owing to the myriad of dangerous practices that added up to these types of disasters.
 
In the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company archives in the basement of Fernie City Hall one can find the detailed reports and investigations that followed this awful event. One can also find an ancient creased copy of a blueprint that depicts the complicated layout of the mine as it existed just prior to the explosion. All over this plan are small white dots on the faded blueprint’s background, a document that is a complicated maze of interconnected tunnels. The dots sometimes can be found in pairs, sometimes by themselves and sometimes in an ominous cluster. Each white dot has a number beside it, a reference number that is cross-referenced in an official report and lead one to names like Gianciento Altobello or John Leadbeater or Andrew Postoick. The plan shows in fact where every single one of those 128 men died. Their names are a melting pot of nationalities, mostly immigrants, working half way round the world from their native soil, inside a mountain of coal. What could possess these men, you might ask, to take such risks so far away from home?
Most of the victims were found in pairs in their working places; unmarked by the explosion but overcome by the deadly afterdamp that swept through the mine after that murderous fireball had exhausted itself at the other end of the mine.  Some suffered a more violent death, blasted mercilessly about by the awesome power of a coal dust explosion that kept feeding on itself as it roared through the dusty Number 2 and 3 Mines.
The response to the thousand foot high fireball that burst from the mine that day was immediate. Within a half an hour of the disaster the first train of injured and dead roared into town from the mine. Church bells rang continuously, rescue teams worked feverishly and at great risk and friends and relatives stood by anxiously waiting for word about their loved ones.
The disaster happened on a Thursday and by Saturday morning gravediggers and carpenters who had worked around the clock were ready for the mass funerals. Saturday, May 24th (Empire Day) must have been a day of overwhelming sadness with no less than 17 public funerals one of which had 14 coffins in the procession.
One of the 13 commemorative pillows at the Hillcrest National Monument has the 1902 event listed on it. The next worst listed on the pillows was in Nanaimo on May 3, 1887 when 147 men lost their lives.
This past week the Hillcrest Mine Memorial committee began its in-depth planning  to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the June 19, 1914 disaster that ranks as Canada’s worst. It will be a very important time for the Pass as all eyes will be on us as we remember this important moment in time. 
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