1956 Springhill Mine Disaster

On November 1, 1956, at approximately 5:00 PM AST,[1] a sizable explosion occurred in the No. 4 Colliery just outside the town of Springhill, Nova Scotia. The mine was owned and operated by Cumberland Railway and Coal Co. The Royal Commission that investigated the disaster stated in its findings that the explosion started at approximately the 4400 foot level resulting from loose coal cars accidentally rolling downhill where they struck a power line, causing the line to arc, which ignited the coal dust scattered into the air by the loose cars.[2] This ignited the coal dust in the air. The ensuing explosion traveled upward where it was fed by oxygen and more coal dust.

“Crowd and ambulances outside mine entrance.” From 1956.
Photo courtesy of Nova Scotia Archives. Used by permission.

The force of the blast destroyed the bankhead, killing at least four men instantly and injuring several others (several of whom would later die from their injuries[3]) and sending forth a shower of debris.[4] The blast was also reported to have rocked the town and shattered windows nearby.[5] It was reported within a few hours that 118 miners remained below,[6] though their status was unknown, and their chances seemed slim. Due to fears of a secondary explosion being triggered by the remaining smouldering flames, the mine was closed off for a period of two to three hours on the morning of Friday November 2nd, in order to let the fires burn down.[7] At about this time it was noticed that the air compressor gauges were fluctuating irregularly, indicating to rescuers that the valves on the air pipes within the mine were being opened and closed. This encouraged rescue workers because it suggested someone was alive within the mine.[8] The media at this point was reporting that there was little hope of any rescue, though the rescuers did not agree with this view.[9] Both draegermen and barefaced miners re-entered the mine. In the process of trying to rescue those miners trapped below, one draegerman was rendered unconscious and two draegermen died when the harmful mine gasses or after-damp penetrated their breathing apparatuses.[10]

Efforts were first directed at clearing debris in order to improve the mine’s ventilation.[11] However, the key obstacles the rescuers were faced with were not debris, but fires and after-damp, which prevented access to the lower levels.[12] In most places in the mine, the gasses filled the space down to a foot off the floor. This forced rescuers to crawl through the mine.[13] Many who were rescued were saved by the fact that they lost consciousness from lack of oxygen and fell to the floor, where they could breathe.[14] Others, such as those trapped on the 5400 foot level, used the air from the compressed air hoses and brattice cloth to create a fresh air bubble.[15] This plan was largely the work of two-time mine explosion veteran Conrad Embree, who led those trapped men.[16] Rescue efforts continued through till Monday, November 5th, 1956, when 65 miners were brought up in the early morning,[17] and more were extracted until the last man was brought out at approximately 5:30 AM AST.[18] This brought the total number rescued to 88 men, and the total dead to 39.[19] The mine was then closed, and was not reopened until January 19, 1957, when the remaining bodies were retrieved and identified.[20]

“Air Force men with rescue equipment.” From 1956.
Photo courtesy of Nova Scotia Archives. Used by permission.

During the crisis, the Salvation Army, Red Cross, and Royal Canadian Navy all aided in taking care of the rescued and supporting the rescuers. Local ministers were also on the scene, trying to help organize the community and help them deal with the crisis. Donations flooded in from across the country and beyond for the Springhill Disaster Relief Fund.[21] This event rapidly garnered the attention of the local and national media. However, due to the recent Soviet invasion of Hungary, the story was often overshadowed in larger papers and ignored by international ones.[22]

“Damaged mine building, bankhead.” From 1956.
Photo courtesy of Nova Scotia Archives. Used by permission.

[1] “N.S. Colliery Blast Traps Over 100 Men.” (The Globe and Mail, 1956, November 2, p2). Confirmed by “Knocked Off Steel” (The Toronto Star, November 2, 1956, p3) and Brown, James B. (1983) Miracle Town: Springhill, Nova Scotia 1790-1982. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 66 and Brown, Roger David. (2002) Blood on the Coal. Revised Edition. Halifax, N.S.: Nimbus Pub, 23 (Both James B. Brown and Roger David Brown state 5:07 PM AST as the time of the explosion.)

[2] Burden, Arnold, (1991) Fifty Years of Emergencies. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 120. Confirmed by Brown, James B. (1983) Miracle Town: Springhill, Nova Scotia 1790-1982. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 77 and Brown, Roger David. (2002) Blood on the Coal. Revised Edition. Halifax, N.S.: Nimbus Pub, 22.

[3] Burden, Arnold, (1991) Fifty Years of Emergencies. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 121. Confirmed by “N.S. Mine Blast Traps 118 Men” (The Globe and Mail, November 2, 1956, p1). (which reported 6 men dead and 8 injured from initial blast after five hours) and “Trapped Men Answer Draegermen’s Signals Spurs Hope For Rescue” (The Toronto Star, November 2, 1956, p1) (which reported 13 men dead and 6 injured from initial blast after nineteen hours) and Brown, Roger David. (2002) Blood on the Coal. Revised Edition. Halifax, N.S.: Nimbus Pub, 23 and Brown, James B. (1983) Miracle Town: Springhill, Nova Scotia 1790-1982. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 67 (both of whom state that 5 men died instantly in the blast, two were injured and died due to that, and two survived unharmed).

[4] Burden, Arnold, (1991) Fifty Years of Emergencies. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 120.

[5] “N.S. Colliery Blast Traps Over 100 Men” (The Globe and Mail, November 2, 1956, p2)

[6] “N.S. Mine Blast Traps 118 Men” (The Globe and Mail, November 2, 1956, p1).. Confirmed by Brown, James B. (1983) Miracle Town: Springhill, Nova Scotia 1790-1982. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 69. Note: “Trapped Men Answer Draegermen’s Signals Spurs Hope For Rescue” (The Toronto Star, November 2, 1956, p1) reported 113 men missing after 19 hours, though their total number of dead and injured match other counts.

[7] Brown, James B. (1983) Miracle Town: Springhill, Nova Scotia 1790-1982. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 70. Confirmed by Brown, Roger David. (2002) Blood on the Coal. Revised Edition. Halifax, N.S.: Nimbus Pub, 24 and “N.S. Colliery Blast Traps Over 100 Men” (The Globe and Mail, November 2, 1956, p2)

[8] “Valve Heard Turned” (The Toronto Star, November 2, 1956, p1). Confirmed by Burden, Arnold, (1991) Fifty Years of Emergencies. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 122 and Brown, James B. (1983) Miracle Town: Springhill, Nova Scotia 1790-1982. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 70, 71 (though Brown also states that rescuers were tapping upon the pipes and heard responding taps, indicating life.)

[9] Brown, James B. (1983) Miracle Town: Springhill, Nova Scotia 1790-1982. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 70. Confirmed by Burden, Arnold, (1991) Fifty Years of Emergencies. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 122.

[10] “2 Draegermen Die Trying to Rescue Miners” (The Toronto Star, November 2, 1956, p1). Confirmed by Brown, James B. (1983) Miracle Town: Springhill, Nova Scotia 1790-1982. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 67 and Brown, Roger David. (2002) Blood on the Coal. Revised Edition. Halifax, N.S.: Nimbus Pub, 24.

[11] “Trapped Men Answer Draegermen’s Calls” (The Toronto Star, November 2, 1956, p16).

[12] Burden, Arnold, (1991) Fifty Years of Emergencies. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 122-124. Confirmed by Brown, James B. (1983) Miracle Town: Springhill, Nova Scotia 1790-1982. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 70.

[13] Burden, Arnold, (1991) Fifty Years of Emergencies. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 125.

[14] Burden, Arnold, (1991) Fifty Years of Emergencies. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 125-126.

[15] Burden, Arnold, (1991) Fifty Years of Emergencies. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 129, 131-132. Confirmed by Brown, James B. (1983) Miracle Town: Springhill, Nova Scotia 1790-1982. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 71.

[16] Burden, Arnold, (1991) Fifty Years of Emergencies. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 129, 131-132. Confirmed by Brown, James B. (1983) Miracle Town: Springhill, Nova Scotia 1790-1982. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 71 and Brown, Roger David. (2002) Blood on the Coal. Revised Edition. Halifax, N.S.: Nimbus Pub, 26.

[17] “65 More Miners Found, Survivors May Total 101″ (The Globe and Mail, November 2, 1956, p1). Confirmed by Burden, Arnold, (1991) Fifty Years of Emergencies. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 127.

[18] “‘All Alive Up’ 88th Last Man Rescued” (The Toronto Star, November 2, 1956, p1). Confirmed by Burden, Arnold, (1991) Fifty Years of Emergencies. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 127 and Brown, James B. (1983) Miracle Town: Springhill, Nova Scotia 1790-1982. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 76 and Brown, Roger David. (2002) Blood on the Coal. Revised Edition. Halifax, N.S.: Nimbus Pub, 32.

[19] “‘All Alive Up’ 88th Last Man Rescued” (The Toronto Star, November 2, 1956, p1). Confirmed by Burden, Arnold, (1991) Fifty Years of Emergencies. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 132 and Brown, Roger David. (2002) Blood on the Coal. Revised Edition. Halifax, N.S.: Nimbus Pub, 32.

[20] Brown, James B. (1983) Miracle Town: Springhill, Nova Scotia 1790-1982. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 77. Confirmed by Burden, Arnold, (1991) Fifty Years of Emergencies. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 132 and an unpublished memo on dealing with the dead of mine disasters by Joseph Scanlon, see quotation.

[21] Brown, James B. (1983) Miracle Town: Springhill, Nova Scotia 1790-1982. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 77-78.

[22] Burden, Arnold, (1991) Fifty Years of Emergencies. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 122. Burden mentions radio coverage, but this is also seen in The Toronto Star and quite noticeable in The Globe and Mail.

All images used with permission from Nova Scotia Archives.

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Loose Coal Car Causes Explosion: 39 Dead, 88 Rescued


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